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The World's First Computer Programmer Becomes a Comic Book Superheroine

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, we spoke to Sydney Padua, who reimagined 19th century countess and mathematician Ada Lovelace as a feisty crime fighter.


 

London graphic artist and animator Sydney Padua drew her first comic of Ada Lovelace in a single evening, and put it up on her blog for the first Ada Lovelace Day in 2009. Quickly, Padua’s short, one-shot biography of the Countess of Lovelace—the 19th century mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, and published the world’s first computer algorithm—was widely shared and mistakenly taken as the start of a webcomic series. Padua decided to go along with it, and last April, her extensive collection of comics was published in book form as The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. In it, Padua imagines an alternate history: instead of dying of cancer at the age of 36, Ada lives on, completes the engine with her buddy Charles, and the two embark on a series of crime-fighting exploits together.

The Creators Project spoke to Padua about the making of her 300-page graphic novel:

The Creators Project: Were you already knowledgeable about your two protagonists when you started drawing the comics?

Sydney Padua: I knew next to nothing about them. I was incredibly lucky in that the Google Books digitization project started around the same time. The blog was very much a record and journal of my own research. I could turn up dozens of period documents, and I knew no one had read them because they so routinely contradicted the accepted modern scholarship! I was fascinated by the neat, dry story told in the secondary histories and the living, chaotic story as it was happening in the letters and journalism being written in Lovelace and Babbage's own period. They were so vivid and present as personalities—not worthy historical figures, but flawed and energetic humans.

Any favorite research finds?

I have a fairly complete list of links at my website of scanned documents. A couple of my favorites are a very comic-booky flight of fancy in Blackwoods Magazine, from 1851, which imagines the first (literal!) computer crash, and an incredibly prescient piece from Punch in 1844 that jokes about Babbage inventing a machine that automates novel-writing. It could have been written today! By far my most personally moving document though is a private letter from a Maryland scholar who had visited Babbage a few years after Lovelace's death. The writer describes with touching vividness Babbage as an old man recollecting his friend Ada. It's magical to come across something like that, a little human piece of emotion rescued from oblivion.

The comics on the blog point to a ton of extra reading material. Were you able to incorporate that kind of footnote structure into the book?

Finding a way to make the blog work as a book was extremely difficult—the blog had always been a very improvised, playful space, full of links and side observations and meta-commentary. I read every book I could find that had footnotes, trying to find one where the footnotes were carrying so much of the story. The closest was Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is an imaginary poem written by an imaginary poet, with extensive notes by a scholar who turns out to be insane. I used to joke that the graphic novel was like Pale Fire, except Lovelace and Babbage were real people and I'm an actual mad person.

How did you juggle fact and fiction?

If there's a single theme to the comic, it's about the play between cold fact and wild imagination. Lovelace and Babbage lived so much of their lives in an imaginary world of huge, beautiful ideas, and I wanted to give them this world to live in. But for me, there's something wonderfully contradictory about this wild fantasy world of theirs being based on something so brutally logical as a computer. And then again, everything we know about them as people is formed by our imaginations out of impressions of letters, ink on paper. So these two worlds—fact, document, numbers and logic, versus imagination, impressions, and ambiguity—exist in the book as the footnotes and the comic. I like to keep them strictly segregated, so the comic with its exaggeration, jokes, and fantasy can't be mistaken for fact, and I use as many unadulterated primary documents as I can in the footnotes.

Today, October 13th, is Ada Lovelace Day, and Ada’s 200th birthday is coming up on December 10th. Read more about Padua’s graphic novel here.

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