The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer

By Sydney Padua

Rating: 3 stars

This is an odd book. It’s a steampunk alt history set in a pocket universe concerning the imagining of what Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and Charles Babbage might have got up to if the former hadn’t died young and the latter had completed his analytical engine, aka the first computer.

There are several short stories featuring a pipe-smoking Lovelace and organ-hating Babbage, ranging from preventing Samuel Taylor Coleridge from completing his poetic masterpiece Kubla Khan to having to stop a runaway economic model. The stories, plus a longer piece involving organised crime, are all available on the author’s website, but it’s nice to have a collection.

I said that this is an odd book. The comic stories themselves only make up a relatively short portion of the book. The rest is dedicated to footnotes and endnotes, not to mention some rather extensive appendices about Lovelace, Babbage and the difference and analytical engines. Another review here points out that the book has the same sort of structure as Lovelace’s only major publication, a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s article about the analytical engine, complete with her own extensive notes, which far outstrip the work being translated. This is something that I hadn’t considered while reading the book and does shed new light on the structure. I still found it a difficult thing to read, though. In the end, I started parsing the stories multiple times. Firstly reading the stories themselves, without interruption, then going back and re-reading them with the footnotes and the endnotes.

In the end, the work feels very slight, but there’s enough historical context to be interesting, and it’s great fun to see various other Victorian figures show up, including Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as the recurring figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And for those of an academic bent, the footnotes, endnotes and primary sources included are a treasure trove to be pored over in a leisurely fashion. Personally, that’s not my cup of tea, but I still enjoyed the energy and fun of the stories themselves.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141981512
Publisher: Particular Books
Year of publication: 2015

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