Accidental entrepreneurs stumble sometimes into what turns out to be a most wonderful venture. Take, for example, computer animator Sydney Padua. One day in 2009 she drew a web comic illustrating the life of Ada Lovelace. It was at the suggestion of her friend Suw Charman-Anderson, organizer of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The comic was an accident—she was not a comic artist and had (reluctantly) moved years before into computer animation and creating giant monsters for the movies.
Padua was “hazily aware” of who Lovelace was, so she checked Wikipedia and found out how Charles Babbage “only just failed to invent the computer” and how “the daughter of Lord Byron [later Lady Lovelace] wrote imaginary programs for this imaginary computer.” She didn’t like how their lives ended (Lovelace died at thirty-six, Babbage never realized his dream of a steam-powered calculating machine), so she added a couple of drawings at the end of her web comic, “imagining for them another, better, more thrilling comic-book universe to live on in” where they use Babbage’s Analytical Engine to fight crimes.
She woke up the next day to find herself “mildly click-worthy” on the Internet, now known as someone who was going to draw a web comic about the adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. “Almost everybody had failed to realize that my alternative-universe ending was a joke,” she writes.
The joke has turned into a series of web comics, a loyal following on the web, an iOS app, and now, a book. In The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Padua expands on her previous tales of the crime-fighting and problem-solving duo and adds numerous footnotes, endnotes, and documentary evidence she had unearthed in her extensive research.
At the book talk I attended a couple of weeks ago, Padua said that “the comic is an excuse for me to do research on Babbage and Lovelace” and that in the course of her research, she fell in love with her protagonists. Her talk made it clear that she also fell in love with doing research, reading primary documents and secondary sources in the British Library, and searching the web (specifically, Google Books and Archive.org) for any mention of Lovelace and Babbage.
Given Google’s obsession with indexing and delivering any word ever written, amateur scholars like Padua can unearth new facts in publications that professional scholars will never think of looking up because they have no direct bearing on the subject matter. A case in point is the article Padua found in The Southern Review (published in Baltimore, Maryland, and later Richmond, Virginia, between 1867 and 1879) which contains an account of a conversation between Babbage and an American visitor, including Babbage’s high opinion of Lovelace, not to be found elsewhere.
She has also consulted secondary sources, but she does not always accept their take on primary sources. In a footnote to an endnote, Padua mentions that some scholars quibble with written testimony by an acquaintance of Babbage that Babbage said he knew Ada when she was a child. Padua asks “why would they lie?” and adds “This is why I’m not a scholar.”
Lucky for us. Instead of a dry scholarly book on Babbage and Lovelace (not that there is anything wrong with that), we got two books for the price of one: A most entertaining graphic novel infused with Padua’s imagination, humor, and art and an impeccably researched and witty introduction to the lives and times of Lovelace and Babbage. The art is informed by research and the research is made accessible by art. Finding out that no one has ever produced a complete visualization of the Analytical Engine, Padua spent many hours on what she wanted to see: “A drawing of a colossal five-meter-high cogwheel computer to gawp at.”
As such, the book (or the two books in one) has a unique educational value in our times. It serves as an engaging introduction for young adults to what must be perceived by them as an alternative universe: Victorian England. No battery-operated Analytical Engine in your pocket then, to say nothing about the limited horizons for mathematically-inclined women.
Padua connects with today’s young people—and highlights what a galaxy far, far away was London of the first half of the 19th century—by making sporadic illusions to our current reality. For example, when Ada encounters for the first time Babbage’s Difference Engine and thinks “this must be twittered” only to realize that she is holding a fan, not a smartphone, in her hand, and that there is “a gaping hole in my life of which I was hitherto unaware.”
In addition, The Thrilling Adventures teaches a valuable lesson: Wikipedia should serve only as the first step in a long journey to satisfy your curiosity. A lot of fun can be had by reading primary sources, especially when you are curious about the past, an essential prelude for understanding the present and making informed guesses about the future.
Anyone should relish—and emulate—Padua’s excitement about uncovering yet another historical anecdote that leads to yet another illustration cum dialogue and, of course, a footnote. As when she reacts to a paper in The Journal for the History of Astronomy which clarifies to her why Babbage has refused a knighthood: “Never has an academic paper been fallen upon with more grateful cries from a cartoonist in the history of the world.”
I believe Padua’s passion for her subjects and for historical accuracy supported by meticulous research will infect many girls and boys and get them interested in computing, history, or both. The Thrilling Adventures should serve as a teacher’s aide in classrooms everywhere.
In the aforementioned article in The Southern Review, Babbage praised Lovelace’s “mathematical powers” and her deep understanding of his Analytical Engine, but also said she was “utterly unimaginative.” To tease her “matter-of-fact mind,” he used to tell her “extraordinary stories.”
Babbage used the word “unimaginative” to describe someone who believed in science, facts, the real world, not in ghost stories (or whatever genre of stories he employed to tease her). But this was then, as it is now, a very narrow definition of imagination. Lovelace’s powerful imagination allowed her to see beyond Babbage’s calculating machine how modern computers manipulate information and she understood imagination to be an integral part, not an antidote, to scientific inquiry. She wrote: “What is imagination? It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations… It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”
A scientist must have a passion for empirical evidence but also must have imagination to see beyond the facts. In The Thrilling Adventures, Padua shows herself to be a graphic artist with a scientific bent, possessing an admirable talent for drawing a new world and possessed by the need to find out why. I think this accidental entrepreneur has found her true calling.
Originally published on Forbes.com