My purpose in this episode is get all the computer gags out of the way.
This episode is dedicated to my husband, who keeps asking, “When are they going to FIGHT CRIME?”
-Queen Victoria: totally took over the world!
-Charles Babbage: totally fought crime!
-Ada Lovelace: totally swore while debugging: “.. for it is damnably troublesome work, and plagues me.” Can I agree with the opinion of several biographers, that at the very least the Babbage-Lovelace letters during the writing of the Notes ought to be online, not least for its exceptional entertainment value?
-Did Charles Babbage actually design an error pop-up for the Analytical Engine that said ‘WRONG’? Come on I couldn’t make up something that funny in a MILLION YEARS! In the later description in his autobiography he adds a ‘loud and continuous’ bell for the full user experience.
-The punchline to the cheese story is, in fact, a chart.
-The Victorians invented cute pictures of kittens but it was up to the Edwardians to add the LOL caption.
-Charles Babbage once refused a knighthood unless it was specifically given for his work on the calculating engines. Babbage had a very strange streak of what looks like self-destruction; although he was famous for craving public honours and recognition, he tended to shoot them down when they were offered. Here’s a couple of anecdotes that give you, as it were, the Alpha and Omega of Babbage– the charming, entrancing genius, and the bitter, destructive egoist.
– Babbage’s speech is extracted from Reflections On the Decline of Science in England. Like everything Babbage wrote it’s extremely worth reading and still relevant, provided you are ready to skim the WTF? bits.
-The HAL gag (‘Just what do you think you are doing Lovelace’) is a reference to what Turing called “The Lovelace Objection”, denying the possibility of artificial intelligence.
I’m afraid that gag might be an instance of my having done way too much research, to the point that the jokes are getting a little obscure, and I’m definitely getting waaay too caught up in biography. It’s a convoluted, contentious, and ambiguous tale that really ought to consist of half-history, half-historiography; I’m trying to triangulate my way to an understanding here from a variety of sources none of which I find entirely satisfactory. I started to write out a little potted version, however it was turning out three times longer than the comic itself; and though it may have secured me Lasting Fame, I’ll spare you, except for what you need to get the gag:
Babbage and Lovelace’s spat there is quoted from their one-and-only relationship meltdown. From a letter from Lovelace to her mother:
“I am sorry to have to come to the conclusion that he is one of the most impracticable, selfish, & intemperate persons one can have to do with.”
(Lovelace had a habit of underlining words that I find either annoying or endearing depending on my mood.)
The spat was caused by Babbage trying to sneak in, at the last minute, one of what I’m starting call his ‘fund my difference engine you bastards!!’ essays as a preface to the Notes Lovelace was writing on the Analytical Engine— unsigned, which would give the impression that it had been written by same person who wrote the notes. Lovelace freaked, writing to him: “Be assured that I am your best friend; but that I never can or will support you in acting on principles which I conceive to be not only wrong in themselves, but suicidal.” Babbage was, quote, “furious”. Babbage published the essay himself anonymously (‘who could possibly have written this?’ the public asked themselves, ‘It’s so mysterious!!’) a month later- you can read it for yourself here. I report, you decide!
Babbage ‘refused all conditions’ in response to a gigantic and occasionally unhinged letter Lovelace sent him, saying, A- You’re the most annoying person in the world and no one could work with you in a million years, and B- Hey! Let’s work together to build an Analytical Engine, on condition that 1. I handle all public relations (she actually says, “relations with any fellow-creature or fellow-creatures”, LOL) 2. You become my Sen-Sei (give me your ‘intellectual assistance and supervision’), and 3. Myself and a board appointed by you take over the business side, leaving you to focus on that inventing thing you do so well. Babbage wrote “Saw A.A.L. and refused all conditions” in the margin.
I have to say as a personal note that while Babbage needed a business manager more desperately than anyone else in history, and few people besides Lovelace would have had enough obsession with the Engines to see the project through the inevitable calamities, Lovelace had problems of her own which would have hampered the achievement of the steam-powered information age. To the ‘Byron Devil’ I believe we can give the name of ‘manic-depression’, and immediately after the Notes thing she turned her attention with personal urgency to the field of brain chemistry. I have to say, respect to Ada for recognizing it as a neurological problem; one, however, that she really needed to be born 150 years later to study.
Anyways– this breach lasted for all of a couple of weeks, because they seem to be closer friends than ever after this- her husband describes him as “her constant intellectual companion” in the last years of her life and certainly their letters are trusting, affectionate, and sometimes cryptic in a way that provides a happy and fact-free field for speculation (although twenty years later, Babbage is still mad about the Notes thing.. I’m starting to get an inkling that Babbage had kind of an issue with not Letting Things Go).
After that.. well, Babbage kept tinkering with the designs for the Analytical Engine and went to war with the street musicians. Ada both tinkered, and went to war with, her own brain chemistry. Babbage had 28 years to live, Ada only 9; for the most part, they became more and more miserable, didn’t accomplish much else, and then they DIED. They fought crime and had adventures and LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER, DAMN IT!!
It may be a while before the next episode, and I have to devote myself to drawing up my Spectacular Spectacular for the ultra-cool Museum of the History of Science!!! However, I can guarantee that Babbage and Lovelace will fight crime..
It’s actually taken this long for Minion to get through all of Queen Victoria’s titles..
So historically accurate IT’S PRACTICALLY A DOCUMENTARY!
-Babbage lists some of the annoying questions he got asked about his engines here. He ascribes the question about the wrong numbers sometimes to ‘ladies’ and sometimes to ‘members of Parliament’; having lost count of the number of times I’ve explained to people that I can still be an animator even though ‘it’s all done with computers now’ I have no problem believing this was asked more than once.
– Charles Babbage’s many friends spent a lot of time kicking him in the shins, because every once in a while he seems to have enjoyed setting his career on fire in order to watch the pretty flames. His friend Herschel said he should be ‘slapped in the face’ for Dear Royal Society of Really Important People: You Are All Corrupt Idiots!; I particularly like the dedication- “I was going to dedicate this to some guy but now he’s frantically backpedalling for some reason!”
Oh Babbage. Babbage! What are you doing? You are CAUSING PAIN to even your devoted friends at The Chemical Record! By the way that review is excellent (I say that as a devoted Babbage fanatic), read in conjunction with Babbage’s Guide to the Exposition of 1851 it gives a good overview of the state of scientific societies at the time. If you’re into that sort of thing, I don’t know. It also gives a glimpse into what the placards in the Science Museum call Babbage’s ‘personality issues’.
– “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.” I know Victoria’s font is really annoying but it’s actually called “The King and Queen Font” so I had to use it. Just this once.
– The debugging crowbar is the actual crowbar used to debug the Difference Engine rebuild!
-You can see the woven portrait of Jacquard in the background there, whose punchcard loom inspired Babbage with the idea for the Analytical Engine.
– Ladies and Gentlemen, The Cheese Story. It’s kiiind of like Flatland, but with.. more… cheese. Charles Babbage, what is that doing in your autobiography? As Babbage was a famous raconteur, and his autobiography is full of his greatest hits, I guess he had a good reaction to it at some point.. maybe it’s all in the timing.
I’ve got a lot more notes, but they’ll go on part 3.. I’ve drawn most of it so should it shouldn’t too long coming. Apologies are despicable and excuses more so, but in addition to the whole Giant Monsters thing I’ve been concurrently working on another commission. You may ask yourself, “what could possibly equal BBC Techlab in coolness?” OMG I’m not worthy!!
Took me a while but.. prepare for A TALE OF TERROR! DRAWN FROM LIFE!!!
Notes! Beautiful notes!
–Footmen were selected for their fine physiques, so that drawing of Minion is of historical, not prurient interest, or course!
–Speaking tubes! Babbage advocates for them in Machines and Manufactures, along with his proto-twitter signal lights and steeple-borne message zip-lines. Prolific letter writer and relentless socializer Babbage was almost as interested in rapid communication as he was with computation, but his unfortunate location in the time-stream was just as against him there. He died the same year Meucci patented the first telephone. *sigh*
–Did Charles Babbage really try a decimal calendar? Of course not.. he was a perfectly sensible supporter of decimal currency (but if you want to see a truly awesome mechanical calendar have a look at this baby!) I’m also needlessly promulgating absent-minded-professor stereotypes here, as I have a feeling Babbage would actually have been a super-organized neat freak. True though is Babbage’s famous and expensive habit of continually improving his inventions halfway through and abandoning the old model.
–That’s Canaletto saving me a heck of a lot of annoying drawing there. Thanks Canaletto!
–Ada’s Byronic Containment Field– I wasn’t making that up in The Origin, about her mother’s experiment in using Mathematics to contain poetry. A glance over Lovelace’s biography shows this to have been a pretty epic fail. Byron himself, though he never saw his daughter, took a great interest in her and writes the following:
It’s unfortunate that Lady Byron tried this experiment before the genetics work of Mendel, because then this outcome could easily have been predicted. Byron being obviously a dominant trait, we can make the following chart:
Byron X Mathematics produces:
2 x Mad Scientists
1 x Dangerously Repressed Mathematician
1 x Poet Using Experimental Meters
Can’t argue with Science! In the pocket dimension in which this comic takes place (thanks Justin in the comments for the proper technical term!) the Ada Experiment may react differently to the allohistorical conditions.. time will tell!! Stay tuned!
Speaking of Rational Explanations, I’ve discovered why exactly the Difference Engine is that big:
The pocket dimension actually operates on a kind of inverse Moore’s law, whereby computers double in size every few years. It is fortunate that the Difference Engine facilitated rapid technological expansion, as when it reached the time parallel to our own they had to colonize the moon just for storage!
In administrative news– By day I’m battling giant monsters (no, really!), so I’m trying to figure out the feasibility of these hijinks. I THINK I can keep a pretty steady pace of an episode every two weeks. I dunno. We’ll see what the giant monsters think.
By the way– I’m painfully aware of the navigational mess that is this semi-comic-ish thing… anyone have any bright ideas for organizing this stuff better?