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..