Lovelace and Babbage Vs The Client Pt 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Client

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?”

Notes Bonanza!!

-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..

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  1. Ashley on December 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I’m loving all the historical notes and links at the bottom. They make it all that much more hilarious–particularly since they’re real!

  2. Dan on February 8, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I don’t know but what only Ada knows that the engine has gone sentient.. it’s her embarrassing little secret.. or at least embarrassing because she can’t explain it.. like the computer in Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

  3. […] On to The Client Part 3! […]

  4. TuringTest on October 3, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    s/wear on/put on

  5. TuringTest on October 3, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Oh! And I forgot to mention the panel where Lovelace finally returns to the room, rushing to wear on her Victorian dress. It’s a little detail, but I thought some woman would spot it and write a comment about it! Those tidbits are the mark of prime-class storytelling. Keep the good work!

  6. TuringTest on October 3, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    As a (former) programmer, I’ve been SO identified with Ada many times during this strip. ( the klang-klang-klang physical debugging above all ).

    I’ve just discovered 2D Goggles today. I’m enjoying every bit of it. Most of the brilliant highlights in this comic have already been commented by others, so I’ll just comment on the parts that nobody mentioned yet.

    So much for the Queen being a stupid, as one reader suggested in the comments to part 2. She found f.a.s.c.i.n.a.t.i.n.g that they developed a language specifically for the machine, she WAS waiting for a particular result and got angry when it wasn’t delivered, she reminded (with a smile!) that anything equals power but power… oh, but as any client, she was finally satisfied when the machine showed some pretty interface. Eye-candy rulez!

    I miss more people commenting on the technical merits of the drawing, as it happened on the earlier strips. I suppose that’s because of the frantic pace. These stories are getting better and funnier each time.

    I wanted to express my opinion on those panels drawn with a less detailed more blurry line. At first I found some of them too crude, but overall they help the storytelling. Then it stroke me why that style seemed familiar to me – the naive look of the more simplified panels (the faces in particular) resembles that of the comic genius Jean-Jacques Sempé! I first noticed it in the third panel of Part 2, when the Queen speaks for the first time. Is that somehow intentional, in that Sempé might be one of your artistic influences? Or is the resemblance purely coincidental?

  7. Drew Northcott on October 2, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Utterly splendid, the lot of them.

    It strikes me that adventures might be forthcoming if the engine is used for the purpose of cracking codes. There may be some Bletchley Park references to be had as well! (Though I hesitate to open still more avenues of investigation.)

  8. Redshift on September 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Brilliant, as always!

  9. Ray Girvan on September 21, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    By the way, Victoria’s “…TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!” speech balloon has a scary and rather appropriate resemblance to the “rope trick effect” seen with some nuclear explosions ( ).

  10. Ray Girvan on September 19, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I took the Engine-hitting scene to be an allusion to Armageddon: the scene where Peter Stormare’s character says, “Theess is how we feex prrroblem in Rrrussian spac station!” (see YouTube, 1:30 onwards, here ).

  11. mllesatine on September 8, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    I loved the “taking over the world” skirt and the re-boot.

  12. Havoc on September 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    This is absolutely brilliant, not to mention deeply hilarious.

  13. Vera on September 2, 2009 at 11:09 am

    This is such, such fun. Everything about it gives me glee, not the least of which is the wonderful facial expressions and your research notes.

  14. John on August 31, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Thanks for the book and paper references. I’ll have to ask around to see if I know an IEEEer lurking about. I mean, in my other life, I only teach at an engineering school, and the fall semester’s about to start up, so someone surely must have access to the IEEE digital library. (And actually, I’m somewhat interested in the mental problems–after all, it was surely a big part of who she was.)

    As for the Victoria font-lapse, I assumed it was intentional. She’s done, they’re kinda-sorta on good terms, and so there’s no reason to put on airs. But again, I “hear” the fancy font as that insane pitch-shifting, loud voice that comedians do for snooty British people, so it’d be kind of like hearing Vladimir Putin drop into a Brooklyn accent.

    • Dan on February 8, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      I got the Alan Bromley papers from the IEEE journal, Annals in the History of Computing, by going to the local community college library, looking in the stacks, and copying them for a few bucks.. Non electronic, but I feel better curled up in the stacks in the basement of a library..

      Bromley talks about the design of the Analytical Engine, as interpreted from his study of the drawings at the London Museum of Science.. Another basement.. He was instrumental in the team that built the reproductions on the Difference Engine in the ’90-s and ’00-s..

  15. […] Lovelace and Babbage vs the Client pt. 3 — you DID see this awesome Ada Lovelace comic when it debuted a while back, didn’t you? If not, go NOW. […]

  16. pascal on August 29, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I think it has been mentioned already, but you should really write a book of some kind ;)

    Maybe like these childrens books, with the comics on paper and transparent pages of this awesome meta-information to lay on top the referencing panels etc.

    (the recently-hyped “next XKCD” ‘abstruse goose’-comic did something like that. as in, a big PDF file with pages with comics and then several pages of meta-info per comic. not as fun, since it was mostly about the science behind the jokes, but the idea is brilliant. We can’t just always make nerdy jokes about TV-shows everybody watches, gotta teach people things, and then joke about it ;)

  17. O. Negative on August 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    I don’t love history but I love this comic. Furthermore, Ada’s expression when closing the little error screen = priceless!

  18. Anon, a Mouse on August 27, 2009 at 3:28 am

    Howlingly funny!! I am still wiping tears of laughter off my face. Lovelace and Babbage feel like family. And it seems the Duke’s horse is aiding and abetting the plans for world domination…

    Thank you again for the footnotes and all the links on top of a wonderful comic.

  19. Babbage & Lovelace Fight Crime « Alexandria on August 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    […] 26, 2009 Uncategorized Leave a Comment My debugging technique is remarkably similar to this. I […]

  20. sydney on August 25, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Terrence: the printer is drawn off the amaaaaaazing printer Babbage designed for the Difference Engine- here’s a good pic— Babbage could so easily have invented the typewriter, dang it!

    David- Sorry, human error, should be flowery!

    John- I have “Enchantress of Numbers” which is her complete letters, but it doesn’t contain any of the letters BACK, unfortunately. To be absolutely honest if you just want an overview of Lovelace’s life specifically in relation to Babbage, you can’t do better than this substantial article, though you have to cough up 20 bucks for it (your tshirt dollars at work!)– it is, indeed short, but then so was Lovelace’s life. It includes most of the important Lovelace letters to Babbage complete; several Babbage letters I haven’t seen anywhere else; and a few other interesting documents. I’ve read book-length bios that don’t cover this stuff as well; unless you’re reaaallly into her sex life or mental problems that’s what I would recommend. For sex life and mental problems I guess Benjamin Woolley’s “Bride of Science” which is entertaining but kind of races over all that boring computer stuff. My main conclusion reading all these bios (Lovelace has FIVE large biographies, which I have read at GREAT PERSONAL ANNOYANCE, Babbage who lived twice as long has like one and a half, WTF? Possibly lack of documented sex life?) is, 1. Anyone who really wanted to could make MINCEMEAT of my life if they so wished; 2. Nothing is more interesting than just the DAMN DOCUMENTS without all the editorializing; 3. History is waaaaaay more akin to poetry than mathematics.

    Stephan- Thanks! I’ll replace the link. Darwin mentions Babbage a few times-
    here’s a good one!
    but my absolute favorite is in this letter: .. .. and if one might so call the calculating machine, so very silly. :D It’s crazy to me that Darwin’s letters are online and Babbage’s aren’t!

    Selki- Two egos as gigantic as Babbage and Lovelace’s would either kill each other or be Best Friends Forever… Happily it was mostly the latter.

    Thanks to everyone for commenting!! I DO read them all, it just takes me ages to reply to stuff..

  21. Smallpotato on August 25, 2009 at 8:09 am

    @Nate: Yes, and the Lovelaces of this world (I know several) know this, accept it and work it to their advantage. I, being what I am, know they are jerks, am infuriated by it because everything would be so much simpler, fairer, cheaper, better and above all more efficient if they would simply stop being jerks (or move over for non-jerks to take over the job) and my rigid sense of justice, fairness and above al efficiency balks in the face of so much inefficient stupidity and refuses to bend its neck. If its bend or bust, I bust. Alas. Wish I was willowy like Lovelace (and not just figuratively speaking… *sigh*)

  22. Nate on August 24, 2009 at 10:48 am

    @smallpotato: The thing is, the Powers That Be *are* jerks.

  23. Nate on August 24, 2009 at 10:36 am

    “twenty years later, Babbage is still mad about the Notes thing”

    Yeah, if someone tried to install Lotus Notes on my Analytical Engine I’d be mad too.

    Oh, and I love the popups.

    Babbage’s Cheese Story Chart reminds me very much of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Probably the less said about that the better.

  24. Smallpotato on August 24, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Oh God, oh god, oh god… I am Babbage!!!
    Seriously, a charming fount of information, who can talk your socks off with my enthusiasm about her latest hobbyhorse yet who feels constantly badly treated by the Powers That Be and who bitterly selfdestructs as a result and destroys all her chances as a consequence (“I want it for the *right* reasons and otherwise they can stick it!”)? Oh, that is SO me!


    How can I stop doing that? How to be more pragmatic? Can’t…

  25. Jha on August 23, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    That globe on Victoriana’s skirts was a nice touch ^^ LOL KITTENS!

  26. SunlessNick on August 23, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    As someone who doesn’t really like steampunk, I’d like to say this comic still rocks.

  27. Evan Jensen on August 23, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Glory. I just finished reading the copious NOTES and the wondrous COMIC that you have so kindly taken pains to draw in-between your paying thingamajigs and animations. First, I must say how absurdly awesome it is to see a Babbage/Lovelace co-op this well-drafted. Really, to see anything fictionally derived from their… interesting relationship and so-sadly failed dreams to build computers long before the dawn of the electric age.

    Secondly- don’t give up on comics. Storyboards they’re not, but they’re an endeavor worth pursuing when you have a Damned Fine Idea ™.

    Also, lastly, yay steampunk. I wish we’d known of your project in May 2008, when we were planning a steampunk gallery show in Dallas, TX. We had some rayguns and Foglio-isms, but no Babbage/Ada wonderosity. Sadly.

    Wish I could get to England to see the Oxford show.

  28. Selki on August 22, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    “she actually says, “relations with any fellow-creature or fellow-creatures”,”

    Hahaha wow! What a diss!

  29. RedScharlach on August 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Was underlining Ada’s pioneering precursor to going CAPSLOCK, perhaps? In any case, everything is better with kittens and underlining. It is a fact.

  30. Stephan Brun on August 22, 2009 at 5:00 am

    I just found a more complete version of Passages on the Internet Archive, if it is of interest.

  31. Stephan Brun on August 22, 2009 at 3:14 am

    I have enjoyed your comic since I found a mention of it on Making Light.
    While searching for a more complete copy of Passages on Wikisource (Google’s is missing the first page), I came across Darwin’s autobiography, where he talks of meeting Babbage at a dinner of his brother’s. I just read that passage again, and it’s so Babbagian. I am starting to feel I know the man, just by reading your comic and the notes and references. If you can make something of what I said, feel free to use it.

  32. Richard on August 21, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I love how Vic’s tone of voice is conveyed by different typefaces… I can imagine her suddenly going all Germanic and blackletter on occasion. And caught off-guard by the kitten she talks like everyone else. Delightful. Also Babbage’s parenthetic “without error” is perfect.

  33. John on August 21, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Hee hee! Realizing that your characterizations would be, by neccessity, based as much on modern stereotypes as the sources, I love digging into the references to find out that, no, these people would have fit right in at a modern software company. Especially Turing, with his “eh–we’ll figure something out” dismissal of Ada’s objections. Sure, he’s not part of the narrative, but you have no idea how many times I’ve been in on that meeting.

    (Y’know, the crowbar might not be more effective, but it’d be a heck of a lot more satisfying…)

    Wait. Did Victoria say “as well as producing kittens”? How is kitten art anything but the centerpiece of a world domination plan? Or am I just going about it all wrong? And if so, then what were all the sepoys going on about in 1857 if not kittens!?

    I do, however, like the shifts in font and perspective on her. It heightens the drama wonderfully.

    I don’t know, though. Clearly, I misinterpreted the cheese story. I thought the punchline was that the chart might potentially be WRONG due to Leap Year. Ha! I…err…Speaking of which, I assume that the “wrong” sign was clearly for users other than Babbage. I find it hard to believe that he’d so much as acknowledge the possibility of making a mistake somewhere.

    By the way, where’s a good place to get the Lovelace letters? I mean, they’re clearly not under copyright after all this time, so it’s not like they can’t be posted online, should one find sufficient motivation to OCR…

  34. robert on August 21, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I think this can only be described as “wicked awesome.” As to the depth of the jokes, I think they all worked well, but then again, I’m a bit of a nerd.

  35. David Gerard on August 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Should Victoria’s last speech bubble be in normal or flowery script?

  36. Ceridwen on August 21, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Things I loved:
    “X and the Unknown Function”
    Victoria’s “global” skirt
    Sir “Dealing-With-Idiots”
    The kitten and Wellington’s “LOL”
    The pop-ups and the circled ‘x’ on the pop-ups
    Babbage undercutting himself (yet again)
    RE-BOOT! :D
    The “special language” that consists of various non-pronouncable syllables
    Ah, the days of beating the side of the television to make it work properly!
    More pop-ups!

    The HAL gag wasn’t too deep. It can work even if the reader doesn’t know much about Ada. It can be used as a character-defining point, esp. when she shuts the pop-up discreetly and continues with what she’s doing.

    You know, I’m supposed to be submitting a form to take a test to get into the Master’s program at school. Am I? Nooooooo! I’m sitting here fangurling Babbage and Lovelace (and wearing the crime-fighting tee-shirt, too! Aaaaaaah! I love coincidences!)

  37. Gordon Rae on August 21, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Another mind-meltingly charming adventure. You manage to be outrageously funny, historically accurate, and deeply compassionate. Bless you and your tuppeny goggles.

  38. Terence Eden on August 21, 2009 at 1:47 pm


    Am I alone in finding a hidden joke? That’s a daisy-wheel printer, isn’t it? As in “Daisy Daisy” which HAL starts singing? No? Just me then.

    Oh, well. At least I amuse myself.

    • Dr. Pillsbury on December 7, 2011 at 3:14 am

      I am not amused. Jk that was hilarious.

  39. jalf on August 21, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Jeez, sloppy. On the MHS page you linked to it says “by animator Sydney Padua 2D Google”.

    Unless your last names are actually “2D Google”, or they’re telling people to Google you, you might want want to drop them a note and get them to fix it.

  40. Tim Jones on August 21, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    How fortunate we are that the programmers of today do not resort to such brute-force methods!