Lovelace and Babbage Vs The Organist! pt 1

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series The Organist

The wisest and best of men- nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be made ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke. Most unfortunately for Charles Babbage, I just so happen to be such a person.

On to The Organist Part 2


So, Charles Babbage, he hated musicians.

Man, I have so many primary documents to attest to this important historical fact, I don’t even know where to start. I could demonstrate its ubiquity in popular culture, with a page from a random novel in which a Babbage-vs-organ-grinder skirmish comes with the stock report as a typical Times news story. I could verify this with a “Babbage” search of the Times archive between 1855 and 1870 (you’ll have do DIY search, no permalink I’m afraid). Or maybe you’d like your notes in the form of dramatic verse? Or if you’re hardcore you could read the anti-street-music pamphlet by the most aptly named Mr MegaBass, “Street Music in the Metropolis”, featuring the immortal lines:

“… we could scarcely vote for inflicting on [Mr Babbage] the smallest punishment, if he were with his own hands to hang a street musician every day.”

Although that might be going a little far, basically the problem with street music could be summed up by this:

Fear not, upcoming episodes will feature extensive documentation of the legal, parliamentary, and popular-press coverage of Charles Babbage vs the street musicians.
The Encouragers of Street Music, and the Rude Patois by the way can be found, of course, in Babbage’s autobiography. The wires visible in the establishing shots are from Babbage’s vision of messaging zip-lines as described in his Economy of Machines and Manufactures:

“Perhaps if the steeples of churches, properly selected, were made use of, connecting them by a few intermediate stations with some great central building, as, for instance, with the top of St Paul’s; and if a similar apparatus were placed on the top of each steeple, with a man to work it during the day, it might be possible to diminish the expense of the two-penny post, and make deliveries every half hour over the greater part of the metropolis.”

Moving along…

The Harmonic Disruptor would TOTALLY WORK– I ran the idea past an actual acoustical engineer and he said ‘Sure it would’, and if you remove the irrelevant pitch information from the way he said it I’m going to take it as a full endorsement.   Destructive interference is why when you wear noise-cancelling headphones, your skull explodes. Man there’s so many great sciency claptrap words in acoustics! Of course the first thing you’re wondering if it would be able to produce a wave of sufficient pressure; if I had supplied further diagrams this would obviously not be an issue as the Disruptor is furnished with sympathetically vibrating grids. The reel-to-reel punchcard system I guess comes from the fact that I’m ancient obsolete mature enough to have edited my student films with tape on a movieola; the whole punchcard thing puts me irrestistibly in mind of our vanishing friend celluloid film.

Here’s a famous resonance disaster for you:

And finally: I’m sure someone in the comments can identify the very slightly modified lengthy equation for the elimination of C in Lovelace’s notes. First person gets.. uh.. the satisfaction of knowing obscure math jokes!

Millions of thanks by the way to everyone who comments. I know I’m not very good at prompt replies but I’m here for the glory warm fuzzies. And the jokes.

On to The Organist Part 2

Series NavigationNext Thrilling Installment!


  1. Ignifluous on January 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    And the long wait was worth it … my congratulations Sydney for another splendid piece of subtly executed artistic excellence.

    I must say, however … what’re the chances that frame 3 (i.e. Ada at her desk, humming in the shade of the difference engine) could be produced as a wallpaper? Because that, you see, would be about 10 different shades of awesome.

  2. David H. on January 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Belatedly added: I think my favorite cartoony bit in this is Lovelace’s delicate humming getting lost in the cacophony from the street. Very nicely represented. I think I would have been in full stalk alongside Babbage. Possibly with a shotgun.

    Was any skill required to play these? Or did men of capital buy them, then hire peddlers to camp out in strategic spots, turn the crank, and collect the pennies?

  3. Nick Harkaway on January 22, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Oh, the awesomeness…

    It doesn’t matter how late they are, these instalments are so blinding it’s always a pleasure to read them.

    Just please don’t stop. :)


  4. Luke on January 22, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    @ Rhonan

    I also enjoy the record Gertie now holds:

    ‘These days most are aware of the location, identification and recoveries from the Titanic. The Titanic was a large ship but in comparison it would take 5.56 Titanics end for end to occupy the space that Galloping Gertie now occupies. In raw materials the bridge contained 5.0 times that of Titanic. These figures make Galloping Gertie the largest man made structure ever lost at sea.’

  5. Elise on January 22, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Fighting violins with violins! I just got that pun. Excellent as always, Sydney!

  6. Mightysinetheta on January 22, 2010 at 12:49 am

    Another excellent piece of work. I await the next installments!

  7. FactorySquirrel on January 21, 2010 at 5:04 am

    I love Ada’s outfit. Especially the waistcoat thing.

    I just found this and it’s my new favorite comic. I wish it were real!

  8. Alejandro on January 19, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Another comic installment, another success.
    You are my favorite nerdy historical steampunkish webcomic illustrator.

    If you manage to make a book with all this “data” in this century, I’ll be more than ready to buy the first ten copies. (of the signed first edition, of course).


  9. Ceridwen on January 17, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    When the suspended walkways at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City (1981) first collapsed, the news media speculated that resonance was the cause. The spectators on the bridges were watching a dance contest and swaying with the music. The experts they dragged onto the news programming went through some pretty detailed explanations as to why this would happen. In the end it was a structural but with all the hype I was still imagining it to be resonance-related.

    The resonance problem is why military units will walk in “route step” (not in step with each other) when crossing bridges.

    An old joke: How is a classroom like a Model T?

    Answer: It’s filled with a bunch of nuts with a big crank up front.

  10. Smallpotato on January 17, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Babbage’s expression of maniacal glee is a thing of beauty.

  11. Dori on January 17, 2010 at 5:38 am

    haha i replied in pun, and was duly punished by lack of recognition… hunting of the snark! fit the fifth. :)

    • sydney on January 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

      Dori– Doh!

  12. rhonan on January 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Ah, Galloping Gertie. The gentleman who filmed that was a friend of Grandfather’s, and later sold me my first serious camera, and later, my first enlarger. As a local, who has crossed the replacement span many a time, I have to point out that when it opened, the bridge was the third largest suspension bridge in the world. I also have to point out that the collapse of the first span was the result of aeroelastic flutter, and not resonance. With resonance, you would see the amplitude of the waves increasing, while the frequency stayed the same. With Gertie, both the amplitude of the waves in the bridge deck, as well as their frequency, were increasing just prior to the collapse.

    In the aftermath, the cables and towers were scrapped and melted down to provide steel for the war effort. The road deck is still laying in a pile on the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows, and is an artificial reef that is a popular destination for advanced divers to test their skill, as the water is dark, and the currents are very strong.

  13. JOdel on January 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I have a very (very!) vague recollection of Chico Mark with a hand organ in one movie or other. Maybe ‘A Day at the Races’, in any event, I think it siegued into the “Why a duck” skit.

  14. sydney on January 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Wow, thanks for all the comments!

    Redshift– yes indeed- my twitter feed is @sydneypadua, if anyone out there needs more random noise in their day.

    John– we will hear more, much more, about the Italians in London and what you might call Organized crime. The hapless organist in the second panel by the way is based on Chico Marx, who was described by entertainment writers in the early ’30s as wearing an ‘organ grinder’s costume’. Frustratingly I can’t find him actually grinding an organ in any of the movies, though he often plays the piano.

    Marcelo– lol, the algorithm is proprietary but I can reveal it involves ‘procrastinating’and ‘alcohol’.

    HP, Luke– more on that in upcoming episodes..

    Mark– dang! typos! mathematical errors! Charles Babbage would be most put out, and would no doubt set to work immediately on creating a mechanized comic-creating device free of error.. corrected, anyways!

    Seriously, NO ONE recognized the equation? Broad Hint: The Butcher explains it to the Beaver.

    LeifBK — I really ought to read more of these novels.. my husband is a big China Mieville fan. I think this mine of material is pretty inexhaustible.. plenty of gags for all!

    Deo– no, no, no– constructive interference is when people helpfully point out errors in one’s comic! I alter scientific terms when they sound cooler wrong. See: difference engine vs analytical engine.

    Robert– I have been thinking of having a Paid Content section for precisely your demographic.

    Anon– I am always happy to see the existence of the The House on the Rock confirmed by other witnesses, because I swear to god sometimes I think I just dreamed that place after a bad curry.

    Mary, Craig– I’m pretty sure if Babbage had actually invented such a device it would be the pinnacle of his existence… although Ada Lovelace’s mother described him demonstrating his Difference Engine fragment looking ‘like any child with a new toy’, an impression I must say comes through strongly in his writings!

    Frederick Ross– hahaha no way! seriously short of the Salamander people I don’t think I can put anything nuttier in the comic than what actually goes on…

    Tim Jones– oooh, extra dialogue. Sweet!

    Thanks for commenting everyone! Giant monster conditions are clearing, so hopefully I’ll be able to get pt 2 up soonish.

  15. Paul on January 16, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Hi! Me again!

    I’ve just realised that I used the word ‘hypothetically’ there, when I meant ‘theoretically’.

    I’m going now. Bye.

  16. Paul on January 16, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Ah! I’ve just re-read your notes, and you basically answer my question before I asked it. Bummer. I was going off the schematic, you see, where the reel-to-reel punchcard is less obvious, despite it being a schematic, and thus hypothetically should make the mechanical workings *more* obvious. Or something.

    Gosh, that was awkward.

  17. Paul on January 16, 2010 at 7:43 am

    I’m guessing it’s your penchant for celluloid which prompted you to make the sonic disrupter look like a movie camera?

  18. Patrick Lickman on January 15, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Tim- Genius idea, can we get a petition started?

  19. Tim Jones on January 14, 2010 at 9:38 am

    I recall a Village People song that goes “You can’t stop the music/Nobody can stop the music”. They obviously hadn’t reckoned with Charles Babbage.

    Come to think of it, Charles Babbage anachronistically joining the Village People would be a storyline to behold.

  20. Frederick Ross on January 14, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Lovelace, Babbage, and opening with a Jane Austen quote? A fine way to start the day.

    Though I’m afraid the math joke flew past me because I’ve read papers where crime really was represented by C, and then used in differential equations. I’ve even written a computer simulation to optimize payoff from crime sprees (it was a final project for computational physics) where my calculations definitely included a “total crime” term C. So I thought Lovelace’s notes were serious…

  21. Craig McCullough on January 14, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Another masterpiece, Sydney. The angel’s in the detail !

    It’s great how the notes, which are themselves fascinating, lead you to go back and view parts of the comic that went unnoticed on the first reading.

    Babbage looks so happy – I’m not sure he ever achieved those heights of glee in “real” life, so it is great to give him his due now.

    I’ve been watching promos for that giant monster movie, and muttering darkly that it was keeping you from your real work. Hopefully you’ve made millions from the movie biz, and can concentrate on Lovelace and Babbage full time from now on!

    Oh, and BTW, is “the great wired Metropoplis” a steampunk reference that is too subtle for me, or just a slip of the pen?

  22. E-Wit on January 13, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I didn’t mean there were too many other jokes, I meant I loved the other jokes too. Hmm —

  23. E-Wit on January 13, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Adored it. Adored the barrel organ, too — ah, the streets of my childhood! Too many other jokes, though the math formula one left me far behind. So glad to see a new 2-D Goggles!

  24. jalf on January 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Oh god, if that’s the kind of street music Babbage had to contend with, I fully support him.

    And I thought the “ordinary” street music (accordion players, and people playing some random instrument to a much louder tape with backing music) was bad.

  25. Sarah Kauthen on January 13, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    I am so EXCITED about the ORGANIST!! XD *fangirl-splosion*

    “But amidst this seeming HARMONY sounds a NOTE OF DISCHORD” – Oh yeah I so see that on the cover of a 60s Marvel comic – in red font with yellow shadow.

    Thank you for the organ link. I plan to play this at top volume when my neighbours are having noisy sex.

    This is definitely the best researched comic… I have ever read. I learned way more from this page than I did in history class, today.

  26. noah on January 13, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    YES! So worth the wait, this comic is amazing!

  27. Mary Branscombe on January 13, 2010 at 7:28 am

    I love how Babbage looks so *happy* when it works ;-)

  28. Luke on January 13, 2010 at 3:24 am

    I’m with HP on this one. Barrel-organs are almost as ‘steampunk’ as The D. Engine! They’re both full of mechanical goodness, and they should be friends. Can’t Babbage just see that we’re all one?!

  29. Anon, A Mouse on January 13, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Thank you again for including your footnotes and links. They make your artwork above even funnier!! That barrel organ clip was one of the longer minute-fifty-sixes of my life, but at least the contraption was in tune. At least, “in tune” compared to the collection in Wisconsin’s House on the Rock… some of which are real antique street automata and all of which would have sent Babbage into a frothing, transcendental rage.

    Absolutely LOVE the kimono-clad gentleman holding the field camera!!

  30. John on January 13, 2010 at 12:37 am

    Heh. I completely missed the “operated by a crank” pun until now. I bow to, well, that.

  31. Scott on January 13, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Typo #2: Foreigneres^WForeigners

    Absolutely hysterical. Along the lines (heh) of his zippy letter service: Standard for the transmission of IP datagrams on avia, proposed 1 April 1990.

  32. Deo on January 12, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Heh, heh. page 342 of Babbage’s autobiography: ‘ The means at my command for producing the most hideously discordant noises are ample, having a considerable collection of shrill organ pipes, with appropriate bellows, and an indefatigable steam engine ready to work them whilst I might be “taking a walk in the Park.” ‘

  33. Robert Greensmith on January 12, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I misread the title and expected to find a story about Babbage, Lovelace and a vile Onanist. Imagine my surprise when I saw Babbage shoot an Organ Grinder, it made for an entirely different comic altogether.

  34. Inconstant Reader on January 12, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Wonderful, as usual!

    Do you think that if someone traveled back in time and gave Babbage a set of noise-canceling headphones, he might have finished the Difference Engine?

  35. Marrock on January 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Now I wonder…

    What might happen if one were to use this most excellent instrument our esteemed Mr. Babbage has created on one of those infernal idiots with the overblown stereo system that thumps out enough bass to rattle your fillings from a couple blocks away?

  36. Charles Barilleaux on January 12, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Great comic! I love the attack on the musician.

    Were street musicians the loud car stereos of the day?

  37. Deo on January 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Love the comic (and the characters, but…erm…doesn’t Babbage’s gun produce CONstructive interference? Isn’t destructive interference when 2 out of phase waves produce silence?

  38. Kat on January 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you! Yesterday was a lousy day (what IS it about Mondays?) and I needed a treat!

  39. DavidM on January 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Typo: infinitesimal

    Love the comic.

  40. Rat on January 12, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Another excellent 2dgoogles – keep up the good work. Love the artwork, the gags, the historical references, the pure geekiness of it. Pure awesome!

  41. B30 on January 12, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I discovered your webcomic yesterday while googling for some “Castle Falkenstein” (RPG) ressource. Very VERY funny stuff. Love the art, too.

    I WIIL stay tuned for the next installment. Please be it soon ;-)

  42. Dori on January 12, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Another wonderful installment! I especially loved the snarky formula, and am unashamed to say it gave me fits of laughter. :)

  43. Nate on January 12, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Oh man if that Youtube is what street organs sounded like then I am wholly in favour of Babbage’s crusade.

    It would have been like constant shopping mall musak defaulting to the Greatest Hits of the Super Mario Bros.

  44. Leifbk on January 12, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Thank you very much for another great installment in the ongoing saga of B&L.

    Seeing the wired cupola of St. Paul’s, I was instantly reminded of China Miéville’s great book «Perdido Street Station» where a similar setup is described. But then again, Mr. Miéville has probably read Charles Babbage’s autobiography too. As well as the William Gibson catalog. I’ve loved this punk literature ever since I read «Johnny Mnemonic» in the Omni magazine in the early 80s. Thanks a lot for adding another dimension to the genre.

  45. HP on January 12, 2010 at 4:38 am

    Okay, I’ve had another look at the comic, and was about to mention how hilarious the “It’s operated by a crank!” line is, and now I think about my previous comment, and I realize that you’re miles ahead of me, and I am simply a child in am empty field, staring up at jet contrails in the stratosphere, in wide-eyed wonder.

  46. Mark H. on January 12, 2010 at 4:28 am

    I don’t recognize the long equation in panel 7 (does it have something to do with Grey Elephants in Denmark?), but I can see (because a degree in physics causes me to simplify mathematical expressions compulsively) that the term in the right-side parentheses should be 17+C, not 17-C. The expression as it stands reduces to 2C (twice the crime!), not 0 like in the other expressions.

    Nevermind me, though. I’m just giddy over this new episode. The look on Babbage’s face upon his entrance is awesome. Destructive interference! Also awesome!

  47. HP on January 12, 2010 at 4:23 am

    It’s kind of hard to watch that video of a barrel organ and not see it as a programmable device that reads a complex set of binary instructions in the form of punched tape and, through a set of gear-driven mechanical operations, transforms them into a human-interpretable format.

    I’m just sayin’, is all.

  48. Marcelo on January 12, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Positively brilliant! It’s as if you had encoded historical reality as a binary sequence in some sort of lineal magnetic media, and then run it through an awesomeness-increasing algorithm.

  49. John on January 11, 2010 at 11:46 pm


    This absolutely made my day. It’s the best slightly late Christmas present we could ask for.

    Huh? “Slightly”? Oh. Yeah, I still have stuff I haven’t handed out for Christmas 2008, so this is a slight gap, in my eyes.

    I burst out laughing on the “Assamatter Yoo,” because I was just telling someone that modern Italian restaurants (you know, the kind on every corner that sell things Italians can’t recognize, with the mustachioed manager at the counter and the red-check tablecloths?) actually date back well over a hundred years. You can see one described in passing (suggesting they were common) in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” set in London.

    So that nameless Brooklynite Italianish street musician may well be an authentic historical figure drumming up business for his mediocre restaurant! OK, not really, but kinda…

    (And yeah, it’s pretty much the only part that makes reading the book worthwhile.)

    Actually, I really burst out laughing with eliminating C by, y’know, subtracting it. Have we postulated anticrime?

  50. Redshift on January 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Hah! I signed up for your Twitter just in time to get the notice of the latest installment! How lucky is that?