The Person From Porlock

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Meanwhile..

Babbage has his Harmonic-Disruptor-Ray; but how exactly does one go about destroying poetry?

Okay, salamander-people are within the realm of possibility but this episode is merely fanciful, as Kubla Kahn’s interrupted composition happened in 1797, over a decade before Lovelace was even born. Crazily enough though Lovelace’s husband had an estate near Porlock, which I swear I didn’t know about when I started this gag. Freaky.  Stoned!Coleridge courtesy of Nick Harkaway, with a good list of the Evils of Poetry and Why It Must Be Destroyed (that’s what you were going for, right?)

There’s a largish queue of Persons from Porlock outside of poor Coleridge’s door. 2dgoggles: No Gag Too Old! As I haven’t the smallest compunction in resurrecting 150-year-old Babbage-vs-street-musician gags from Punch (this one gets in street music, statistics, and difference engine… trifecta!) the lack of originality here doesn’t worry me a bit . I felt I needed a bit more practice in composing these black-and-white panels, so consider this an etude.

Charles Babbage was to develop a highly-targeted poetry-destroying method in what is one of his most famous quotations, in this Helpful Letter he wrote to Tennyson about his poem “The Vision of Sin” :

In your otherwise beautiful poem,one verse reads, “”Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born;”

I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:

“Every moment dies a man, And one and a sixteenth is born.”

I may add that the exact figures are 1.067, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

When I was young in Babbage studies (like, a month ago) I thought this was apocryphal, but nope, this is an actual letter. In Babbage’s defense I should say that it’s often extremely difficult to tell when he’s joking. On the other hand his actual jokes are pretty much never this funny.

Life Insurance: not a random gag! My zeal from Primary sources is such that I’m currently reading (okay, currently skimming) Babbage’s piece on actuarial tables. I notice he can’t even write about freakin’ life insurance without opening with a please-tell-me-you-didn’t-hit-publish career-torching rant.

My own Person From Porlock has come knocking in the form of my Day Job (as in, Don’t Quit Your), which resumes in a couple of weeks. There’s a few things I’ll get out before then. After that obviously production will slow, but if you think this will merely be dropped you clearly have NO IDEA how obsessive I am.

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26 Responses to “The Person From Porlock”

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  1. fluffy says:

    I love that I knew exactly what historical event you were referencing within the first couple panels.

    Was Babbage’s commentary about the member of Parliament’s question about the correct results vis-a-vis incorrect figures intended as a joke or was that truly an example of early user error?

  2. Ceridwen says:

    I have kids. I think they’re all from Porlock.

    So… Babbage makes a time machine to thwart the invention of various noisy music machines and Ada uses it to break Coleridge’s creative processes. Right? Could tie in with the Organist thread in a veiled but not quite subversive side thread…

    I think I want the opening panel here on a T-shirt. I think I may be setting up my wardrobe for the fall in saying this.

  3. Susan says:

    You had me at the opening panel. I agree with Ceridwen, a time machine must be involved. I have been re-watching Torchwood on DVD and bits of Doctor Who on YouTube. Time travel adds yeast to any story dough.

  4. Rand Brittain says:

    Didn’t Douglas Adams already do a thing not unlike this, which did indeed involve a time machine? (Yes, he did.)

    I like the mustache, though.

  5. *grin* I was going for a list of notably insane poets… but… no, no. Never mind the truth…


    I stand prepared to defend the noble art of poesy from the dark, Satanic mills of reason and mathematics! My bardic armies know their orders, and the Iambic Correlativator is charged and ready to fire. The organ grinders have been instructed to show no mercy!

    Time travel? Bring it on!


  6. Ewan cronin says:

    First I got the ref almost straight away, second HEHE I grew up in porlock, Somerset here in the UK:)

  7. Kim says:

    Have you seen this yet?

    Charles Babbage is on the Apostrophe Abuse site (a great site for grammar freaks like me). If you click on the picture you also get a hilarious description of the man. I would have emailed it to you directly but don’t really see contact info here.

    I adore your comic (yes, I insist there is a comic here because if I believe it, you will have to keep writing/drawing it!) and now have a deep interest in Babbage.

    Thank you!

  8. Kim says:

    And now Boing Boing is pointing to instructions for maintaining the Difference Engine:

    Some of the comments are interesting too.

  9. P Shackleford says:

    I had to google Porlock before I read the cartoon, but I’m glad I did!

  10. P Shackleford says:

    oh – could Lovelace have borrowed the time machine from the time traveller in H.G Wells’ the Time Machine? In fact as none of the characters are named Babbage could well be the Time Traveller.

  11. sean says:

    Don’t quit – you’re work is fantastic!

  12. sean says:

    I meant “your” :p

  13. swan says:

    oh my god that’s genius.

  14. David says:

    I just found these comics and I absolutely love them. The ‘Economy’ pieces are gorgeous, and the idea of IKB as a swashbuckling hero with a raffish grin is excellent.

    But this could be my favourite. This is one pretty, pretty gag, and the end panel is magic.


  15. Ian says:

    I was reading along, already in love with this project, and then as soon as I saw “Porlock” I thought to myself, “Oh, no she DINT!” Because if there’s one thing I love more than difference engines, it’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    All I’m saying is, it’s really kinda wonderful to discover I’m the target audience for something so full of goofy fun.

  16. FelixSputnik says:

    Ah, Lady Padua,
    How queere, thou shouldst resort to interfereing with the great Samuel Taylor.
    You are not the first.
    in 1987 one Douglas Noel Adams allowed holistic detective Dirk Gently to confuse Coleridge out of properly penning the “rhyme of the ancient mariner”, in an attempt to save the world from alien invasion, the means of which were encoded in the poem.
    It, and it’s follow up, the “long dark teatime of the soul” are two of my favourite books and there may be a yet undiscovered reason, why Coleridge must always be prevented from finishing his work without alteration.
    I wonder what else would have happened, had he been allowed to…


  17. Jha says:



    (I hate Kubla Khan.)

  18. musiccaptain says:

    I was doing some research into a Purcell piece today and in the UBC music library I found a facsimile edition of “A Selection of Hebrew melodies ancient and modern” with texts by Byron (!). Did you know about this? Another very weird Byron detail I had not known of! In the introduction there was a reproduction of an 1816 cartoon “Fare Thee Well” which depicts Byron sailing away from the infant Ada and her mother. Not terribly relevant to your cartoon, but would you like me to email it to you?

    Terry Pitt-Brooke

  19. tudza says:

    That business with the one dead and some greater number born reminds me of my favorite joke

    You life 16 1/2 tons and what do you get? Another 1 and 1/32 days older and deeper in debt.

  20. Tiffany says:

    Please keep up the fantastic creativity with this comic featuring Babbage and Lovelace with the occasional appearance of Brunel, the engineer. Lady Ada Lovelace along with Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (USN) were true pioneers in the computing sciences.

  21. Corvus says:

    With Lovelace lighting up that pipe at the end, I couldn’t help thinking, “Porlock Holmes?”

  22. Porlock Junior says:

    Well, of course the person called Porlock tried to inform Sherlock Holmes of an impending murder, but was scared off. (Valley of Fear) It has been suggested that the Camberwell poisoning case, which Holmes solved by winding he dead man’s watch, involved Porlock, in, shall we say, an extremely prejudicial way.

    This is an amazing, if often baffling, site and comic, btw. Even without Porlock.

  23. Raine Szramski says:

    I’m a huge Coleridge fan and I was randomly googling him (sounds somewhat lewd…) and discovered your brilliant comic for the first time. Thank you! Thank you!! Ada as an action hero, I love it. Just wanted to write you a gushing fan note…

  24. baywoof says:

    I’m not sure if I can forgive Lovelace for that (I love Kubla Khan). Awesome comic, though.


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