We Interrupt This Comic Because I’m Really Distractable

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Meanwhile..

Here at 2dGoggles we are always On The Alert for the very latest Babbage facts, especially facts as awesomely cool as these.. via Bruce Sterling at Beyond the Beyond: Charles Babbage, the Secret Police Reports!!

“The known Fortunato Prandi of Camerana, arrived here from Lyon during the 10th day of the present month in the company of a certain Mr. Babbage, an English mechanician, and he lodged in the Penzione Svizzera.

The following day, he rented two furnished rooms in the Arcade of the River Po, on the second floor of No. 22, a house of the Hospital for the Poor, and he moved in with the above-mentioned Englishman, to whom he is the interpreter. The Englishman has the intention of presenting shortly to the Scientific Congress an engine of his invention, which facilitates mathematical calculations.”

This would be Babbage’s lecture trip to Italy, from which Frederico Menabrea wrote his Sketch of the Analytical Engine, which Lovelace was to translate the next year.

So I know what we’re all thinking…


Title: The Vigenere cipher (I drink a lot more wine than I break codes, so my brain insists on pronouncing it, the Vioginer cypher) was the supposedly unbreakable code secretly broken by Babbage in the late 1840s by means of, as Simon Singh puts it in his great The Code Book, ‘sheer cunning’.

Materials:  The Experimental Carriage (aka the Mystery Mobile, to be equipped with oil-slick and missile launchers etc), spy-vs-spy, James Bond, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Charade, codes and cyphers, my vast knowledge of 19th century Italian secret police drawn from ‘Tosca’. Poss. Menabrea could appear.. was he Entertaining? Might make plausible Tintin-esque military Dictator type?

Method: haphazard

Hypothesis: (this is my husband’s theory, which is is very keen on Sharing for the World’s Edification) That the 17,000 pounds the British government put towards the Difference Engine, was ACTUALLY for the Black Ops project of Babbage’s code breaking.  I counter that Babbage’s open, dare I say, transparent personality was not exactly suited for espionage.  Why, he’d be giving away his secrets in his widely-read autobiography, where he enthuses about his deciphering project that involved the copying out of 26 separate dictionaries broken up by letter count and frequency! Babbage had that most enviable of gifts, viz. huge piles of personal cash, but would he be spending his own money on stuff like this?  Hmmmmmmm…..

Anyways.. what was I supposed to be doing? Oh yeah, The Organist! Next episode.. uh.. soonish. Really!

Series NavigationBack to the Previous Gripping Episode!Next Thrilling Installment!


  1. Amanda on May 30, 2010 at 2:25 am

    I adore your comics, and just had to pass this site on to all my friends. They’re educational as well as entertaining. I personally am simply amusing myself with the morse code at the bottom of your brilliant artowork.

  2. Jeanette Diaz on May 25, 2010 at 1:51 am

    Your powers of RESEARCH never cease to amaze me. I look at first hand sources and go cross-eyed! I wish I knew your secret. Keep anything Difference Engine related [or tangentially related] coming!

  3. bob on May 24, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    I had to double check if “P” was “A” ROT13ed. Disappointed. BESTEST CODE EVAR!

  4. Dori on May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Greetings! That is an awesome design. Kudos on the North by Northwest arrows. :] Finally, the Queen gets to see Babbage fight crime! (Or at least Lovelace will have to convince Her Majesty that that’s what Babbage is doing; why no, it only *looks* like he’s playing on the floor like an oversized toddler.)

    p.s. If you’re around the Americas, weekend of the 28th, we’d love to see you at the World Steam Expo: worldsteamexpo.com. This is the only time the state of Michigan will ever be worth visiting, so don’t miss out! :P

  5. John Spencer on May 16, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Yes please! ciphers, somewhat Inspector Clouseau-like secret police, anachists, an experimental carriage, and Victorian black-ops (just how much research are you letting yourself in for?. Also with what looks like a forerunner of the police helicopter (those are limelights mounted at the top of the tower of Pisa aren’t they?).

    On the subject of experimental carriages, I think “an English mechanician” would have loved Miss Britain III, now in the National Maritime Museum.

  6. skauthen on May 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Hmmm… Charles Babbage spy adventure…

    ITALIAN SPY: Babbage sticks out like a sore thumb. We’ll find him.

    LOVELACE: The hell you will. He’s got a two day head-start on you, which is more than he needs. Babbage’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He’ll blend in. Disappear. You’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the Engine already.

    Cut to scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8hGV0E2LGI

  7. -.. .-. .. .- -. on May 12, 2010 at 3:53 am

    “F.U.N.D. M.Y. B.A.B.B.A.G.E. C.O.M.I.C. Y.O.U. B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S.” –Sydney Padua

  8. Chris on May 12, 2010 at 3:18 am

    The following thing is absolutely true: When recently I finished writing a book (an academic sort of book, not an exciting one) and so got into the whole ‘What would you like on the cover?’ conversations with the publishers (who are a Well-Respected University Press) I suggested one of your cartoons, and they said they didn’t really think that would make a very good book cover, and that they didn’t really feel like paying to commission one. Fair enough, I suppose, after all the book wasn’t about lovelace or babbage, or anything — but now you have proven that, at least on the first point, they were wrong. Lovelace and Babbage make for a truly splendid book cover. Keep up the marvellous work.

  9. Ceridwen on May 11, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Love the Brunel pic. T-square, pterodactyl and all. :D Thanks!

  10. Lauren DM on May 11, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    To be honest, the french employed flamboyant spies with amazing results.
    The chevalier d’Eon was embroiled in a number of quarrels with various members of the french aristocracy on visit, and had her rather amazingly public transition, and yet remained a pivotal part of the french spy network in France. Shortly before this particular coup d’éclat (which ironically started simply as a letter to the comte de Broglie), another spy in England got involved in a duel, a quarrel over both the legitimacy of his knighthood and his military service in the dragoons and the engineers corps during the seven years war. This was done amazingly publicly, and yet this other captain of the Dragoons managed to get detailed plans of the southern coast of England’s defences with no one the wiser or wondering loud enough as to what an officer of the french engineers was doing there in the first place with the french embassy.

    The austrians at the same time didn’t even bother to conceal it and sometimes would return decyphered diplomatic mail with the intelligence service’s notes. A few people complained, each time, Kaunitz would simply give the cypher monkey a small slap on the wrist, asking him to be more careful next time, sometimes right in front of the wronged diplomat xD

  11. Dylan Fox on May 11, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Wouldn’t it be cool if his autobiography of cypher-breaking was in fact a coded message…?

    • sydney on May 11, 2010 at 9:52 am

      Thomas, Kaaz, I’m going to have to close comments if this keeps up because all of this is going to GO TO MY HEAD.

      Dylan– Wait, what’s this? If you take the 3rd letter of every alternate word in the ciphers chapter it spells: F.U.N.D. M.Y. D.I.F.F.E.R.E.N.C.E. E.N.G.I.N.E. Y.O.U. B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S.

      Ceridwen: Inappropriate Brunel Pic. Frank Frazetta.

      Atkins: Babbage is the very definition of awesome!

      Musiccaptain: Doh! Must have been that bottle of Saviguonon I polished off..

      Brian– maybe he hasn’t figured that part out yet.. will the secret police get to him first??! Now i have to draw that comic to find out.

  12. musiccaptain on May 11, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Sorry, Sydney, but you’re more dyslexic than you thought. The grape variety is viognier, not vioginer. I do love the North by Northwest poster allusion, though.

  13. Ceridwen on May 11, 2010 at 3:19 am

    That was fun.

    Um, looking at the twitter feed on the side, what’s this about inappropriate Brunel pics?

    OMG, loincloth? Maybe in the Salamander story line? And (what? who? where? – remember, I’m in college, I know no-think) is Frazetta?

  14. Kat Slonaker on May 11, 2010 at 3:14 am

    That poster just CRIES OUT to be on a T-shirt…

  15. E-Wit on May 11, 2010 at 2:35 am

    I like the Tosca part.

  16. Dvon on May 11, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Immediately adjacent to your divertimento>/i> in my feeds for today was this from the Wishtales team.

    Reality often gets away with things we would not accept in fiction.

  17. Thomas Gideon on May 11, 2010 at 1:38 am

    This is so perfect it elicited an honest to goodness laugh out loud. I enjoy the history of crypto as much as I do the history of computing and love how even this early, they still overlap. Priceless!

    And I’d say that poster is pitch perfect. I love the expression on Babbage’s face–doesn’t that just say it all in a nutshell?

  18. -.. .-. .. .- -. on May 11, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Babbage’s comment in the poster is a little disconcerting, as the salient feature of the Vigenere cipher is that plaintext letters do NOT consistently map to the same ciphertext letters.

    Can it be Brunel in the background with the bomb?

    • ENKI-2 on February 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      You forget that in the Vigenere cypher, once you determine the length of the key n, the cyphertext breaks into n independent caesar cyphers each with a shift equivalent to the value of the key at that indice — and subject to letter frequency analysis. This is how Vigenere cyphers were broken eventually, though if I recall, Babbage did not describe his method in detail.

      That said, as the wikipedia page will tell you, “Vigenere Cypher” actually refers to two completely different polyalphabetic cyphers — one actually invented by Vigenere and one misattributed to him. It is again unclear whether Babbage broke the weaker or the stronger one, but if we assume that he broke the weaker one (and the method I mention above was not published for a long time after, until someone else rediscovered it) then the text of the speech bubble still makes sense.

  19. Kaaz on May 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    OK, so it’s not a new episode, but it’s still L&B and lots of obscure geeky crypto stuff. With the ADDED BONUS of Morse code at the bottom of the poster, which, of course, I *had* to translate. (No spoilers for anyone else – you’ll have to translate it yourself! :-) Nice touch!

    I suppose this will tide me over until the next *real* episode – but just barely!

    Have I mentioned how much I love this comic and your *genius* in both writing/drawing it? Bloody brilliant!

  20. AtkinsSJ on May 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I was stupidly excited when I found out in a Computing course I’m taking that Babbage cracked the Vigenere cipher. Babbage is so awesome.