Visual effects artist Sydney Padua was sitting in a London pub when she began drawing a “comic” about the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who in 1843 annotated a report on Charles Babbage’s idea for a steam-powered calculating machine. Today, Babbage’s “analytical engine” is often described as the first design for a computer and Lovelace’s extensive annotations as the first computer program. The two became friends, but their stories did not end triumphantly: Lovelace (whose father was the poet Lord Byron) never wrote another mathematical paper and died of uterine cancer at age 36; Babbage died at 79, embittered because none of his calculating machines were ever built.
Padua dispenses with the basics of this story in the first, brief chapter of her graphic novel, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.” Then, for 285 rollicking pages, she envisions an alternative universe in which Lovelace does not die young, she and Babbage build his machine, and the intrepid pair use it to explore mathematics, create economic models and — with the support of Queen Victoria — fight crime! The goofy narrative is relayed via hundreds of black-and-white cartoons illuminated on almost every page by smart, sassy footnotes and by longer, equally droll endnotes after every chapter.
As well as including excerpts from historical correspondence and scientific papers, those voluminous notes pack in an encyclopedia’s worth of relevant and/or random facts. They’re informative and entertaining just as they are, but they’re also likely to send you to Google to find — for example — just what Sir William Rowan Hamilton was doing when he “accidentally” came up with the idea of four-dimensional space, or how the flow chart was invented, or the correct way to address the nobility. (Lovelace was a countess.) It’s a book that makes you a lot smarter as it makes you laugh.