The Anachronistic Ada: Inventing a Twenty-First-Century Public for a Nineteenth-Century Programmer

In an 1843 paper for Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs, Byron’s daughter, the Victorian mathematician Ada Lovelace, wrote imaginatively, brilliantly, presciently about the computer. She described a general programmable machine called the Analytical Engine, a machine that today represents a tantalizing path-not-taken in the history of computing. Its inventor, her friend and collaborator Charles Babbage, viewed this theoretical engine primarily as a powerful number cruncher. But Lovelace grasped the much more extensive power of symbolic processing. She began to ask deeply perceptive, humanistic questions about the Analytical Engine’s capabilities and limitations, questions like ‘Can a machine compose music?’ and ‘Are machines intelligent?’

There is no direct line of descent between Babbage’s Analytical Engine and the modern computer, but both Babbage and Lovelace indirectly shaped the early computer culture that emerged a full century later. Alan Turing would cite Lovelace in an influential 1950 article on artificial intelligence; Howard Aiken, who developed the Harvard Mark I [a contender for the title of first computer], “styled himself as Babbage’s modern-day heir” (Swade 317). And, in a 1982 interview, Grace Hopper, who worked closely with Aiken and became a pioneer in computer languages, acknowledged her growing identification with Lovelace as a young programmer in the 1940s: “She wrote the first loop. I will never forget. None of us ever will.”

In this paper, I’d like to riff on Hopper’s words by tracing the looping, recursive paths through which Lovelace has entered our cultural memory – the long strange loops through which Lovelace has been remembered and remade. Her life has inspired an eclectic cultural afterlife (to say the least), ranging from high-cultural productions like an opera and a symphony to steampunk fashion and ThinkGeek T-shirts. Google engineers can now sip lattes at Ada’s Technical Books and Café in Seattle, a city that also houses Ada Developers’ Academy, a free training program in software development for women. “Ada” is the namesake of both a high-level programming language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and a trendy collection of women’s underwear, whose controversial ad campaign features real-life tech entrepreneurs.

Into the mix comes Sydney Padua’s 2-D Goggles, a British web comic that playfully re-imagines Lovelace and Babbage as a Victorian crime-fighting duo. As a web comic, 2-D Goggles is deliberately positioned as a node within this complex media system around Ada’s life. As such, it is particularly well situated to help us understand the range of cultural productions – and emerging publics – around Lovelace in computing, literature, and sundry geek cultures. Why have so many creators claimed Lovelace in order to write their own stories and histories? Why have these representations of Lovelace become such a compelling vehicle for both individual and communal self-expression in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

Moreover, Padua’s comic serves as a useful lens (or pair of steampunk goggles, if you will) on this paper’s animating question: can anachronism at times be a more honest and engaged approach to life writing than conventional biographical accounts? With a self-deprecation characteristic of the comics artist, Padua sums up the content of 2-D Goggles thusly: “True: Most of it. Except for the inaccurate bits. It’s close enough for comics.” But this deflating gesture and slacker pose (the “close enough”) belie the ways that comics (especially web comics) can invite a more robust and participatory process of life writing. Using 2-D Goggles as a case study, I’d like to take seriously the possibility that Lovelace’s life can be narrated richly, meaningfully by introducing fictional elements, nonlinearity and recursion, and modern fantasies about technology into her story. As we broaden the lens of conventional biography, looking beyond an individual’s life to her cultural afterlife, I wonder if, paradoxically, we can also get a bit closer to Lovelace – in spirit if not in fact – through this anachronistic approach.

Padua’s droll, inventive web comic, started in 2009, charts Lovelace and Babbage’s adventures with the Analytical Engine in an alternative Victorian England. Despite its steampunk premise, the comic (I suggest) can be considered a form of life writing because its plots and dialogue reflect the author’s meticulous research and accumulation of primary documents. The anachronistic Ada who emerges in 2-D Goggles is both grounded in ample quotations of Lovelace’s own prose and knowingly oriented toward the contemporary investments of readers and reading publics.

In an essay on Gibson/Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine and Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia – two works from the 1990s that offer fictional re-imaginings of Lovelace – Jay Clayton suggests that the anachronisms of science fiction and steampunk culture can offer insights that elude a more stolidly time-bound perspective. This is particularly the case when considering what Clayton calls “untimely figures such as Babbage and Lovelace,” who are perplexing anomalies to historians of science and classical biographers. Francis Spufford uses the phrase “collaboration between times” to describe the working model of the Difference Engine Number Two, one of Babbage’s calculating machines, built by a team at London’s Science Museum in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. But I think it also can be extended to describe the transhistorical collaborations that are at work (and at play) in contemporary writing about Lovelace. For instance, the very language by which we might understand Lovelace’s contribution to science, such as calling her the first “computer programmer” for her published speculations about how one might solve a Bernoulli sequence using the Analytical Engine, is inevitably a retrofitting of her role into familiar but imprecise terminology. Rather than seeing this linguistic and conceptual strain as a failing or fallacy, however, I argue there is value in these presentist accounts of Lovelace. They point to how our own powerful and complicated coexistence with computers in the 20th and 21st centuries is itself a necessary pre-condition for telling Lovelace’s Victorian-era story. In this sense, the future predates the past, giving it both structure and significance.

The first comic published on the 2-D Goggles site – titled “Lovelace – the Origin” – is a telling example of how Padua uses anachronism both to construct and deconstruct new publics around Lovelace. As Padua explains on the blog, the comic was initially a one-off to advertise the first Ada Lovelace Day, launched by Padua’s friend, the British technology writer and novelist Suw Charman-Anderson. This annual celebration makes visible the stories of women, past and present, who have contributed to the STEM fields. So, in one sense, the comic’s origin story is synonymous with – and synchronous with – the origin story of Ada Lovelace Day. Lovelace Day quite explicitly writes Ada’s life in terms of an emergent 21st-century conversation about women’s unspoken role in the history and practice of science and technology. Her life story becomes a point of intersection for a web of practical conversations about sustaining girls’ interest in STEM education or fostering diversity in tech start-ups, a movement that has been referred to as ‘STEMinism.’ Padua’s “Origin” comic provides the necessary exposition to acquaint readers with Lovelace and Babbage’s collaboration, using language lifted directly from Lovelace’s letters as well as her writing on the Analytical Engine. This “Lovelace 101” approach is a necessary step for creating a shared vernacular – and hence, a new public – around Lovelace.

And yet, even as this comic actively participates in the creation of a public (or perhaps counter-public) around Lovelace, gender, and computing, it also slyly comments on the anachronistic Ada that it has helped to write/draw into being. The title “Lovelace—the Origin” also evokes the superhero origin story (even more so when Padua later revises the title to “the secret origin”). In so doing, Padua shows readers how Lovelace is moving from an historical person to what her biographer Betty Toole refers to as a “modern myth,” whose very ambiguity and otherness encourage reading publics’ self-invention around gender and technology. Padua’s comic is pedagogical then in a second sense: it uses anachronism to educate her reader in a more self-reflexive understanding of how and why we are constructing Lovelace’s life story. It makes visible the drives, desires, and anxieties about technology and gender that animate our creation of a public around Lovelace.

The comic takes its true turn into anachronism in the final panels, which undercut (but also enrich) the life narrative just presented to us. In the voice of a 21st-century reader, Padua writes, “OMG that’s so boring. What actually happened was, Babbage and Lovelace successfully developed the computer in the mid 1830s…and used their combined powers to fight crime and have adventures!!” In the final panel of “Lovelace–the Origin,” Padua redraws our protagonists, changing their period-appropriate dress to spiffy adventure gear and ray guns, and exchanging Ada’s confining corset for a Sherlock-inspired menswear and pipe. On the one hand, the bodily freedom that Padua grants to Lovelace in this move is alien to Lovelace’s own understanding of the relationship between female embodiment and intellectual freedom. As Alison Winter explains in her essay “The Calculus of Suffering,” Lovelace inhabited a culture that saw insight and genius as stemming from physical suffering, so that in some sense she welcomed her own prolonged bouts with illness, her home- and hide-bound state, which culminated in her protracted death from cervical cancer at age 36. But while Padua’s portrait ignores Lovelace’s equation of physical confinement with mental and even spiritual illumination, it translates Ada’s scientific ambitions into a visual iconography accessible to a modern readership.

By creating a steampunk (or rather “steam-ironist,” as Padua puts it) version of Lovelace’s origin story, Padua reveals how readily Lovelace’s biography lends itself to fantasy. Lovelace as a “modern myth” – that is, the Lovelace in Sherlockian ensemble – enables female tech entrepreneurs, users, gamers, and makers to imagine alternative relationships to digital technologies – perhaps ones that are more embodied, intimate, affective, and inclusive than the consumerist black-boxes of our modern devices. Her comic points to why the anachronistic Lovelace is such a fitting figure for a day devoted to creating a public around women in science and technology: her legacy is less of ambitions achieved than of imaginative potential. While some have questioned whether Lovelace is a worthy representative (see, for example, a 2010 piece in the Economist titled “Ada Lovelace day: right idea. Wrong woman?”), 2-D Goggles suggests that the untimely Ada is precisely the right woman for the job. Like Babbage’s machine, she is a factual counterfactual — “our paradoxical protagonist,” as Padua describes her. It is Lovelace’s association with the theoretical, the imaginative, the speculative that makes her so potent as a public-creator. That is, remembering the untimely Ada — a young woman who, with very little to go on, was able to grasp the potential of Babbage’s misunderstood invention — is also a means of remembering that there are other possible futures for women in STEM.

So far, I’ve looked briefly at how the anachronistic, genre-bending content of 2-D Goggles – its mash-up of steampunk, humor, and biography – works to create a self-aware reading public around Lovelace. Now, I want to turn to how Padua plays with time at the level of form, with a similar purpose of educating readers in a more critical method of constructing Lovelace’s life and participating in her cultural afterlife.

Each installment of Padua’s serialized comic includes extensive footnotes, often to primary documents that invite the reader to reconstruct and reflect on the past. These recursive experiments with narrative explicitly foreground the idea of biography and history as a “collaboration between times.” In yet another way that past and present converge in the comic, the footnotes are also a knowing nod to Lovelace’s own scientific contribution: an extensive set of notes to accompany a young engineer named Luigi Menabrea’s article on the Analytical Engine, which Lovelace translated from the French (spoiler alert: Menabrea would go on to become the first prime minister of a unified Italy). Ada’s notes, three times the length of the original description of the machine, were the first document to limn the potential of computation; according to cultural theorist Sadie Plant, they “ultimately proved to be infinitely more important than the text.” In a similar inversion of value, the footnotes to each of Padua’s comics act as a rigorous, even earnest counterpoint to the ‘steam-ironist’ flights of fancy in the panels themselves.

Despite the forward motion implied by Will Eisner’s classic definition of comics as ‘sequential art,’ critic Emily Watson has pointed to patterns of recursion in graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. For Watson, these recursive authoring practices, which in turn require readers to circle back, reinterpret, question initial assumptions, are a critical, affective education of sorts. In Padua’s comic, the interaction of panels and footnotes similarly sets up this recursive process, training readers in more sophisticated responses to life writing and also cultural memory. Aside from pointing readers to a wealth of primary sources that deepen their historical understanding, Padua’s footnotes also work to undercut the simply told-tale – for instance, despite a running gag that Lovelace worked to subvert poetry and poets, Padua acknowledges in a footnote that Ada wasn’t anti-poetry, but that it makes for a good punch-line.

The goal of ‘closure’ – a term to refer to how the reader fills in the temporal or conceptual gaps in the gutter space between panels of a comic – is now replaced by what Watson calls disclosure, resulting in a more open-ended, playful, and communal process of life writing. Padua’s notes are the site where the author most explicitly encourages a community around Lovelace’s life, by welcoming readers into a shared research process and ultimately inviting them to become, like Padua herself, amateur biographers. Through the interplay of panels and footnotes, Padua approaches the notion of life writing as a networked, communal endeavor and suggests that Lovelace’s untimely life can be understand best only through dynamic and highly personal accounts. Her hyperlinked footnotes are in one sense an ‘old school’ celebration of the deep dive into research and in another of a piece with their digital environment – particularly in the way that this mode of reading overlaps with modern fandom. By encouraging engaged re-readings of cultural texts, fan culture (according to John Storey) “shifts the reader’s attention from ‘what will happen’ to ‘how things happen,’” including “the production of social knowledges and discourses.” Padua herself, as an artist, researcher, and fan, models this self-reflexive process. The subtitle “experiments in comics” and the confessional blog format open up her artistic and meaning-making process and encourage feedback from readers. In “Metaphysical Speculation Into The Nature of This Comic, or: Lovelace and Babbage vs. The Salamander People,” for example, Padua provides a Scott McCloud-esque walk-through of her sources of inspiration, charting the evolution of a series of panels from an initial doodle. Her footnotes also model a fan’s enthusiasms, as when she links to the journals of Lady Eastlake, in which Lady E. remarks that “Babbage and not Byron should have been [Ada’s] father.” Padua then notes that Lady Eastlake “gets FIFTY cookies” for this observation.

Padua’s formal strategies of recursion and interactive play in 2-D Goggles speak to a broader conversation in comics scholarship about why the medium is particularly adept at immersing readers in life-writing practices. Gillian Whitlock has coined the term autographics to distinguish the unique qualities that the comics medium brings to life writing narratives; at the heart of this distinction is readers’ altered relationship to life writing. For Whitlock, autographics have an essentially pedagogical function, training 21st-century readers to become more than passive consumers of images. Similarly, Emily Watson describes autographics as “improvisations upon the terms of autobiography” that “invite new theorizing of subjectivity (and)…readers’ engagement with the autobiographical.” By shifting the relationships among author, subject, and reader that we see in classic biography and autobiography, comics can achieve a more robust and collaborative mode of reading.

This engaged reading practice matters for generating a critical perspective on how the anachronistic Ada’s life is being remembered and reinvented into the 21st century. Through its strange loops between past and present, panels and footnotes, life writing and steampunk, 2-D Goggles invites readers to adopt a stance of play and, above all, curiosity toward what we might discover about both Lovelace and ourselves when we accompany Padua down the rabbit hole.

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