What if Charles Babbage, inventor of the mechanical computer, and Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and daughter of Lord Byron, had completed Babbage’s difference engine and then teamed up to fight crime? That’s the premise behind Sydney Padua’s heavily footnoted webcomic 2D Goggles, or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. The two geniuses battle the evil forces of street music and economic panic while trying to keep their funding and avoid the siren’s song of poetry. Blending historical fact, social commentary, and cartoon zaniness (plus just a dash of steampunk), 2D Goggles offers a smart and silly view of the alternate Victorian past.
Sydney Padua spoke to us over email about her historical inspirations, the appeal of Victorian speculative fiction, and monkeys.
Why did you select Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace as your super-scientist heroes?
They selected me, actually! I did the first comic, “Lovelace – The Origin,” as part of Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in technology started by a friend of mine. At the end of the comic I threw in a punchline about how they actually built the Difference Engine and fought crime, but I didn’t really mean for it to be an actual comic! It seemed like a fun thing to play with though so I started messing around with the idea, and it kind of snowballed from there.
What do you read when researching the lives of Babbage and Lovelace?
I like to browse around Google Books and Archive.org for primary documents mostly – everything is much more real and alive when you read the stuff the people themselves wrote. I’ve read a great deal of the secondary books as well – I had to join the British Library at some point to look at all the books I wanted to!
Steampunk and other forms of Victorian/Edwardian speculative fiction have become immensely popular over the last few years. What do think attracts so many people to that era?
We have a lot in common with the Victorians – the incredibly fast technological change, and how it’s really cool but also kind of unsettling and alien and keeps intruding on your life whether you want it to or not. Also I think every age likes to have a nostalgic Olden Days to retreat to; for the Victorians it was the Middle Ages, so they put knights in armor and droopy ladies everywhere and had the whole Gothic Revival thing. Now the Victorian Era is playing that part for us, I guess. Me I’m not very romantic about the Victorians (or the Middle Ages!), but it’s a great way to talk about the present day, but with more horses and gears jokes.
What is your favorite historical tidbit about each of your heroes?
Hmmmm… there’s so much good stuff, so it’s hard to pick one! I love that someone once called Babbage “the logarithmetical Frankenstein” – I fell across that on a little science newsletter from the 1840s. For Lovelace, I’m going to go with the fact that pretty much everyone in the period agreed that she dressed like a slob (someone remarks ‘she was not so well dressed as her maid!’). Geeks never change!
How do you come up with Babbage’s more fantastical devices?
Fantastical? If you poke around the Science Museum there’s all kinds of machines that make the stuff in the comic look sensible!
You often start with a historical event and then spin out into increasing levels of insanity. How do you decide what details to incorporate and where to break from reality?
Mostly I just free-associate – I knew as soon as I heard about Babbage’s campaign against street musicians (true!) that his arch-enemy would have to be someone called ‘The Organist’. He has an army of monkeys, because street organists had A monkey so THE Organist would obviously have lots of them. That sort of thing! I read a lot of comics when I was a teenager so my brain is kind of infested with stuff like that, it gets thrown into the mill and ground up with whatever bit of history I’ve been reading.
You are an animator, and there is a clear animation influence throughout your comic. Have you ever considered doing a Babbage and Lovelace animation?
Heh, I draw comics to get away from animation! But I might mess around with some stuff for my own amusement at some point, you never know.
What is in the future for Babbage and Lovelace? Will they ever get around to actually fighting crime?
Well, right now they’re impatiently waiting for me to get out of a crunch on the current film I’m working on, so I can start drawing them again!
The big thing I’m working on now is an iPad app, which will have some of the comics I’ve done already with notes and some pretty cool fancy iPad-y stuff; and the even bigger thing is a new comic called “User Experience” – although whether it’s crime-fighting or not depends on your definition of “crime”! It’s all set inside the Difference Engine and features George Eliot falling afoul of Babbage’s War on Error. After THAT I’m dying to draw Vampire Poets, my Magnum Opus; that one definitely has crime.
What do you think our present would be like if Babbage and Lovelace had teamed up to fight crime?
Ice cream wagons wouldn’t be playing cheering tunes, I can guarantee that!