The working relationship between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage is of prime historical importance. Our world would be very different if it wasn't for Lovelace's development of an algorithm intended to be processed on Babbage's Analytical Engine. Computer programming as we know it may never have existed.
What happened next is well-documented. The duo successfully developed the computer in the mid-1830s, giving humanity the necessary technological advantage to resist advances such as the alien invasion of 1898, and to use their combined powers to fight crime and undertake amazing adventures. While that's not strictly true, it is an invented reality that has formed the basis of The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, an online comic from Sydney Padua.
Padua started her own career as a hand-drawn animator, working on The Iron Giant through blockbusters including Clash of the Titans and to her most recent work on John Carter, a sci-fi epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, to be released next year. This is augmented by Padua's own work including the development of Lovelace and Babbage's secondary career: crime-fighting.
The Thrilling adventures were created when Padua was in a pub with Suw Charman-Anderson, planning the first Ada Lovelace Day. It was decided that a comic, drawn by Padua, would form part of the event's website. However, the following series was caused by something of a mass misinterpretation.
"I always enjoy drawing comics. I wanted to explain who Ada Lovelace was, as it was complicated. I drew an original comic, and the punchline was a steampunk joke about how Ada Lovelace didn't die; she made a machine, and started to fight crime. Although it was a joke, people thought that I was going to produce that comic, so I started to throw some ideas around. It's such a fantastic idea for a comic, that I started work on a series of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage adventures."
Because writing the Thrilling adventures involves so much research and historical analysis, Padua has become the "go-to person for history" for Ada Lovelace Day. The series has evolved to such an extent that an iPad app of the comic is to be launched in time for the event.
The app took shape through another act of fate. Padua gave a talk at TEDx Orenda which was attended by Dave Addy, founder of app development agency Agant. After the event, they both ended up at Earls Court tube station, at which point Addy, a fan of the Thrilling adventures, approached Padua with the idea of an iPad version. As Padua admits, the app is a logical extension of the online comic, because the comic often comes with a host of resources around each individual story: the people in the story, real-life stories which are referred to in the strip, and the technology that was being developed at the time. The app brings this to life, integrating this information with the comic in a way that enriches the story and gives the reader an opportunity to read the comic alongside its complex background world.
While Padua is rightly proud of this development, she sees tablets and apps as opening up a new world for graphic novels.
"The thing about tablets is that they have their own aesthetic. There's a lot of experimentation at present. Comics have a history of being very experimental, in terms of how they are spatially structured. They are all about playing with space, and the iPad gives you the ultimate canvas of space to play with. It's very freeing to have a space where you can do all kinds of stuff. It's a playful thing."
Padua's own views as a woman in technology are based on a wider view of the world. She certainly accepts that computing is a male-dominated environment, where it becomes uncomfortable for women to appear within the industry at all. When they do, it's an uplifting experience. "You always wind up having that conversation. 'I feel like such a fraud'. It's quite a difficult problem for men to comprehend. It's a background process that sucks out that little bit of processing power in your head. However, the energy you get from seeing women do really cool stuff – is definitely noticeable. Every time I hear about something awesome in tech and it's a woman who did it, I get this little energy boost. It's a very deep, human, thing."
This spirited view is partly based on Padua's own experiences as an occasional lecturer on animation. She has noticed that interest in the subject from female students tends to drop over time, and plummets when CGI is introduced. Where male students would simply "have a go", the female students can become tentative and somewhat insecure.
A robust way to overcome these issues would be to work at them at an earlier age, with the teaching of programming skills in early teenage years. Like many, Padua's own interest in technology was brought to life through programming 8-bit computers in class. The bitter irony is that although we are now seeing a ubiquity of computing and connectivity, teaching programming at an early age appears to have died. "If they're not teaching programming in school, then that will affect girls. They're much less likely to do it on their own, as it doesn't feel like a 'girly' thing to do. In the public imagination, it's very specific: something you picture a nerdy boy doing. When you're a girl in high school, doing something outside of what's expected is agonisingly painful.
"It's incredibly short-sighted, as that's where it's happening now. I'd like to know what they're teaching instead of computing, as there nothing more urgent for people to know."
The problem is exacerbated by forums where sexism and misogyny are implicitly allowed. Popular chatrooms, discussion forums and other unmoderated communities are breeding grounds for this behaviour, dominated by male members with a "firehose" method of communication, and a lack of respect for others. Even in situations where 16-year-old girls are keen to develop their programming skills, these websites may still considerably threaten their confidence and opportunities to develop. "For girls, when you have the overwhelming weight of history on you, when someone can just turn around and say 'Girls haven't done anything, so why do you think that you can do something?' - it's hard. It's spiritually hard to go out there and do stuff."
If Ada Lovelace Day helps women to consider a career in technical development, then it has to be applauded. Anything which builds the "geek" concept out of its male, socially awkward heritage can only benefit everyone, and make tech more attractive to more people. As Padua says, "There is still a lot of oddness around women and computing, and I'm not sure where it comes from, but you would have to be crazy to say that it wasn't there."
And the future of the dynamic duo? Their next adventure is the war on error. Lovelace and Babbage will tackle user experience, fighting spelling errors in the great Victorian novels. Padua's almost limitless imagination is set to entertain us for a long time to come; running parallel will be a critical period for women in computing, with opportunities waiting to be created, realised... and defended.
Ada Lovelace Day takes place on 07/10/11. Further information is at the Finding Ada website.
Sydney is also appearing at Storywarp, taking place 05/10/11 at the Made by Many offices in London. Further information is on the Storywarp website.