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The Lost Journals of William Tanner

Length: 501 pages8 hours


Meet Will Tanner -- Nineteenth Century adventurer, sex addict, murderer. And probably the greatest scientific genius ever lost to history. In his recently-discovered journals, Tanner reveals how he beat Mendel, Darwin and Einstein to the secrets of genetics, evolution and relativity. But Tanner never has time to develop and publish his theories: he's too much on the lam, pursued by jealous husbands and pistol-wielding deceived lovers. As he puts it himself: "You don't discuss sexual ethics with an armed lover after she's discovered you've been bedding her maid on the side. I suppose there's a lesson in that somewhere." The armed lover in this case is Lady Ada Byron, later Countess Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and collaborator with Charles Babbage in programming Babbage's Analytic Engine, the world's first computer. At least, that's the accepted story. Will Tanner has a different take -- the computer was his invention. And Babbage stole it.

We first meet William Tanner as a motherless adolescent known as Jack Riordan, who has grown up in a Manchester brothel, run by his aunt, Judy Riordan. Judy tells Jack about the death of his mother (her sister), but refuses to reveal the identity of his father. Jack's life changes radically when he survives the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 by murdering a policeman. To escape capture, he allows himself to be adopted by Mary Tanner, a dotty middle-aged heiress who believes him to be her dead son, William, and who indulges "William" in developing his scientific theories. But events do not go smoothly for Will Tanner. True, his experience of playing cards with Mary Tanner inspires his discovery of Mendelian genetics. And he is able to sample the attractions of the brothel. But his invention of the electric telegraph causes a riot at the brothel. Other events lead to the mysterious disappearance of Judy Riordan and to a life or death struggle with Mary's estranged husband, Ralph Tanner, on the muddy banks of a canal.

Will decamps to London where he takes rooms with geologist Frank Chadwick and physician Clarence Dowbiggin, who share a secret that would spell disaster for them both if it ever came out. (And you are wrong if you guessed what I think you are guessing.) As a university student, Will meets Charles Babbage and offers advice on the construction of a computer, advice at which Babbage sneers.

Running low on cash, Will signs on as tutor to the late Lord Byron's only legitimate child, 17-year-old Ada. But living in a house with three attractive women (Ada, her mother Annabella and her maid Annie) proves too much for Will's ravenous libido and he is forced to flee to Europe where he winds up, years later, in The Leads, Venice's infamous prison, occupying the same cell from which the Italian reprobate Giacomo Casanova had escaped nearly a century before. Ironically, Will escapes using the same method employed by Casanova.

Tanner's first journal ends with events at the house of Ada Byron, now Countess Lovelace, where Will learns the truth behind the machinations of Ralph Tanner, the fate of his aunt and, most important, the identity of his father, news that floors the usually stout-hearted Will Tanner.

Tanner seasons his narrative with anecdotes about and meetings with the scientific and artistic luminaries of the Nineteenth Century. We meet John Dalton, the Quaker chemist who invented atomic theory, and Luigi Menabrea, the mathematician who became prime minister of Italy. Sam Clemens tells how an earthquake jolted him into creating Tom Sawyer. And we learn that Charles Dickens based Great Expectations on incidents from Will Tanner's life. Less believable is Tanner's dubious suggestion that he, not Richard Wagner, came up with the idea of a leitmotif. You may choose, however, not to dispute Tanner's claim that he, with help from Luigi Menabrea, invented that Twentieth Century panacea, the vodka martini.

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