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Monday, December 28, 2009

Charles Babbage


NPR produced a story recently about Charles Babbage, the British mathematician who conceived of both a Difference Engine and an Analytical Engine that would have been two of the earliest computing machines. I say "would have been" because they were never built in his lifetime.  He tried to build the Difference Engine but ran out of money after ten years to support his efforts.  He never knew with certainty whether it would work.

A museum curator, Doron Swade, at the Science Museum in London came across Babbage's drawings in the 1980's and was amazed to find out that no one had ever tried to build Babbage's Difference Engine.  Swade organized a team of engineers who built the machine using Babbage's original drawings and only materials that would have been available in Victorian England.  The finished machine weighs five tons, has over eight thousand parts, and is powered by a hand-crank.  But most importantly, it works just as Babbage said it would.  I won't repeat the whole NPR story here.  It is well worth the time to click through to their website.  You should particularly take the time to watch the short video which shows the machine in action. The Engine has a mesmerizing beauty in its revolving gears and wheels.

This story reminded me in some ways of the efforts of museum curators to recreate the hand-cranked Antikythera Mechanism from Ancient Greece that I have written about several times previously, here and here.  Technologists and historians find it fascinating to recreate an old idea that has never been seen in modern times.  And when these old designs do work as described, it delights and amazes us.

I was also not surprised to read about how difficult it was for Babbage to get funding to support an idea that was so far ahead of its time.  While he was a brilliant mathematician/inventor, he was a difficult personality and not a great entrepreneur.  His inability to sweet-talk the money out of investors left him a frustrated and bitter old man.  So often, inventors who may have truly novel ideas can still lack the interpersonal skills to sustain their work.  If Babbage had prevailed, there might have been a Victorian Information Age that would have moved computing forward by fifty years almost overnight.  Who knows where we might be now had Babbage realized his Difference Engine? It's fun to speculate.

(See my related post on the origin of punch card computing by way of the U.S. Census Bureau here.)

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