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Thursday, May 12, 2016

“The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer”, by Doron Swade


352 pages, Penguin, ISBN-13: 978-0142001448

Imagine if computers had been invented during the height of the Victorian Age. They almost were; plans were drawn up for a computer that would have been very much like those of today, except it would have run on cogs, gears, levers, springs, and (maybe) steam power. We only got around to computers a hundred years later, but things could have worked out much differently, if the work of Charles Babbage had taken off. Doron Swade knows just how well such an engine could have worked because he built one – or rather, his team within the London Science Museum built a calculating engine that Babbage had designed. It worked, just as Babbage knew it would. Swade tells the story of Babbage and his amazing machines in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, and while Babbage’s accomplishments turned out in the end to be futile, Swade, utilizing a clear, lucid prose, explains the visionary aspect of Babbage’s mind and provides context and texture – social and historical – to make his story compelling and believable. There is no hero worship or hyperbole, and Babbage’s critics are given the same fair-minded handling as the book’s central subject.

Before embarking on his quixotic quest, Charles Babbage was a just your run-of-the-mill polymath who wrote innumerable papers on chess, taxation, lock-picking, philosophy, submarines, archeology, cryptanalysis, and many other diverse efforts. He was an unstoppable inventor and tinkerer, inventing, for instance (but not being credited for) the ophthalmoscope every doctor uses, as well as the cowcatcher installed on the front of locomotives. But what he loved most of all were his computing machines. The Industrial Revolution was making everything else by steam; why not calculations and the perfect tables with which to solve them? He designed just such a calculating engine, and although because of various problems it didn’t get built, he never stopped tinkering with it, and he designed an even bigger calculation machine that would have done – in its Victorian steampunk fashion – all the basics that computers now do.

Woven into the biographical narrative, Swade deals with the complexities of actually building Babbage’s First Difference Engine, a part of the book I found fascinating. You see, during the 1980s the London Science Museum undertook building the first complete version of a Babbage Difference Engine, a project headed by Swade himself. I found the detail about financing the project hard slogging, but the descriptions of building the huge 19th Century machine using 19th Century standards were engaging and interesting because the modern builders, even though equipped with all we’ve learned since Babbage’s death, confronted all the unexpected difficulties Babbage himself would have encountered had any of his machines been completed during his lifetime. We live in a world in which every screw, girder, plate and bolt is manufactured to international standards of size, shape and strength. Babbage undertook building his First Difference Engine using thousands of hand-made small parts during an era when there were absolutely no standards for any machinery.

Babbage is sometimes called the grandfather of the computer, but perhaps he is more like an uncle; there is no evidence that any of his intricate and visionary machines influenced the design of modern-day electronic computers. Swade’s engrossing book gives a good capsule biography of a fascinating man, but more importantly, it shows a hands-on appreciation for the machines he had dreamed up. Babbage knew that his dreams were doomed for his own time, but he had an inkling of what was to come; he wrote of the inventor’s lot, “The certainty that a future age will repair the injustice of the present, and the knowledge that the more distant the day of reparation, the more he has outstripped the efforts of his contemporaries, may well sustain him against the sneers of the ignorant, or the jealousy of rivals”. He was right again.


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