The Bitstream Blog :: Posts

Babbage is Dead, Long Live Babbage

Hello happy readers…Sorry about the posting hiatus, had to do some maintenance…Today I’m writing a tiny bit about Charles Babbage, his protégé Ada Lovelace, and the antecedents of electronic computing. To start, consider the Industrial Revolution, when everything possible was being automated. Cloth manufacturing, a lucrative process that produced high value goods from low value commodities, was an early industry to be mechanized. In fact, a textile “factory,” in the modern sense, was the first mechanized manufactory to be built in America. One of the more ingenious machines that figured into this steam powered madness was the Jacquard loom. It automated what was formerly a tedious process, and used punch cards to “program” the loom to create any particular pattern in the resulting cloth.

Half a century after the introduction of the Jacquard loom, along comes Charles Babbage, a Brit math geek, philosopher and engineer. Babbage is credited for conceiving of an “analytical engine,” what we would today call a programmable computer. He called it an “Analytical Engine” and though he never built a functional instance, his theory and design was sound. The analytical engine was based on an earlier machine, the “difference engine,” which Babbage designed to automatically perform addition…think desktop mechanical adding machine on a grand scale.

In about 1870, Babbage came across one Augusta “Ada” Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and 23 years his junior. Lovelace, an indifferent wife and mother, was far more interested in mathematics, a rarity for a Victorian woman. She saw the power in Babbage’s design for the Analytical Engine and is credited with the creation of the world’s first computer program. Being a keen thinker and visionary, she even put forth the idea that “…the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity.” Humm, steam powered computer music!

OK, what would happen if practical electrical power development had been delayed and a functional difference engine had been realized? We may have had what Gibson and Sterling describe in The Difference Engine, a really kewel book.

Anyway, this rant was brought on by an In Our Time podcast (see blogroll) on Babbage in which the host casually mentions that one of his guests, Doron Swade, had built a Difference Engine. I thought, “Good heavens, I must see this!” and after corresponding with the good folks at the Computer History Museum down in Mountain View, I found out that “… The Babbage exhibit will open on May 10th 2008.” So, soon I’ll get to see the Engine in all its 5 ton glory! Will post a pic, if I’m able to take one. By the way, Ada, Countess of Lovelace is the only personage I know of who has had a programming language named after her! Also, if you read this blog, do drop a comment on what you like or dislike, what you’d like to see in future, and what is your favorite fruit… TTFN.

 

Share

One Response to “Babbage is Dead, Long Live Babbage”

  1. […] caught up with my post–conference duties so I can give you a taste of the Babbage show I was babbling about at the Museum of Computing…However, before I jump into that, I wanted to give you a heads up on […]