Feature

Father of computing

James Essinger looks at a new book on Charles Babbage - considered to be the father of computing - which claims his lack of diplomacy prevented his brilliant inventions seeing the light of day

There is an important lesson to be learned from the father of computing - that technical know-how alone is not enough to succeed. This is one of the conclusions of The Cogwheel Brain, a study of Charles Babbage, by Doron Swade, to be published on 13 April.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was an extraordinarily talented scientist, mathematician, economist and engineer. He is best known today - as he was in his lifetime - for inventing two types of cogwheel calculating machines.

The first, known as the Difference Engine, was designed to print reliable, accurate mathematical tables and so solve a serious problem of his day - these tables, compiled manually, were riddled with mistakes.

The second cogwheel brain, which Babbage called the Analytical Engine, was nothing less than a mechanical digital computer. It contained many of the features found in modern computers, including a memory and a processor. It even had a punched-card control system, which Babbage borrowed from the Jacquard loom.

Babbage was never able to get a fully complete working version of any of his machines built during his lifetime.

Doron Swade, assistant director and head of collections at the Science Museum in London, is well qualified to write Babbage's story. In addition to having studied Babbage's life and work for many years, and having read everything Babbage ever wrote (a feat which took him eight months) he headed the team that built a working Babbage machine in 1991.

This device, Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, is on display at the London Science Museum and is one of the wonders of the collection. Swade has also been heading a project to build a printer for the machine. The completed printer will be unveiled at the Science Museum on 14 April, the day after the publication of The Cogwheel Brain.

The significance of the successful completion of Difference Engine No. 2 was that it proved that Babbage's plans made sense. Even though modern manufacturing techniques were used to build this remarkable cogwheel computer in time for the bicentenniary of Babbage's birth on Boxing Day 1791, the levels of precision employed were only those which Babbage himself could have achieved.

The achievement of Swade and his team was to show that far from being the eccentric dreamer which many of Babbage's contemporaries took him to be, he was really a great genius whose plans could almost certainly have been fulfilled in his own day.

So why weren't they? In his book, Swade argues that Babbage's failure was not - as most encyclopedias somewhat patronisingly inform us - due to the inability of early nineteenth-century precision engineering to produce components of the requisite level of accuracy. True, the difficulty of getting enough identical components produced within a reasonable time frame didn't help.

Yet this wasn't the only problem. Swade also puts the finger of blame on Babbage's difficulties with his truculent chief engineer, Joseph Clement, and on Babbage's lack of skill at dealing with the influential political and scientific figures of his day, whose support would have been crucial to the success of Babbage's plans.

Babbage was a genius, but public relations and diplomacy were not his strong points. If only he had accepted the offer which his muse, Ada Lovelace, made to him in August 1843!

Ada was Lord Byron's daughter. Despite what she herself thought, she was not a particularly gifted mathematician and the view of modern feminists that she helped to invent Babbage's Analytical Engine is absurd - the Engine was invented long before Ada got involved with it. But she was excellent at presenting Babbage's ideas so as to make them comprehensible to the layman. Babbage's description of her as "My dear and much admired interpreter" shows the affection and regard in which he held her. Ada wanted him to, in effect, appoint her as his adviser on all matters of negotiation on the Engines and public relations. With Babbage providing the genius and Ada using her charm and influence to win funding and support for Babbage, the early history of computing might have been very, very different.

Indeed, this point seems proven by the fascinating account in Swade's book of his struggle to win funding and support for the project to build Difference Engine No. 2. Swade's adroitness as a promoter, skill at handling negotiations, and sheer energy and determination scorch these pages. He himself clearly has a profound understanding that hi-tech wizardry isn't enough - that it only becomes a practical reality when the reason why it is so exciting is brilliantly communicated and marketed to influential people.

Charles Babbage did not understand that, and went to his grave a bitter and disappointed man. Swade's success at making Babbage's dreams come true teaches us all that brilliant hi-tech innovation needs talented interpreters and communicators if it is to fulfil its potential.

The Cogwheel Brain, by Doron Swade, Little Brown & Company. Price: £14.99


Email Alerts

Register now to receive ComputerWeekly.com IT-related news, guides and more, delivered to your inbox.
By submitting you agree to receive email from TechTarget and its partners. If you reside outside of the United States, you consent to having your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States. Privacy

This was first published in March 2000

 

COMMENTS powered by Disqus  //  Commenting policy