What a difference the Difference Engine made: from Charles Babbage's calculator emerged today's computer

The incredible world of computers was born some 150 years ago, with a clunky machine dreamed up by a calculating genius named Charles Babbage

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He left Cambridge, obsessed with the idea of using machines to speed up time-consuming mathematical calculations. Thus the idea of a Difference Engine was born. Charles also envisioned a machine that would handle more decimal places to speed the process of "carrying" and "borrowing."

"He was always the great improver," says Peggy Kidwell, curator of the Scheutz Difference Engine at the Smithsonian. Kidwell, coauthor of Landmarks in Digital Computing, thinks Babbage was constantly goaded by the urge to improve not just his Engine, but the quality of 19th-century life. Among other examples, she cites his experiments with printing tables in different colors on different shades of paper (black print on white paper was hard on the eyes). In 1826 he had one page of tables published in 13 different inks on 151 different colors of paper.

More important, he endlessly sought ways to take the killing drudgery out of factory work. Metering devices, for example, would automatically do the mindless counting of some repeated action in a mill. He invented a time clock for punching in; suspicious workers called it the "tell-tale." He designed a device to record the direction of shocks in earthquake-prone areas, an inking roller for printing and, thinking perhaps of those boyhood "water shoes," proposed an idea for a hydroplane.

He tried to get the government to change the traditional values of pounds, shillings and pence for a decimal system. He got about as far as American scientists have today after years of pleading in vain to introduce the metric system. Still, the British adopted his proposed two-shilling piece, or florin, making ten florins equal to a pound sterling.

Babbage never fully finished the expanded Difference Engine, which he began calling the "Analytical Engine," but parts of the original ran smoothly in displays and kept bringing him more attention. "Now Mr. Babbage," said one woman after listening to his explanation of it, "there is only one thing that I want to know. If you put the question in wrong, will the answer come out right?" People eventually learned that a computer is no smarter than its programmer. As the saying goes, "Garbage in, garbage out."

Babbage was a splendid host. The Duke of Wellington came to call. So did Charles Dickens. Babbage talked shop with Sir Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the Wheatstone bridge for measuring electrical resistance; with Joseph Whitworth, whose rifle cannon with hexagonal bores were bought by the Confederate States of America and used with deadly accuracy on unfortunate Union troops; with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the giant iron ship Great Eastern (Smithsonian, November 1994).

Above all, there was Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet. She was a brilliant and beautiful woman, whom Byron had named "Augusta" after his half-sister, who was also his mistress. Though Augusta Ada was her daughter, Lady Byron never forgave the girl for having the same name as the woman she despised.

Ada was skilled at mathematics and one of the few people able to understand and explain what Babbage's inventions were all about. It was a chaste affair — Ada was married to the Earl of Lovelace. But she devoted years to helping Babbage, writing explanations of his achievements and dreams, admiring him with professional as well as filial devotion. She wrote up some of his notes so well that he wanted to publish them under her byline. She declined. Yet when he rewrote a bit of her copy — just changing a word or two — she made it clear that no one ever rewrites a Byron.

Like a number of Victorians, Ada became an opium addict. During her grim death from cancer, her mother hid the opium she was then using to ease the pain so that Ada would suffer more — and repent. Her death left Babbage bereft of the woman whom Anthony Hyman describes as "his beloved interpretress." His plans called for a punch-card system that would command the functions of the still-theoretical machine. He got the card idea from a famous French loom introduced in the early 1800s by Joseph Marie Jacquard that used selected cards to automate the weaving of multicolored patterns. It was Ada who could best express what the card system would do for Charles' machine: "We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

Though Babbage's ideas for storing information exist only in his voluminous plans, his concepts kept nudging closer to our computer age. A card system was vital to the earliest electronic computers, post-World War II devices that filled a whole room.


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