- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

By Doron Swade
Viking, $24.95, 342 pages, illus.

With better luck and a different century, Charles Babbage, the groundbreaking inventor of automated calculation, might have died a happy man. Yes, he was recognized as one of the key figures of the British industrial revolution. He enjoyed fame and a measure of wealth, and his writings earned him attention. In late life he hosted large, fashionable soirees that drew noted artists, scientists and politicians to his London home. But to his everlasting frustration, his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine — arguably the prototypes to the modern computer — were never built or utilized.
In 1991, Doron Swade, assistant director and head of the collections at the Science Museum in London, led a team that built a complete version of DE2 (Difference Engine 2) in time for the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. Their efforts vindicated the 19th-century visionary and his machines, a project that in Babbage's time variously impressed and vexed, and cost the British government a fortune. For Mr. Swade and his colleagues, resurrecting and completing Babbage's work using materials and engineering guidelines from the earlier era was a triumph.
In his understated preface to "The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer" Mr. Swade notes that his book is a "tale of two quests," and certainly the book is structured in just that way, the first two thirds being devoted to the history of Babbage's life and lifelong endeavors, the final third to modern efforts and success at bringing Babbage's work to completion.
Mr. Swade's reporting about the respective enterprises related across time is broad, informed — muscular actually — and exciting. There is steel here and passion, money and rivets and lots of mathematical pyrotechnics. Mr. Swade tells two stories, parallel missions in different eras to give mechanical life to the power of numbers. With ample, colorful history and more than a share of mathematical theory (simplified for the lay reader), the book reads like a great adventure tale squared. There are villains and heroes, patrons and spoilers and always the lurking question of will this, or that, work?
For Mr. Swade, the defining moment in Babbage's life work came in 1821 at a point when he and a friend were preparing numerical tables for the Astronomical Society. Finding error after error, Babbage became frustrated and in exasperation exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." This appeal was made when Babbage was 29, and according to Mr. Swade, "its ramifications were to dominate the rest of his life."
Babbage would go on to build first his Difference engine, which was intended to automate the use of finite differences to calculate table values. Next, using what he learned from that effort Babbage completed his Analytical Engine, the world's first programmable computer. It was punched card controlled and embodied many features of the more modern stored program computer.
Mr. Swade takes care in explaining the operation of Babbage's inventions and along the way he has his fun. One telling episode involves Babbage's investigations into how the French were managing complicated numerical tables. In Napoleonic France, under the charge of Baron Gaspard de Prony, France produced "'cadastral'" tables for accurate land survey so that property could be taxed. The tables ran to 18 volumes, and one set of logarithms alone contained eight million figures.
The remarkable thing is that these tables were prepared by teams of low-level "computers," here meaning people who did the simple arithmetic. Mr. Swade notes that the computers were out-of-work hair stylists who had lost their clientele to the guillotine. Babbage argued that the French could do away with the hairdressers altogether by putting a calculating engine to work.
In 1827, life intruded in the most painful way. In that one year Babbage's father, second son Charles and beloved wife Georgiana died. Although Mr. Swade does not tarry long in Babbage's personal domain, he does convey how the scientist's deep grief and rebounding fortitude shaped his life and the course of his work.
The book raises three interesting questions that to my mind are not resolved in the book: Would it have been possible to build Babbage's machines in the 1850s and would it have worked? (A Swedish version of the Difference engine did in fact get built during that time.) Second, Mr. Swade contends that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, the role played by Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron's beautiful daughter) in creating the first program for the Analytic Engine has been exaggerated, but is this so? And finally, Mr. Swade states that Babbage's machines, for all their similarities to the more developed computers we take for granted today, are really not the prototypes for our digital computers, but, again, is this so?
Perhaps of all these questions, the one that gets the most detailed treatment in the book is the one that involves Ada Lovelace. Now, admitting a bias, I reviewed Betty Toole's "Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers," for a computer publication several years ago. Mr. Swade acknowledges a debt to the author of that book, and then in a most gentlemanly and balanced way refutes its central thesis that Ada is the magna mater of the computer age.
Well, shut my mouth. I bought that thesis. I believed it, repeated it and now I find it hard to accept the portrait of Ada as something of a pushy control freak. But Mr. Swade's case is so darn sensible, right down to disputing whether Babbage's phrase "the enchantress of numbers" was meant to be applied to Ada or any person.
In the end, one comes away from this book impressed by its energy, its writing and its range. One discovers the power of Babbage's mind that led him over his lifetime to write 86 scientific papers and miscellaneous books. Mr. Swade acknowledges that Babbage's scope was broad, "even by the generous standards of Victorian polymathy." He then lists Babbage's areas of expertise: "mathematics, chess, lock-picking, taxation, life assurance, geology, politics, philosophy, electricity and magnetism, instrumentation, statistics, railways, machine tools, political economics, divine apparatus, submarines, navigation, travel, philology, cryptanalysis, industrial arts and manufacture, astronomy, lighthouses, ordnance and archaeology."
And one cheers when the stalwart band of present-day scientists reaches their goal: "On Friday 29 November 1991 the engine performed its first full automatic error-free test calculation… . We had done it. We had built the first Babbage Engine, complete and working perfectly, twenty-seven days before Babbage's birthday."
Generously, Mr. Swade allows Babbage the last word. "If unwarned by my example, any man shall undertake and shall succeed in really constructing an engine … upon different principles or by simpler mechanical means, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be fully able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the value of their results."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide