Doron Swade introduces himself as a scientist rather than a novelist, yet he does an excellent job of bringing Babbage's story vividly to life. The book is an interesting blend of drama and science. There are a handful of paragraphs which if like me you're not a maths or physics graduate might go over your head, but apart from those it is very readable. Charles Babbage comes across as a multi-faceted and interesting character. If you are looking for a scientific breakdown of Babbage's invention then you will have half-satisfied.
Importantly, Swade is not unquestioningly 'pro-Babbage'. Although Babbage is sometimes talked about as the "inventor of the computer" Swade gives a lot of consideration to the other inventions and developments of the age, and even to whether the development of the computer might have happened differently, and better, if Babbage had not been such an extrovertly stroppy character.
The last 100 pages of the book is a pithy account of the trials of building Babbage's machine for real in the 1990s, which is a story nearly as interesting as Babbage's original challenges.
on 29 January 2005
This book was recommended to me by one of my computer science lecturers, and it really is a very good book. The information on Charles Babbage's struggle to make his Engines is interesting and informative. The second half of the book is dedicated to the modern take production of difference engine no. 2, and it really keeps you on the edge of your seat! This book is a must for anyone with an interest in computers and history.
on 9 December 2013
I had read other biographies of Charles Babbage before this one, so was sceptical if this would offer anything new, but I was very pleasantly surprised. The first half of the book is the main biography, and was very well written, and an enjoyable read, even if all of the information wasn't new to me. The author did a very good job of debunking some myths, including assessing how much of an influence Babbage actually had on the development of the modern computer (not much, and possibly a detrimental effect) without diminishing the achievements of the man.
The second half of the book dealt with the Science Museum's race to try and build a working difference engine in time for the 100th anniversary of Babbage's birth. This was every bit as exciting as the biography itself, and kept you hanging on right to the end to see if they managed it.
One of the best books of its kind I have read, and thoroughly recommended.
on 14 April 2000
I loved this book. It tells the story of Charles Babbage, a nineteenth-century all round genius who tried to build a computer (using cogwheels) about 150 years before computers became possible! Babbage's story is a tense and fascinating one, and features many of the most interesting and talented people of the Victorian period. The author tells the story in gripping, precise language that makes the book completely compulsive reading. What's more, you get two science thrillers here for the price of one, for Babbage's story has a dramatic modern sequel which Babbage himself would certainly never have imagined. Oh, and there's a beautiful Countess in the story (Lord Byron's only legitimate child) for good measure! Like Dava Sobel's 'Longitude', Doron Swade's 'The Cogwheel Braiun' is a real-life science story about something that really matters, and in a class of its own.