Author, engineer, visionary, genius. Charles Babbage. The man born to lead humankind into a utopian era propelled by automatic computation machines. But by some cosmic prank he was born not at the first glow of the electrified age, but much earlier in a coal-fired industrial age in which neither precision production machine tools nor even the standard screw thread existed. And electricity? The triode, the fundamental active device at the root of the electronics big bang, was just being nudged to life a full generation after Babbage's death. Today, countless bits of silicon at our fingertips and spread across the globe and above our heads pulse with programs which manage everything from communications to transportation to entertainment. Inspiration for our globally connected engineers and scientists springs from the incredible developments in communications, analytical tools, and nano and bio-technologies. Babbage's muse was a Victorian lady adorned in steam power.
Author Doron Swade's description of the analysis of Babbage's drawings and of the trials engaged in the actual modern day build of Difference Engine #2 leaves me with a bit of a sense of sorrow for old Charles. It just doesn't seem plausible that he could have pulled this off had he a dozen 19th century lifetimes. Production of the thousands and thousands of precision mechanical parts needed for the construction of his machine would have challenged the industrial capacity of Babbage's day. And even if all the parts had been delivered, did he foresee the time required for the assembly and testing of the machine? The author experienced that the modern day building and debugging of the engine proceeded slowly and with numerous fits and starts. Additionally, Charles may have been flawed with an inability to maintain a consistent focus on the development of his difference engine; he puttered with incessant design changes and was often distracted by any number of scientific developments occurring in his lifetime in the middle half of the 19th century. But his genius and sense of mortality drove him to the only workable solution, that being the preparation of detailed mechanical drawings for a subsequent generation of enthusiasts to discover and execute. So whatever sorrow I felt is now displaced by respect for someone who retreated from his dogged passion for assembling and publicly operating his computational engine into the more solitary labor of transferring his concept to a full set of mechanical drawings. These were the drawings which author Swade and his team used to build the machine nearly a century and a half later.
This is an interesting and educational read for anyone curious about the state of technology and the associated politics in Victorian times. The reader will meet personalities who will be remembered because we have honorably linked their names to important developments including screw threads (Whitworth), a software language (Ada), and a space telescope (Herschel).
So, no, today's world is not driven by fleets of "Babbage engines". He could not have foreseen a future reliant on millions of transistors modulating nano-amps on a device smaller than your thumbnail, and these devices replicated by the millions in our cars, phones, iPods, and dishwashers. I agree with my friend's conclusion that Babbage engines, had they been built and mass produced, would have "died out" with the rise of electronics. It is amazing, however, that Babbage foresaw the configuration of his mechanical Analytical Engine as consisting of two unique but connected components; one, a mechanical entity for carrying out arithmetic operations, and two, a mechanical contrivance where numeric values would be stored. Amazing, because his concept, although relegated to mechanical implementation, predated by a century the concepts detailed by Von Neumann who viewed the configuration of modern computer architecture as consisting of those two fundamental interfaced components - the arithmetic logical unit or central processor, and the computer memory.
Kudos to Swade for bringing the life and times of Charles Babbage to the fore, and for his years of involvement and dedication to the actual construction of Difference Engine #2. There are numerous YouTube entries where you can see the machine operating. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to be awed, as I was, as an actual witness to the operation of Babbage's dream onsite at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.