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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer Paperback – Nov 2002


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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (Nov. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142001449
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142001448
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.8 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,429,558 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Technology historian and Assistant Director of London's Science Museum, Doron Swade, investigates the troubles that plagued 19th-century knowledge engineers in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer.

The author is in a unique position to appreciate the technical difficulties of the time as he led a team building a working model of a Difference Engine in time for Babbage's 1991 bicentenary using contemporary materials. The meat of the book is comprised of the story of the first computing machine design as gathered from the technical notes and drawings curated by Swade. Though Babbage certainly had problems translating his ideas into brass, the reader also comes to understand his fruitless, drawn-out arguments with his funders. Swade had it comparatively easy, though his depictions of the frustrating search for money and then working out how best to build the enormous machine in the late 1980s are delightful.

It is difficult--maybe impossible--to draw a clear, unbroken line of influence from Babbage to any modern computer researchers, but his importance both as the first pioneer and as a symbol of the joys and sorrows of computing is unquestioned. Swade clearly respects his subject deeply, all the more so for having tried to bring the great old man's ideas to life. The Difference Engine is lovingly comprehensive and will thrill readers looking for a more technical examination of Babbage's career. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Game Cat on 15 Feb. 2003
Format: Paperback
The book details the life of Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and his attempt to build a machine to execute a well-defined task: numeric evaluation of polynomials using the Method of Differences... Today, that would be called a 'special-purpose computer'.
Why would one need such a thing? Back then, human computers (the term actually used) worked out numerical tables for statistics and navigation. There were of course lots of errors. The use of a mechanism offered the hope of streamlining the process.
As Babbage did not have access to valves or transitors, the idea was to use mechanical means - basically build a hugely complex clockwork - and that in an age that did not yet have any tradition of mass production. Do I hear 'Good Luck' shouts?
How it all began, how Babbage tried to secure the funds and find the engineering skill, and how he ultimately failed through basically bad PR, bad marketing and lousy project management, not only once but twice, is a tale that will be recognizable to anyone doing complex and risky engineering tasks today. It's all a little bit of history repeating...
What remained was an unfinished difference engine no.1, the detailed plans (complete with bugs) for a more elegant and simpler difference engine no.2 and details for an 'analytical engine' - something that was not too far away from a general-purpose mechanical computer (no program store though, sorry). In the end, no-one of the modern computing pioneers seems to have been influenced by Babbage's legacy, so, he represents only a dead branch of the 'computing engine development tree'.
The second part of the book treats us to the attempt of the British Science Museum to actually implement the plans of difference engine no.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 29 Oct. 2001
Format: Hardcover
The concept of turning human thought into a mechancial process was as intriguing then as it is now. At a time when the theory of evolution was challenging religion, Babbage was questioning the uniqueness of the human mind.
(Misleading title, his link to present day computers is very tenuous)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 15 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful Engines 16 Sept. 2002
By Maureen Jacobs - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book has 2 basic parts. First, is the discussion of Babbage's life and his computing engines. Second, is the author's modern-day story of attempting to complete Babbage's Difference Engine, a feat which Babbage himself was unable to do. I picked up this book for the first part. I wanted to learn about Babbage and how his engines worked. While the author gives a wonderful account of Babbage's life and methodology, he does not clearly describe HOW these engines function. I realize that the engines are extremely complex, but a chapter on the functioning of the Difference Engine trial piece and some diagrams on its operations would have been much appreciated. Unfortunately, as were Babbage's contemporaries, we are left mainly in dark as to how simply turning a crank can produce the necessary additions. The author also never fully explains the "method of finite differences" upon which the function of the difference engine is based.
The most amazing part of the book is the overview of Babbage's design for the Analytical Engine- the first programmable computer. It is amazingly similar in concept to today's modern computers, but it uses motion through metal gears and cams, instead of electricity through logic gates and wires. I expected to be bored by the modern-day story, but I actually was interested in the process of reconstructing this 19th century machine. It was enlightening to see how the same problems Babbage faced 150 years before troubled engineers today.
Overall, I recommend this book for those curious about Babbage and his engines. However, the writing seems jerky and unorganized in parts, and there is little technical description of the engines' functionality.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A Cogwheel Computer 10 Sept. 2001
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
What if we had had computers a hundred and fifty years ago? It could have happened. The plans were drawn up for a computer that would have been very much like those of today, except it would have run on cogs, gears, levers, springs, and maybe steam power. We only got around to computers a hundred years later, but things could have worked out much differently, if the work of Charles Babbage had taken off. Doron Swade knows just how well such an engine could have worked. He built one. Or rather, his team within the London Science Museum built a calculating engine that Babbage had designed. It worked, just as Babbage knew it would. Swade tells the story of Babbage and his amazing machines in _The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer_ (Viking). Babbage's accomplishments turned out to be futile in the end, but Swade shows us how there is much to admire in his quest, successful or not.
Babbage wrote papers on chess, taxation, lock-picking, philosophy, submarines, archeology, cryptanalysis, and many other diverse efforts. He was an unstoppable inventor and tinkerer; he invented (but didn't get credit for) the ophthalmoscope every doctor has used, and the cowcatcher installed on the front of locomotives. But what he loved most of all were his computing machines. The Industrial Revolution was making everything else by steam; why not calculations, and perfect tables of them? He designed just such a calculating engine, and although because of various problems it didn't get built, he never stopped tinkering with it, and he designed an even bigger calculation machine that would have done, in its cogwheel way, all the basics that computers now do.
Babbage is sometimes called the grandfather of the computer, but he is more like an uncle. There is no evidence that any of his intricate and visionary machines influenced the design of electronic computers. Swade's engrossing book gives a good capsule biography of a fascinating man, but more importantly, it shows a hands-on appreciation for the machines he had dreamed up. Babbage knew that his dreams were doomed for his own time, but he had an inkling of what was to come; he wrote of the inventor's lot, "The certainty that a future age will repair the injustice of the present, and the knowledge that the more distant the day of reparation, the more he has outstripped the efforts of his contemporaries, may well sustain him against the sneers of the ignorant, or the jealousy of rivals." He was right again.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful combination of history and modern day triumph! 5 Nov. 2001
By Charles Hall - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ahhh, the fascinating story of Charles Babbage. For 100 years he was a footnote to mathematical history, for the next 40 years his story was a required paragraph in the preface of every Computer Science text book. In the last few decades there has finally been serious study of his work. Now with this book we have a highly readable compendium of his life and work, with the added excitement of a modern day adventure.
The first 210 pages provide the best description of Babbage's life yet. All the bits and pieces I've read in numbers of other books on Babbage are here, as told by a modern expert who puts it all in perspective. That perspective is essential, as Babbage's life was filled with controversy and conflict.
The last 100 pages of the book tell the story of building one of Babbage's planned-but-never-built calculating engines in the museum where the author works. It is this personal experience with building a working machine from the 150 year old plans that adds the magic "hands on" touch to the author's analysis of Babbage's tale.
This is a highly readable and fascinating book and undoubtedly the best single volume on the legacy of Charles Babbage.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
The man who didn't invent the computer 7 Jan. 2002
By "wragl" - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is another in a growing and continuing series of biographies of influential but sometimes obscure historic figures who've made significant contributions to science and the arts. Sobel's "Longitude" and Winchester's "The Map That Changed the World" are similar efforts. I hope the list gets longer.
This is one of the best of the type. Babbage--the subject of the book--is not so obscure since his role in the development of the modern computer is popular science dogma.
In good lucid prose, Swade explains the visionary aspect of Babbage's mind and provides context and texture--social and historical--to make Babbage's story compelling and believable. There is no hero worship or hyperbole. Babbage's critics are given the same fair-minded handling as the book's central subject.
Woven into the biographical narrative, Swade deals with the complexities of building Babbage's First Difference Engine--a part of the book I found fascinating. We live in a world in which every screw, girder, plate and bolt is manufactured to internationl standards of size, shape and strength. Babbage undertook bulding his First Difference Engine using thousands of hand-made small parts during an era when there were absolutely no standards for any machinery.
Swade also deals gracefully with the role Lord Byron's daughter, Ada, played in Babbage's career. Her work consisted of an annotated translation from Italian of a report on Babbage's machine. Alas, she wasn't the avatar of modern analysis.
After the biography proper, Swade describes how--during the 1980s--the London Science Museum undertook building the first complete version of a Babbage Difference Engine. I found the detail about financing the project hard slogging, but the descriptions of building the huge 19th century machine using 19th century standards were engaging and interesting because the modern builders even though equipped with all we've learned since Babbage's death confronted all the unexpected difficulties Babbage himself would have encountered had any of his machines been completed during his lifetime.

The best part of the book is the very end in which Swade summarizes Babbage's contribution to computing. His conclusion will surprise many readers. After finishing the book, I took down my 1968, 200th anniversary edition of the Brittanica and read there that Babbage was indeed the father of modern computing--pace Swade. Interestingly, Alan Turing doesn't have an entry.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Charles Babbage: Victorian Era Technologist 4 April 2009
By K. D. Leininger - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.
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