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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer Hardcover – 1 Aug 2001
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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
Top customer reviews
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.2 -- the author, Doron Swade, having been the project manager of that undertaking, we really get the inside view. Again, it's a battle to secure the funds and find the engineering skill, with outside funding sometimes on, sometimes off (I especially liked the part of IBM promising to bankroll the whole projet at the serious risk of destroying it by wanting to take over management, then (luckily?) turning chicken once the yearly results came in). The engine was just barely finished after 17 years and >250'000 GBP for the bicentenary of Charles Babbage, in 1991.
It works. And I plan to check it it out next time I'm in London.
The book puts paid to the notion that the Engine was not built because Victorian mechanical engineering was not up to the task. But it leaves the question: Would Babbage's Difference Engine, if built, have been actually useful and economically viable? Well, I guess no one knows. But the answer is probably no...
(Misleading title, his link to present day computers is very tenuous)
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
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.
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