Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hey, Babbage!




Largely unknown outside of computer circles, the life of 19th Century British mathematician Charles Babbage has long stood as a tableau of the failed visionary. His Calculating Machines were based on the technologies of the time – hard for him to imagine any others. Steam was to power the machine, and the inner cogs and connections, bearing some resemblance to precedent Pascaline and Jaquard loom, were beyond the capabilities of machining of the era. Babbage's work, which began in the 1830s, did not get off the drawing board because the required precision machine was yet to come, and because the very major effort needed lacked funds.

He and his wife, Ada Lovelace tried – of course. Babbage died in 1871, willing his papers to his brother. The automation in the turn of the (19th) century's U.S. Census Bureau effort is often cited as reflective of Babbage's work, which found currency in science and technology via this notebooks. Replicas of some Babbage machinery have been built, now a far more ambitious effort is underway. See Before Its Time Machine, and Experts Building 1830s Machine, NYTimes, Nov 8, 2011. [There has to be a History Channel or Nova special in there somewhere.

Babbage's work and vision seem of the ilk of Jules Verne (In Voyage to the Moon, a cannon is the rocket propulser ), more so than Edison. Maybe a bit like Tesla, however. It seems like something to best reside in science fiction, unfortunately for Babbage, of course. It has the air of Dystopia about it – as did all the pneumatic tubes (instead of electrical signals) that drove the computer systems of Brazil. Babbage was a precursor to The Wild, Wild West, and the Steampunk movement.

Even into the 1950s organizations relied on large rooms of pencil pushers and number crunchers to run the ship of industry. Middleclass or near middle class people used to ''put the stamp on the letter and write it down in the ledger'' – that's all changed thanks to automation and computerization, with not much by way of replacement. Was it good that Babbage did not succeed?

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