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Babbage Remembered
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November 08, 2011, 03:44 AM
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John Markoff writes in the NYT about a new plan to build Charles Babbage`s plans for a steam-powered computer:

[Charles] Babbage, who lived from 1791 to 1871, is rightfully known as the “father of computing.” But it would be left to a fellow scientist, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, to fully appreciate that his inventions were more than just tools for automatically tabulating logarithms and trigonometric functions. 

Lovelace — daughter of the poet Lord Byron — recognized that the Analytical Engine could be a more generalized media machine, capable of making music and manipulating symbols. And 113 years before John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence,” she considered — and then rejected — the notion that computers might exhibit creativity or even thought. 

While Babbage was driven by the desire to automate tabular data for military and related applications, Lovelace wrote a lengthy commentary on the design that would prove deeply influential when it was rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. 

Lovelace is known as the first programmer, because she designed a program for the unbuilt machine. The algorithm appears in a series of notes written by Lovelace after a friend of Babbage asked her to translate an Italian professor’s write-up of a lecture Babbage had given at the University of Turin. 

The Lovelace notes are remarkable both for her algorithm for calculating the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers and for what would become known as the “Lovelace objection.” In passing, she commented that the Babbage computer would not originate anything, but rather could do only what it had been instructed. The implication was that machines would not be creative, and thus not intelligent. 

The consensus of computer historians is that while Babbage was clearly the first to conceive of the flexible machine that foreshadowed the modern computer, his work was forgotten and was then conceptually recreated by Turing a century later.

That Babbage and Lovelace were long forgotten says a lot about anybody`s chance to be remembered, because they were celebrities in their own time. It`s not as if society was prejudiced against them. Ada was an aristocrat by birth and her father had been the most famous man in the world after Napoleon.  Babbage was a rich socialite who lived in London, when it was the capital of the world. He knew everybody. Dickens modeled a character on him. Parliament voted him generous subsidies for many years until Prime Minister Peel pulled the plug. 

When interest grew in Babbage again after the electronic computer came along, there turned out to be a huge amount of documentary evidence on him, and they now show up everywhere. The central characters in Tom Stoppard`s 1993 play Arcadia are romanticized versions of Ada and Babbage. James Gleick`s 2011 history of the Information Age, The Information, quotes at length from Ada`s charming letters to Babbage (Stoppard used Gleick`s 1987 book on chaos theory in Arcadia, so it was natural for Gleick to devote quite a few pages to the pair.)

Paul Johnson`s 1991 book The Birth of the Modern on the years 1815-1830 explains the various reasons Babbage failed. It`s an odd book — an extremely long history of everything — but it`s centered around an encyclopedic knowledge of the witticisms of Johnson`s three favorite pre-Victorians: Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and the Duke of Wellington. And Johnson`s point of view is unusual: instead of being amazed by all the progress the Brits were making in 1815-1830, he repeatedly wonders why they didn`t go faster. For example, why waste all that time on railways when they could have leapt to the automobile? One of his heroes is a man who built a steam powered automobile in the 1820s.

Babbage was the man who, more than anybody else, could have jumped Britain into the future, but he failed. Besides the obvious mechanical and metallurgical problems, Babbage didn`t have good corporate structure examples to draw upon. Today, we know all about computer start-ups. If you are Jobs and the Woz in Silicon Valley in 1977, you can look up how Noyce and Moore or Bushnell did it. Johnson writes:

He should have set up his own company and employed a general manager to run its finances. He should have employed a showman to explain his purpose to the public. But, most of all, he needed a head engineer, closely identified with him in the success of the venture. Instead, he used Joseph Clement, not as a fellow entrepreneur with a stake in the engines, but as an employee, under a cost-plus contract. ... The loss of so much taxpayers` money in a chimera that came to nothing was thereafter cited as a reason for refusing public funds for any kind of scientific research project.