Cranking Up Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine

Some years back when I read The Difference Engine, the “alternate history” novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I thought Charles Babbage was just a fanciful blip in the authors’ metaverse. Later I learned that Babbage was the real deal, an iconoclastic prophet of modern computer science. The novel’s computing machine chugged and clanked like a steam-powered tractor threshing wheat. Babbage never raised enough money to build it himself, but like Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, it’s been realized in a later century by dedicated geek fans with a mission. Listen to Difference Engine #2’s precise click and whirr in this video from the Computer History Museum in California.

NPR’s Laura Sydell tells how Ada Lovelace had a hand in another Babbage invention, the Analytical Engine. Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, the apotheosis of Romanticism. Talk about a generation gap!

Lovelace… met Babbage at one of his London soirees, which were attended by intellectual luminaries of the time, such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. Lovelace also had a passion for mathematics.

Lovelace helped Babbage put his ideas in writing. She often understood the implications of his work better than he did… [read more]

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