Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


January 2004

Vol VIII Issue I

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The History of the Computer:
Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine

By Phoebe Ayers
Among the many developments of Victorian technology – the railway, the telegraph, and so on – one much less successful but very curious invention continues to capture people’s imaginations. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a mechanical computer developed in the mid 19th century, was never fully built and was never very influential in the actual history of the modern computer. It has nonetheless become a somewhat legendary part of the early history of computing, examined by historians and novelists alike. This Engine would be built of tiny metal gears that interlocked in huge, room-long rows and columns, in ways that could be calibrated (or “programmed”) to perform mathematical calculations. While Babbage’s first Difference Engine was something like an enormous adding machine, his final design of an Analytical Engine held the promise of completing algebraic formulae. The Engines were limited by a lack of capital and by anyone important having enough understanding of their possibilities to take an interest in them, as well as by Victorian engineering techniques that hindered the precision of the gearing. The Engines were finally discredited and forgotten until the 1970s and ‘80s. However, they worked on paper, and they had programs developed for them in schemes that modern programmers can recognize – fully a hundred years before computers began slowly to develop in the 1940s. This corner of history is the subject of this review.

The real-life characters surrounding the development of the Engines are as odd and intriguing as the Engines themselves. One of the people from Babbage's circle that I find most fascinating is Ada King, neé Byron, Countess of Lovelace. In The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter (1999), Benjamin Wooley takes us through the chaotic and melodramatic life of Lady Ada. Wooley, following historical tradition, places great emphasis on her family background. She was the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron, the poet, and Annabella Milbanke, who Wooley paints as an exceedingly unpleasant and manipulative woman. The book spans the entire marriage of Milbanke and Byron, which ended in a messy separation before Byron's famous exiled death, and then turns to the equally messy life of Ada, who grew up every bit as much strained by the media's interest in her parentage as the child of a rock star today. The book traces her life chronologically, from her birth in 1815 to her agonizing death at age 37. In between, she knew and became friends with many of the famous figures of the day. From Dickens (who read to her from Dombey and Son on her deathbed) to Lyell, the famous geologist who argued that the earth was more than 6000 years old, Ada was steeped in the heart of Victorian culture and controversies. One man, among her multitude of scientific acquaintances, figured especially prominently – Charles Babbage.

Today, Ada Lovelace is perhaps best known, certainly among technical circles, as an early, if not the first, computer programmer – a reputation that inspired a programming language to be named after her by the Defense Department (ADA). The program that she wrote was a mathematical sequence designed to run on one of her great friend Babbage's unbuilt Engines. Wooley gently debunks the view that she in fact was the first programmer, arguing instead that, as a somewhat shoddy mathematician, she merely expanded and clarified work that Babbage had already done. Either way, it is remarkable that an aristocratic woman should be so intimately involved with science and mathematics, and have such a storied – if slightly exaggerated – place in the earliest history of computing. (This is recognized, for instance, in the Association for Women in Computing’s Augusta Ada Lovelace awards.) Wooley spends a great deal of his book exploring the tensions between art, science and technology that were so big a part of the Victorian age – an age that is not so very different from our own. These tensions were embodied in the life of Lady Ada, caught as she was between her heritage as the daughter of one of the great celebrity poets of the day, and her interests in science and mathematics. 

The novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990), concerns the same subject but presupposes an alternate history. In this fictional account of what could have been, not only is Lord Byron the Prime Minister of Britain, but his daughter, Lady Ada, in consort with Charles Babbage, has become an almost royal figure. Computing has showed up a hundred years early in the form of Babbage's Engines, which are almost omnipotent, keeping citizenship and credit records on the populace. Science has trumped all; evolution is an accepted theory. The class of learned men that Ada consorted with (in real life) have become aristocrats or “savants” – among them Edward Mallory, discoverer of the Brontosaurus and the hero of our tale. He becomes the unwitting recipient, from Lady Ada, of a box of tainted Engine cards – punched cardstock that are reminiscent of the punchcards of the 1950's – which immediately put his life in danger. We spend most of the novel learning about this strange and gleaming world, and tracing the breakneck pace of Mallory as he confronts his would-be assassins.

This novel, written by two authors who helped canonize the idea of the network as being socially important, ultimately explores the idea of an information age – our own age – through a Victorian lens. Of course, this world is utterly improbable, and not just because of the alternate history of the Byrons that the story assumes. Wooley, in his book, addresses the novel, noting that it is not simple to assume that its imagined world is the way history might have been, given a subtle shift in technological history. Wooley points out that Babbage's engine was so far ahead of its time that many other developments of the modern age that Gibson and Sterling take for granted had not yet occurred in Britain, such as a regularized police force, or even fixed timetables. Thus he argues that it would have been impossible for Babbage's Engines to transfix the world in the way Gibson and Sterling imagine. And yet, the novel deals less with practicalities of history and more with the idea of how informational technologies can change the world, and as an exploration of this, it is a success.

However, as much as I love the concept of this novel, ultimately it is one of my least favorite of Gibson's novels. It feels forced, in a way, as if these two quite different authors clashed over wording too many times, and slightly strained , as if the authors were saying to their readers, “look, we’re going to compare the steam age to the information age. Do you get it yet? There were parallels!” However, this novel helped to popularize those very comparisons (as well as the entire sub-genre of steampunk). Some of their twists on history are downright funny (Benjamin Disraeli as a hack writer, for instance). It is also an exciting story, and one that is utterly fascinating to anyone interested in the Victorians, alternate histories, or mechanical computing. It is a compelling, if dark and somewhat apocalyptic, vision of the world that these two eminent science fiction writers present – perhaps more compelling as a reflection of our own world than as a possibility of what might have been.

As a brief postscript: In the mid-1980’s, the Science Museum in London (a brilliant place to visit, online or in person), decided to build one of Babbage's Engines, based on the original plans. A working copy of Engine #2 can be seen turning away in the museum. It is a thing of beauty and strangeness, calculating away, both ahead of and behind its time. More information can be found on the Science Museum’s excellent website on Babbage


In an eerie coincidence, the School of Drama is producing the dramatic play Childe Byron, about Lord Byron and his daughter Ada, this week, from Jan. 15th-25th, 8pm, in Hutchinson Hall 303. This is an undergraduate production, a mere $5 at the door; seating is limited.

“Brilliance, perception, sarcasm and scandal” are promised.





















For pictures of the Difference Engine, try a Google Image Search.

If you are interested in learning more about its mathematics, the Difference Engine entry in The Wikipedia is worth a look.