Charles Babbage and the First Computers

"Those who view mathematical science, not merely as a vast body of abstract and immutable truths, whose intrinsic beauty, symmetry and logical completeness, when regarded in their connexion together as a whole, entitle them to a prominent place in the interest of all profound and logical minds, but as possessing a yet deeper interest for the human race, when it is remembered that this science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world, and those unceasing changes of mutual relationship which, visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously to our immediate physical perceptions, are interminably going on in the agencies of the creation we live amidst: those who thus think on mathematical truth as the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator's works, will regard with especial interest all that can tend to facilitate the translation of its principles into explicit practical forms." --- Countess Ada Lovelace

The Analytical Engine (spend a couple of hours here) 
The first programmer: Ada Lovelace
Babbage in context: the history of computing hardware
Mechanical calculating machines (have a look at the old advertisements!)

Questions for discussion

Was the Difference Engine "revolutionary"? Was the Analytical Engine revolutionary? What was revolutionary (or not) about these ideas?

Can we give Babbage credit for inventing the computer, given that the Analytical Engine was never built?

How did the ideas of the Jacquard loom influence the conception and design of the Analytical Engine? What does Countess Lovelace mean by: "We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

The 1878 Commission report says of the Analytical Engine: "If its actual capabilities are found to realize the intentions of its inventor, it will tabulate all functions which are within the reach of numerical synthesis, and those direct inversions of it which are known under the name of solutions." What does this mean? Does this accurately characterize what the Analytical Engine and/or today's computers can do? How might one go about determining if a prototype of an Analytical Engine did in fact 'realize the intentions of its inventor"?

Would Babbage have developed these ideas if he were born in a different time or place? What motivations or technology were already in place when he started? What experiences did Babbage have that ultimately led him to this path in life?

Was Babbage ahead of his time? Did he impact his time? How (if at all) were the people who developed the electronic digital computer inspired by Babbage? What enabled these ideas to survive for a century until the technology for electronic digital logic emerged?

If Babbage had given up or died young, would the idea of computing machines have appeared anyway? Did he make the idea, or did the idea make him? Would it have taken longer, or was it so "ripe" that somebody else would have done it?

From Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace: "[Babbage] conjectured: what if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight?" What does this mean? Does this qualify as a radical idea?

Why did Babbage invest so much of himself in these inventions? How did he benefit from his inventions? Was it worth it?

What was the role of the Countess Lovelace in this enterprise? Could Babbage have been successful without her? How are her achievements recognized today?

In what ways were Babbage and his ideas supported or hindered by the surrounding society? What can we learn from this story about the process of acceptance for new ideas and new technology?

The 1878 Commission recommended against investing government money in completing construction of the Analytical Engine. Why? Did they make the right decision?

What are some of the key features and ideas of Babbage's computers that are used today and in computer architecture over the last few decades?

One of the reasons people thought Babbage was such a nut was that he was trying to build a machine to do something nobody thought a machine could do. What would such a thinker be like today? What can't a machine do? What good idea of the future might be met with a comparable level of skepticism today? How can we recognize this sort of visionary thinking when it happens?

"If intelligently directed and saved from wasteful use, such a machine might mark an era in the history of computation, as decided as the introduction of logarithms in the seventeenth century did in trigonometrical and astronomical arithmetic. Care might be required to guard against misuse, especially against the imposition of Sisyphean tasks upon it by influential sciolists. This, however, is no more than has happened in the history of logarithms. Much work has been done with them which could more easily have been done without them, and the old reproach is probably true, that more work has been spent upon making tables than has been saved by their use. Yet, on the whole, there can be no reason- able doubt that the first calculation of logarithmic tables was an expenditure of capital which has repaid itself over and over again. So probably would the analytical engine, whatever its cost, if we could be assured of its success." -- 1878 Commission Report