The cogwheel brain : Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer

by Doron Swade

Paperback, 2001




London : Abacus, 2001.


"In 1821 an inventor and mathematician, Charles Babbage, was poring over a set of mathematical tables. Finding error after error Babbage exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." His frustration was not simply at the grindingly tedious labor of checking manually evaluated tables, but at their daunting unreliability. Science, engineering, construction, banking, and insurance depended on tables for calculation. Ships navigating by the stars relied on them to find their positions at sea." "Babbage launched himself on a grand venture to design and build mechanical calculating engines that would eliminate such errors. His bid to build infallible machines is a saga of ingenuity and will, which led beyond mechanized arithmetic into the entirely new realm of computing. Through Ada, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of Lord Byron, we gain tantalizing insights into how at least one Victorian glimpsed the promise of what was to come. Babbage springs out of history like a jack-in-the-box: a gentleman philosopher, a tireless inventor, a vigorous socialite, and a mesmerizing raconteur. "Mr. Babbage is coming to dinner" was a coup for any hostess." "Drawing on previously unused archival material, The Difference Engine is a tale of both Babbage's nineteenth-century quest to build a calculating engine and its twentieth-century sequel. For in 1991, Babbage's vision was finally realized, at least in part, by the completion at the Science Museum in London of the first full-sized Babbage engine, finished in time for the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. The two quests are mutually illuminating and are recounted here by the then Curator of Computing, Doron Swade - one of the main protagonists of the successful resumption of Babbage's extraordinary work."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member JBD1
A very well done account of Charles Babbage's attempts to design and build his Difference and Analytical Engines, followed by Swade's narration of the Science Museum's efforts to build an actual working model based on Babbage's designs. A good read filled with interesting details about Babbage's efforts and the practical difficulties of converting them from paper into reality.… (more)
LibraryThing member fernig
Meeting between John Herschel and Babbage 1821. Babbage" "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam"
LibraryThing member MikeRhode
Very enjoyable popular accound of Charles Babbage's attempts to build a calculating machine in the early 19th century, and then the Science Museum of London's attempt to build one based on his drawings.
LibraryThing member gbsallery
Impressively readable account of Babbage's life, engines, and contributions to computing. The subject is handled objectively, not falling for the flat assertion that Babbage was the "father of computing" (and incidentally prompting a reappraisal of the role of Ada Lovelace); that said, the book still sets forth the tremendous (if isolated) contributions Babbage made to the idea of mechanised logic. The account of the construction of a Babbage difference engine at the
Science Museum is also fascinating, and makes me regret the loss of ICL.
… (more)



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