The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

by Doron Swade

Hardcover, 2001




New York : Viking, 2001.


In 1821, 30-year-old inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage was poring over a set of printed mathematical tables with his friend, the astronomer John Herschel. Finding error after error in the manually evaluated results, Babbage made an exclamation, the consequences of which would not only dominate the remaining 50 years of his life, but also lay the foundations for the modern computer industry: 'I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!' A few days later, he set down a plan to build a machine that would carry out complex mathematical calculations without human intervention and, at least in theory, without human errors. The only technology to which he had access for solving the problem was the cogwheel escapement found inside clocks. Babbage saw that a machine constructed out of hundreds of escapements, cunningly and precisely linked, might be able to handle calculations mechanically. The story of his lifelong bid to construct such a machine is a triumph of human ingenuity, will and imagination.… (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 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)
LibraryThing member Eoin
Hounded to death by organ grinders? Failed to build the engines that may have changed the world? Bunch of weird British engineer=historians try to build a maybe impossible machine from antique plans to prove you right by your 200th birthday? Awesome. Stole my title though...
LibraryThing member waitingtoderail
This is 2/3 a biography of Charles Babbage and his efforts to produce a calculating machine, and 1/3 a dry discussion of the author's inclusion in an effort to build the machine (which never got fully built in Babbage's day). This can be pretty safely skipped if you're just interested in Babbage, the machine did work in the end.… (more)
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.



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