Distributed Mind

Charles Babbage

Do you know who Charles Babbage is? Probably not, as very few people seem to know who he is. This seems to be true even in technological fields. Now, while Babbage may not have been a pivotal figure in the history of science, he certainly was an interesting one - as I think you will agree.

You see, Charles Babbage designed what was presumably the first "general purpose" digital computer. This is, however, not what makes Charles Babbage interesting. What makes him interesting is that he did so in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

His computer was called the Analytical Engine, and of course, it was mechanical, not electronic. Furthermore, as you have probably guessed by now, it was not completed. Had it been, it would have beaten the first actual general purpose computer by decades.

What made me think of Charles Babbage tonight, though, was not his Analytical Engine. It was the title of his autobiography: Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. Someone (I have forgotten whom, though it may have been Anthony Hyman who wrote a biography of Babbage) once pointed out that the word "philosopher" in the title is presumably short for "natural philosopher," that is, a scientist, and that furthermore the archaic term "natural philosopher" dates to a time when scientists were not specialists but generalists. And the reason I thought of that is because it's that sort of generalization that I always sought (oftern unsuccessfully) as a student of the sciences. I hope to write more on this subject in the near future, but for now I will leave you with the thought that is possible there might still be room for generalists in science. (And I will hint that the answer, at least for some, may lie in part in Babbage's invention: computers.)

Incidentally, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher is avaiable online (scanned pdf). I own two books related to Charles Babbage, both of which I have found to be interesting (though I must add a disclaimer that I have never read them "cover-to-cover" as it were). The first is the aforementioned biography by Charles Hyman called Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer from 1982. The second is a more recent book by Doron Swade, The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer (the Difference Engine was an earlier computer design by Babbage that was not for a general purpose computer). For the more technically minded, John Walker has some excellent resources on the analytical engine, including an emulator for those who feel like programming a hypothetical machine.

Incidentally, if anyone feels deprived of good biographies, the early history of computing provides some very interesting life stories. Besides Babbage we have his contemporary and colleague Ada Lovelace, touted by many as both the first programmer, in so far as she wrote programs for the Analytical Engine, and who was, obviously, a woman no less - a rarity in the field still, sadly, but certainly so in the Nineteenth Century. Then later there is, Alan Turing, who is an important figure in computing theory. Turing's biography actually makes for a good spy story too, or at least part of one: Besides laying some pivotal ground work for modern theory of computing (which concerns itself in large part with what can and cannot be computed), Turing worked as a cryptographer during World War II and designed a machine to read the German Enigma cipher; and at age 51 he died from cyanide poisoning in what is most often explained as a suicide. And of course there is always John von Neumann who is known largely for, well, doing a lot of stuff; besides his involvement in computer science, he worked in many other fields, and he was involved in the Manhattan Project. I suppose that all goes back in some ways to the question of generalists. Though, I certainly don't want to claim everyone can be Von Neumann.

posted at 05:40:59 on 04/22/07 by ben - Category: Science


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