November 7, 2011

Babbage Remembered

John Markoff writes in the NYT about a new plan to build Charles Babbage's plans for a steam-powered computer:
[Charles] Babbage, who lived from 1791 to 1871, is rightfully known as the “father of computing.” But it would be left to a fellow scientist, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, to fully appreciate that his inventions were more than just tools for automatically tabulating logarithms and trigonometric functions. 
Lovelace — daughter of the poet Lord Byron — recognized that the Analytical Engine could be a more generalized media machine, capable of making music and manipulating symbols. And 113 years before John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence,” she considered — and then rejected — the notion that computers might exhibit creativity or even thought. 
While Babbage was driven by the desire to automate tabular data for military and related applications, Lovelace wrote a lengthy commentary on the design that would prove deeply influential when it was rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. 
Lovelace is known as the first programmer, because she designed a program for the unbuilt machine. The algorithm appears in a series of notes written by Lovelace after a friend of Babbage asked her to translate an Italian professor’s write-up of a lecture Babbage had given at the University of Turin. 
The Lovelace notes are remarkable both for her algorithm for calculating the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers and for what would become known as the “Lovelace objection.” In passing, she commented that the Babbage computer would not originate anything, but rather could do only what it had been instructed. The implication was that machines would not be creative, and thus not intelligent. 
The consensus of computer historians is that while Babbage was clearly the first to conceive of the flexible machine that foreshadowed the modern computer, his work was forgotten and was then conceptually recreated by Turing a century later.

That Babbage and Lovelace were long forgotten says a lot about anybody's chance to be remembered, because they were celebrities in their own time. It's not as if society was prejudiced against them. Ada was an aristocrat by birth and her father had been the most famous man in the world after Napoleon.  Babbage was a rich socialite who lived in London, when it was the capital of the world. He knew everybody. Dickens modeled a character on him. Parliament voted him generous subsidies for many years until Prime Minister Peel pulled the plug. 

When interest grew in Babbage again after the electronic computer came along, there turned out to be a huge amount of documentary evidence on him, and they now show up everywhere. The central characters in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia are romanticized versions of Ada and Babbage. James Gleick's 2011 history of the Information Age, The Information, quotes at length from Ada's charming letters to Babbage (Stoppard used Gleick's 1987 book on chaos theory in Arcadia, so it was natural for Gleick to devote quite a few pages to the pair.)

Paul Johnson's 1991 book The Birth of the Modern on the years 1815-1830 explains the various reasons Babbage failed. It's an odd book -- an extremely long history of everything -- but it's centered around an encyclopedic knowledge of the witticisms of Johnson's three favorite pre-Victorians: Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and the Duke of Wellington. And Johnson's point of view is unusual: instead of being amazed by all the progress the Brits were making in 1815-1830, he repeatedly wonders why they didn't go faster. For example, why waste all that time on railways when they could have leapt to the automobile? One of his heroes is a man who built a steam powered automobile in the 1820s.

Babbage was the man who, more than anybody else, could have jumped Britain into the future, but he failed. Besides the obvious mechanical and metallurgical problems, Babbage didn't have good corporate structure examples to draw upon. Today, we know all about computer start-ups. If you are Jobs and the Woz in Silicon Valley in 1977, you can look up how Noyce and Moore or Bushnell did it. Johnson writes:
He should have set up his own company and employed a general manager to run its finances. He should have employed a showman to explain his purpose to the public. But, most of all, he needed a head engineer, closely identified with him in the success of the venture. Instead, he used Joseph Clement, not as a fellow entrepreneur with a stake in the engines, but as an employee, under a cost-plus contract. ... The loss of so much taxpayers' money in a chimera that came to nothing was thereafter cited as a reason for refusing public funds for any kind of scientific research project. 

27 comments:

Dave Gelernter LLC said...

Please. Babbage's was way inferior to Egghead or even CompUSA

Anonymous said...

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine isn't very good as a novel but is a lot of fun as a speculative history of a mid 19th Century England where the Babbage-Lovelace steam-driven computer revolution took place and the country's modernization happened even faster than it did in the real world.

Anonymous said...

Every one of Paul Johnson's books has an obscene number of errors. He is easily the most enjoyable read among contemporary historians. But I bet he's a real a-hole in person. I assume that given his extreme interest in the sex lives of historical figures he doesn't like.

jody said...

there was a guy in nazi germany, konrad zuse, who built the world's first real computer, totally on his own, around 1940. but nobody knew about it, because it was done completely in secret. after the war, IBM bought lots of his stuff. he definitely is not remembered by anybody, in the US at least - he received no coverage of any kind.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z3_(computer)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Zuse

babbage is certainly remembered by people into computer science or even science. not an major historical figure, sure, though he is mentioned briefly in mainstream history classes. he was mentioned, i should say. in 2011 i have no idea who actually appears in history books. according to steve and other posters, the diversicrats have...altered things.

there is a programming language called ada, named after lovelace, so she's at least remembered by that. in fact that was the first thing i thought about when i saw the name augusta ada king.

FelixM said...

"Dickens modelled a character on (Babbage)."

Who was it, and what's the book?

Anonymous said...

"babbage is certainly remembered by people into computer science or even science."

You missed the point of this post. Babbage is remembered...now. He had been forgotten for a while, until the computer was invented. He's been well known among the general literate population for decades.

Anonymous said...

"babbage is certainly remembered by people into computer science or even science. not an major historical figure, sure, though he is mentioned briefly in mainstream history classes."

Oh bollocks. Babbage is a major historical figure. Any comprehensive study of that period -and not just CS books- would have mentioned him.

You are just historically ignorant.

josh said...

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Babbage&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Anonymous said...

Try "The Cogwheel Brain"by,I think,Doron Swaine.
An entertaining biography of Babbage but concentrating on his efforts to build the difference engine.

David said...

Ada Lovelace has been absurdly hyped by feminist historians. In reality she struggled with basic math. For a judicious de-bunking see Dorothy Stein's biography of her.

Georgia Resident said...

I dunno. I remember that in the one computer science class I took, Babbage figured prominently enough in the intro lecture that I actually remember who he is from that class alone. The professor seemed to think that the history of computer science basically began with Babbage (and I myself have no basis to dispute his impression). So I think quite a few people, and most comp sci people, are at least aware of Babbage.

Graham Asher said...

"Besides the obvious mechanical and metallurgical problems, Babbage didn't have good corporate structure examples to draw upon."

Babbage solved the engineering problems brilliantly. Unfortunately he was a poor manager. He fell out with his contractors, and handled the relationship with government badly, continually delaying the deivery of anything useful. He had no concept of 'ship early and ship often'.

Carol Bartz! said...

A 19th century English noblewoman writing computer algorithms is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It's not done up to modern standards of anonymous blog commenters but you're surprised to find it done at all.

headache said...

jody,
thks for remembering zuse. in germany he is cult among nerds. of course his big handicap was that he was german and worked under the nazis, so that makes him per definition evil and justifies others pilfering his ideas. its the same with the US, French, UK and USSR rocket programs. the handwriting of nazi rocket scientists all over it.

Jacob Roberson said...

Reminds me of Khan's post a couple days ago. Further to his question: If someone is behaviorally modern enough to make something, are we behaviorally modern enough to keep it?

candid observer said...

From Markoff's article:

"The Lovelace notes are remarkable both for her algorithm for calculating the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers..." (bolding mine).

But here's what Babbage wrote:

"I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace

I hardly know what to say, other than "sigh".

Kylie said...

"'Dickens modelled a character on (Babbage).'

Who was it, and what's the book?"


I think it was Daniel Doyce from Little Dorrit.

Anonymous said...

"It's not done up to modern standards of anonymous blog commenters but you're surprised to find it done at all."

Ada Lovelace day! and a movie that might star a good looking actress to play the part

jody said...

"You are just historically ignorant."

i'm certainly ignorant of a great many things, but charles babbage is not a major historical figure.

students are more likely to be taught about eli whitney and the cotton gin for instance than they are about babbage, and eli whitney is definitely not a major historical figure in any way shape or form. no professional historians really consider whitney some kind of key figure in the history of mankind and they don't do best selling biographies of him or 1 hour television specials about his life. we got any movies made about eli whitney? we got a movie coming out about j edgar hoover, who had much less effect on the world than eli whitney. heck, we got a movie about michael oher, a completely average football tackle. but no eli whitney adaptation yet.

to the average historian's opinion, he's just another inventor, and he rates the same standard 1 paragraph of text in a mainstream history book, that any other notable inventor usually rates.

Anonymous said...

charles babbage is not a major historical figure


The concept of the "major historical figure" is meaningless. Somebody can be a MHF in America, but be totally unknown in Japan or Germany. Somebody can be a MHF in the field of botany, while being a nobody in the field of mechanical engineering. A person can be a MHF in one century, and a footnote in history three hundred years later.

Anonymous said...

"i'm certainly ignorant of a great many things, but charles babbage is not a major historical figure."

You're so ignorant you missed the entire point of the article AND Steve's post on the article, which is that BABBAGE IS FAMOUS! He was famous in his time, then sunk into obscurity, then got revived when people noticed that, hey, this computer thing we've been inventing? This guy already did!

That was LONG ago.

Gödel, Escher, Bach has something like 30 pages on Babbage, and discusses the Lovelace objection to AI to boot. GEB was a Pulitzer prize winner in 1980, for crap's sake!

Further, the Lovelace objection was key to the Lucas argument against AI.

Basic, basic stuff, dude.

jody fan said...

I really enjoyed that cranky comment for some reason. In high skool they taught me Eli Whitney caused the U.S. Civil War but yeah, in the long view, he was basically another dime-a-dozen inventor, i.e. loser. Babbage is popular with some such Cory Doctorow types, i.e. the loser's losers. In "Moneyball" Jeremy Van Brown was a huge star w/ .364 OBP

Also must factor Worthington's Law

Anonymous said...

" Babbage is popular with some such Cory Doctorow types, i.e. the loser's losers."

Someone maaaaaaaaaaaad.

ender wiggin said...

I believe Doctorow is the one who talks about being able to laser-print lunch some day real soon now? Whoever pulls that off will be a MHF

Then we plug the Orthodox breeders into some VR matrix game.

David Worthington said...

The comment wasn't really a knock against this Canadian fellow, on whom I've no opinion for/against. He writes novels. He's certainly richer than I.

I was attempting to "riff" on who gets considered major historical. "In the fast-moving society Cory Doctorow will be world famous to 15 people" and so forth. No value judgment, just pointing out the inherent comedy of geeks pitting their idols against other geeks'

Anonymous said...

Interesting woman

Anonymous said...

How did I miss this nuttiness?