NPR Features Babbage, Lovelace

Charles Babbage, a father of modern computing, and Ada Lovelace, the mother of computer programming, came in for another round of praise from NPR’s Morning Edition on December 10. I have blogged about this before, but I’m sure Chris Garcia never tires of people pointing out that the place he works, the Computer History Museum, hosts a working Difference Engine:

The Difference Engine fills half a gallery and stands taller than most men. It’s 5 tons of cast iron, steel and bronze woven together from 8,000 distinct parts. Though it looks like it could be a sculpture, the machine is essentially a giant calculator.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, foresaw some of the less obvious things the engine might have done had it been completed:

Lovelace helped Babbage put his ideas in writing. She often understood the implications of his work better than he did….

“Ada recognized that you could actually use numbers to represent things other than just quantity,” [docent Tim Robinson] explains. “They could represent letters of the alphabet. They could represent musical notes. They could represent positions on a chess board.”

Update 12/14/2009: Corrected ‘owns’ to ‘hosts’ per Chris Garcia’s comment.

Difference Engine Maintenance Manual

Nearly two decades ago the Science Museum in London celebrated Charles Babbage’s 200th birthday – December 26, 1991 – by constructing a working version of the mathematician’s Second Difference Engine. He had designed it in 1847 to calculate and print mathematical tables. The 1991 attempt was the first to build this, or any other of Babbage’s Engines.

The completed Engine in its case was over 8 feet tall with a footprint of 12.65 feet by 6.65 feet. It weighed 5,860 pounds.

Another truly wonderful thing the builders did was prepare an Instruction Manual to Operate and Maintain Charles Babbage’s 2d Difference Engine. Can you imagine? As science fictional as it sounds, the whole thing is in earnest.

One segment particularly caught my eye.

Steady turning of the handle is required at a speed of approximately 8 to 10 calculations per minute (or 30 to 40 revolutions of the handle per minute). Slower or faster speeds will result in the Engine jamming.

This old fanzine fan realized that if Mr. Babbage and Mr. Gestetner had ever met, they’d have had something to talk about.

[Via James Hay.]