Tag Archives: Charles Babbage

An Apple for the Teacher

I saw in the news a couple of days ago that another Apple-1 microcomputer was sold at auction last week for $815,000.  This was less than the record amount of $905,000 paid for an Apple-1 in October 2014 but is still an impressive figure given the downward trend in prices fetched for these rare early microcomputers (as reported in my previous posts on this subject).

The likely reason for the high price paid is that this particular example would appear to be one of a very small number of pre-production prototypes in which the electronic components were soldered onto the motherboard by hand (rather than using a wave soldering machine, as was done with the production units).  This also suggests that it was not originally sold through the Byte Shop or by mail order but was probably one of the units sold directly by Jobs and Wozniak to their fellow Homebrew Computer Club members.

Apple-1 PrototypeUnusually, this story has an altruistic aspect, as the Apple-1 prototype was sold by online charity auction site Charitybuzz, with 10% of the proceeds from the sale going to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Arizona.  The buyers, Glenn and Shannon Dellimore, are also planning to take the machine into schools and universities to “help inspire young people“, although this might prove quite challenging, having purchased a non-working example of an Apple-1.

This reminded me of a project I was involved in a few years ago to create a virtual working replica of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  The idea was to prove that Babbage’s unrealised design for the Analytical Engine was indeed complete and would have functioned according to plan, and to use the resulting fully functional 3D computer model of the Engine as a teaching aid for students of computing.  Unfortunately, we were unable to secure funding for the project and it never went ahead but good ideas have a habit of resurfacing and there is now a similar project underway called Plan 28 which involves Babbage expert Doron Swade amongst others.

The Countess of Computing

Ada LovelaceI watched an excellent documentary on BBC Four television recently about Ada Lovelace (or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace to give her her proper name).  The title of the documentary was Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing.  Presented by mathematician Dr Hannah Fry of University College London, it chronicled Ada’s involvement with mechanical computing pioneer Charles Babbage, and the role she played in promoting Babbage’s Analytical Engine design through her now famous ‘Notes’ of 1843.

By treading a fine line between journalistic hyperbole and factual accuracy, aided and abetted by the subject’s fascinating background and turbulent life story, the documentary explained the historical significance of Ada Lovelace’s Notes in a way that appealed to both the casual viewer and those with a keen interest in the history of technology.  It was also good to see some of Babbage’s hardware in action and to hear interviews with some genuine experts in the mechanical computing field, such as Doron Swade, who masterminded the construction of the full-scale replica of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2.

Despite bowing to convention and acknowledging Ada Lovelace’s contribution in Chapter 1 of my book, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of Ada’s authorship of the Notes, suspecting that Babbage was the true originator of many of the ideas presented in them.  However, this documentary has helped to set my mind at ease, as it was clear from the interviews with the experts that they all agree that she was indeed the originator of these ideas.  As Swade himself explains in the programme;

This is not a suggestive hint.  This is not a backwards projection.  This is Lovelace thumping the table saying this is what is significant about this machine

A Fine Collection

I’ve recently returned from a short holiday in London where I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Science Museum in South Kensington.  This was my third visit to the Museum but the previous two visits were hurried attempts to cover the entire Museum as quickly as possible so this was my first opportunity to take my time and concentrate on examining the Museum’s fine collection of computer-related exhibits in the Computing Gallery.

The highlight of the collection is probably the full-scale replica of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 which contains over 8,000 components and weighs 5 tonnes.  Seeing this mechanical marvel up close really brings home the astonishing achievements made by Babbage more than a century before the birth of the computer industry.  Other Babbage items on display include the trial model and some of the engineering drawings for the Analytical Engine, Babbage’s general-purpose programmable calculating machine which was never built.  These provide a poignant reminder of a lost opportunity and food for thought on how much more advanced computer technology would have been had Babbage succeeded in completing this incredible machine.

Jesse Ramsden's Circular Dividing EngineI was pleasantly surprised to see one of Jesse Ramsden’s circular dividing engines on display.  Ramsden’s work on scientific instruments and machine tools in the 1770s led to major advances in precision engineering.  These advances not only allowed Babbage to create the intricate mechanisms for his Engines but they also provided the foundation for the successful mass production of mechanical calculating machines in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Museum’s collection does an excellent job of covering the mechanical and electromechanical eras and it was reassuring to see analogue computing well represented.  The electronic age is less well represented, however, with only a handful of medium and large scale electronic computers on display.  I’m aware that the Museum has many more items in storage than it can possibly display in the space available but it would be good to see a few more examples of electronic computers from recent times.

Unlike many of London’s tourist attractions, entry to the Science Museum is free.  Despite visiting at the height of the tourist season, there were no long queues at the doors, possibly as a result of stiff competition from the Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum which are both located in the same area.  If you are ever in South Kensington and have an hour or two to spare, I would highly recommend a visit.  If not, you could try reading Chapter 1 of my book which covers the work of Jesse Ramsden and Charles Babbage.

Sample Chapter Added

I’ve now added a sample chapter from the book in PDF format which can be accessed by clicking on the Download button on the ‘Sample Chapter’ page. I chose Chapter 1 (Computer Prehistory – Calculating Machines) as, unlike later chapters, it doesn’t rely on other chapters to set the scene and can be read as a standalone work.

As the title suggests, this chapter covers the earliest efforts to mechanise calculation, from the calculating aids of John Napier through the mechanical calculators of Schickard, Pascal and Leibniz to the incredible engines of Charles Babbage.  To put these into context and provide a more rounded picture, it also covers the advances in engineering technology or ‘building blocks’ which facilitated the development of such machines.

Like many good stories, there are also elements of mystery. These include the discovery of a mysterious object in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, which changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world, and the role of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who may or may not have been responsible for the first design for a calculating machine.

Feedback would be much appreciated but please note that the text has not yet benefited from the attention of a professional editor so don’t be too surprised if you spot the occasional typo or grammatical howler.