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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First…
by Doron Swade
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0670910201, Hardcover)What a difference a century makes. Doron Swade, technology historian and assistant director of London's Science Museum, investigates the troubles that plagued 19th-century knowledge engineers in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer.
The author is in a unique position to appreciate the technical difficulties of the time, as he led a team that built a working model of a Difference Engine, using contemporary materials, in time for Babbage's 1991 bicentenary. The meat of the book is comprised of the story of the first computing machine design as gathered from the technical notes and drawings curated by Swade. Though Babbage certainly had problems translating his ideas into brass, the reader also comes to understand his fruitless, drawn-out arguments with his funders. Swade had it comparatively easy, though his depictions of the frustrating search for money and then working out how best to build the enormous machine in the late 1980s are delightful.
It is difficult--maybe impossible--to draw a clear, unbroken line of influence from Babbage to any modern computer researchers, but his importance both as the first pioneer and as a symbol of the joys and sorrows of computing is unquestioned. Swade clearly respects his subject deeply, all the more so for having tried to bring the great old man's ideas to life. The Difference Engine is lovingly comprehensive and will thrill readers looking for a more technical examination of Babbage's career. --Rob Lightner
(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 11 Jan 2013 18:32:45 -0500)
"In 1821 an inventor and mathematician, Charles Babbage, was poring over a set of mathematical tables. Finding error after error Babbage exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." His frustration was not simply at the grindingly tedious labor of checking manually evaluated tables, but at their daunting unreliability. Science, engineering, construction, banking, and insurance depended on tables for calculation. Ships navigating by the stars relied on them to find their positions at sea." "Babbage launched himself on a grand venture to design and build mechanical calculating engines that would eliminate such errors. His bid to build infallible machines is a saga of ingenuity and will, which led beyond mechanized arithmetic into the entirely new realm of computing. Through Ada, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of Lord Byron, we gain tantalizing insights into how at least one Victorian glimpsed the promise of what was to come. Babbage springs out of history like a jack-in-the-box: a gentleman philosopher, a tireless inventor, a vigorous socialite, and a mesmerizing raconteur. "Mr. Babbage is coming to dinner" was a coup for any hostess." "Drawing on previously unused archival material, The Difference Engine is a tale of both Babbage's nineteenth-century quest to build a calculating engine and its twentieth-century sequel. For in 1991, Babbage's vision was finally realized, at least in part, by the completion at the Science Museum in London of the first full-sized Babbage engine, finished in time for the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. The two quests are mutually illuminating and are recounted here by the then Curator of Computing, Doron Swade - one of the main protagonists of the successful resumption of Babbage's extraordinary work."--BOOK JACKET.
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