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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and…

The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First… (original 2000; edition 2001)

by Doron Swade

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4661137,192 (3.6)11
In 1821, 30-year-old inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage was poring over a set of printed mathematical tables with his friend, the astronomer John Herschel. Finding error after error in the manually evaluated results, Babbage made an exclamation, the consequences of which would not only dominate the remaining 50 years of his life, but also lay the foundations for the modern computer industry: 'I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!' A few days later, he set down a plan to build a machine that would carry out complex mathematical calculations without human intervention and, at least in theory, without human errors. The only technology to which he had access for solving the problem was the cogwheel escapement found inside clocks. Babbage saw that a machine constructed out of hundreds of escapements, cunningly and precisely linked, might be able to handle calculations mechanically. The story of his lifelong bid to construct such a machine is a triumph of human ingenuity, will and imagination.… (more)
Title:The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer
Authors:Doron Swade
Info:Viking Adult (2001), Edition: 1 Amer ed, Hardcover, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer by Doron Swade (2000)


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The Difference Engine as designed and partially built in the 1830’s was a mechanical device of some 4000 moving parts that could perform automated mathematical functions (logarithmic, trigonometric and polynomial). The brain child of mathematician/inventor Charles Babbage, the machine was never completed during his lifetime. However in the late 1980’s a working model was produced to celebrate Babbage’s work—remaining largely loyal to the original design and production abilities of the 19th century craftsmen. This book details both the original genius of Babbage’s life and work as well the recreation of it over 150 years later. Unfortunately, the modern part of the book and the building of the machine is more compelling than the Babbage part. The author was involved in that part himself, and that closeness to the story gives the tale more life. The detailing of Babbage’s life shifts gears, often awkwardly, between being straight bio and workshop treatise. There is a level of reality created by going back and forth from Babbage’s funding problems and frustrations and his work in the shop, but I felt it diminished the work in the shop greater than necessary. I would have appreciated more effort explaining the theories and processes involved in the ground breaking work and less on what an irritation Babbage could be to those around him. The idea of someone attempting to build a computer in the early part of the 19th century is fascinating (as anyone interested in the creative genre of steampunk already knows), and this book does percolate on occasion but not nearly as often as I wanted. The parallel frustrations of Babbage in the 1830’s and the author in the 1980’s at attempting to get their machines built was interesting too but by the time the machine was built, I was ready to move on. ( )
  KurtWombat | Sep 15, 2019 |
Hounded to death by organ grinders? Failed to build the engines that may have changed the world? Bunch of weird British engineer=historians try to build a maybe impossible machine from antique plans to prove you right by your 200th birthday? Awesome. Stole my title though... ( )
  Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
This is 2/3 a biography of Charles Babbage and his efforts to produce a calculating machine, and 1/3 a dry discussion of the author's inclusion in an effort to build the machine (which never got fully built in Babbage's day). This can be pretty safely skipped if you're just interested in Babbage, the machine did work in the end. ( )
  waitingtoderail | Jul 23, 2018 |
Interesting history of an inspired project from a brilliant and prolific inventor. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
A very well done account of Charles Babbage's attempts to design and build his Difference and Analytical Engines, followed by Swade's narration of the Science Museum's efforts to build an actual working model based on Babbage's designs. A good read filled with interesting details about Babbage's efforts and the practical difficulties of converting them from paper into reality. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Jan 3, 2015 |
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A carriage clatters to a halt outside N0. 5 Devonshire Street, London
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Originally published in Great Britain as The Cogwheel Brain
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