by syaffolee

The Journey of the Calculating Engine

The world would be dull place if every creative endeavor was geared toward immediate practical utility. But doing things just because they are fun or interesting isn’t well regarded in a lot of circles. And if spending money is involved, well, one might as well just forget it. This is why whenever people request grants to do something, there are always justifications involved. Saying that it’s totally cool and awesome doesn’t cut it.

Of course, this bureaucratic financial wrangling isn’t only confined to now. A cursory glance might show that history likes to view past scientists as titled gentlemen with enough cash to throw into their lofty intellectual pursuits. But it’s more complicated. As Doron Swade demonstrates in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, the flow of money–or rather lack of–could very well be a major factor in delaying technological progress.

Charles Babbage began as a promising student at Trinity College, Cambridge until he decided on a “blasphemous” subject for his final thesis which nearly got him kicked out. This began as merely the first of many incidents where Babbage’s vocal protests hampered much of his efforts in building the difference engine and the more advanced analytical engine. In the end, Babbage never got to finish his machines due to opposition that argued its lack of practicality compared to the price tag.

On a more modern note, when the author proposed to build the difference engine for the Science Museum in London by the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth, funding was also a major issue. Backers pulled out and a manufacturing company went bankrupt–problems that Babbage similarly faced. The organizers of the project had to scramble desperately to make ends meet and completed the machine at the very last minute.

Although some of the prose was a bit dry, Swade managed to make the case the Babbage was not just some eccentric genius that everyone else willfully ignored. Lack of money was definitely a major reason why the difference engine wasn’t completed, but Swade shows other reasons that may have contributed. Babbage was complex, surprisingly sociable, stubborn, and outspoken. His personality and views may have rubbed others, particularly influential others, in the wrong direction. The Difference Engine isn’t exactly light reading, but it will be definitely of interest to those who want to look beyond the current fad for Babbage inspired steampunk aesthetic.