The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

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9780142001448: The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

In 1821 an inventor and mathematician named Charles Babbage was reviewing a set of mathematical tables. After finding an excess of errors in the results, he exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." Thus began Babbage's lifelong enterprise to design and build a mechanical calculating engine-the world's first computer. Drawing on Babbage's original notes and designs, Doron Swade recounts both Babbage's nineteenth-century quest to build a calculating machine-the Difference Engine-and Swade's own successful attempt to build a replica for the bicentennial of Babbage's birth. Set against the tantalizing background of Victorian science and politics with a colorful cast of characters, The Difference Engine is a saga of ingenuity and will-and the dawning of a new age.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

Doron Swade, assistant director and head of collections at the Science Museum in London, is an engineer, historian of technology, and a leading authority on the life and work of Charles Babbage.

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