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The Difference Engine : Charles Babbage And The Quest To Build The First Computer

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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 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


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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 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

30 review for The Difference Engine : Charles Babbage And The Quest To Build The First Computer

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kurt

    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 centu 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.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Miles

    Charles Babbage was a wealthy 19th century English scientist who almost did (but did not) create the first mechanical calculator. This book tells his story, and the story of the author's effort as a curator of computing at the British Science Museum to complete the work Babbage was unable to finish. Swade takes us back to the early to middle 19th century world when science as a field of intellectual endeavor distinct from philosophy was just emerging, and was the province of wealthy polymaths. B Charles Babbage was a wealthy 19th century English scientist who almost did (but did not) create the first mechanical calculator. This book tells his story, and the story of the author's effort as a curator of computing at the British Science Museum to complete the work Babbage was unable to finish. Swade takes us back to the early to middle 19th century world when science as a field of intellectual endeavor distinct from philosophy was just emerging, and was the province of wealthy polymaths. Babbage was an eccentric, and rather prone to arguments which did his cause no benefit. His inability to complete the difference engine was entangled in funding battles with the government, but also with the inherent limitations of machining metals to the fine tolerances required by the vast conglomeration of gears and pinions and shafts and wheels that were to enable the machine to function. Just how difficult his task was became clear to Doron Swade when he attempted with his team to complete Babbage's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even with modern lathing and manufacturing techniques, the final product was immensely complex and had to be carefully tuned. It was (mostly) completed in time for Babbage's two hundredth birthday in 1991. Swade proved that Babbage's design was feasible. The story of the modern difference engine takes us through a very modern world of museum politics in Thatcher's England, grant funding crises, personnel battles, the bankruptcy of a parts supplier, and all sorts of nitty-gritty modern bureaucratic battles. To my surprise even this was moderately interesting, if only as a contrast to the way in which complex machines were built and complex projects managed in the 19th versus the 20th century. As a footnote Swade takes up the interesting question of in what sense Babbage was really a progenitor of modern computing. Although he has been widely cited as such, Swade points out that he was not the only 19th century inventor running about promoting mechanical calculating machines. Indeed, some of those competing machines were completed. They suffered from inaccuracy and unreliability. It appears that Babbage's project was the most elaborate and most expensive, and advanced by the most socially well-positioned advocate. Perhaps it would have worked if it had been completed, but of course it was not. The legend of his machine (and not those of others) is however what came down to us, and together with the story of Ada Lovelace constitutes the popular story of the pre-history of computational technology. Swade does identify one early 20th century computer pioneer (Howard Aiken, creator of the Harvard Mark I, in 1943) who specifically identifies Babbage as a progenitor, but as Swade points out, he had no access to Babbage's designs, papers or plans, and the lineage is more notional and inspirational than technical or intellectual. In this sense Babbage (and other inventors of his period) were an intellectual dead-end. They could imagine that computation could be mechanized, but they lacked the engineering knowledge to make it possible, and their theoretical understandings had no effect on 20th century thought. However perhaps Babbage wouldn't have minded. Swade gives him the last word: "If, unwarned by my example, any man shall undertake and shall succeed in really constructing an engine... upon different principles or by a simpler mechanical mans, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be fully able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the value of their results."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Eoin

    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...

  4. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Siemann

    A history of Babbage's proto-computers from the perspective of someone with a real technical interest -- part of the team that actually built a working Difference Engine in the 1990s. Lots of interesting details. Dismissive of Ada Lovelace, alas. A history of Babbage's proto-computers from the perspective of someone with a real technical interest -- part of the team that actually built a working Difference Engine in the 1990s. Lots of interesting details. Dismissive of Ada Lovelace, alas.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Brian Page

    There is joy in reading beautiful prose. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer by Doron Swade is beautifully well-written. Swade masterminded the construction of Babbage’s engine for the Science Museum (London) and he skillfully blends the story of Babbage, his life & times, and the technology into an unparalleled account. This work is indispensable for understanding Babbage and, in the larger picture, the birth of computer science. Swade also lays to r There is joy in reading beautiful prose. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer by Doron Swade is beautifully well-written. Swade masterminded the construction of Babbage’s engine for the Science Museum (London) and he skillfully blends the story of Babbage, his life & times, and the technology into an unparalleled account. This work is indispensable for understanding Babbage and, in the larger picture, the birth of computer science. Swade also lays to rest the popular though exaggerated role of Ada Lovelace to the genesis of computing in a straight-forward accounting of what she actually did. It’s not a debunking, rather a deflation. Her interest was admirable and her skills both modest and uncharacteristic for the times. The Analytical Engine itself, which was never built, was remarkable. It had what we would call microcode, subroutine libraries, cache storage, conditional processing, and external memory. Yet, Swade characterizes Babbage’s obsession with it, thus: “He was entirely seduced by the intellectual quest and propelled by an unremitting fascination with its mechanical realization.” (p. 117) The machine was far more than a large mechanical calculator, “It was the first successful attempt to externalize a faculty of thought in an inanimate machine.” (p. 83) It is to Swade’s credit that he clearly communicates the nuance embodied in the mechanics of the Analytical Engine, allowing the reader to see Babbage’s full vision and the truly revolutionary and anticipatory conceptual invention. The final third of the book chronicles the building of Babbage’s Difference Engine #2. This was no simple matter with travails of financing, politics, and engineering making the 20th century effort nearly a replay of Babbage’s own experience 200 years earlier: “Fund raising is a terrible slog. It involves endless enthusing and trying to please people with all the dignity of begging.” (p. 256) but discovering, “…if you want to convince people that something is made accurately, it helps to make it shiny.” (p. 250) Swade writes with a wry sense of humor that makes this book a further joy to read. His ultimate appraisal of Babbage’s legacy might surprise you.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mark White

    I fished this old favourite off the shelf to re-read and was not disappointed. It is an excellent entry in the historical technology genre. It can easily hold its own alongside best sellers such as Longitude. This book will be fascinating to anyone interested in maths or computing but also has a lot to offer in its picture of flawed genius. It tells the story of the 19th century polymath Charles Babbage - the book is half a condensed biography - and his quest to construct the world's first mecha I fished this old favourite off the shelf to re-read and was not disappointed. It is an excellent entry in the historical technology genre. It can easily hold its own alongside best sellers such as Longitude. This book will be fascinating to anyone interested in maths or computing but also has a lot to offer in its picture of flawed genius. It tells the story of the 19th century polymath Charles Babbage - the book is half a condensed biography - and his quest to construct the world's first mechanical computer in the early 19th century. Babbage never completed his machine but clearly it has left a mark on the minds of the present day and the second half of the book is an equally fraught quest to finally construct the Difference Engine that Babbage planned. Even if it didn't work the finished engine would be a spectacular work of kinetic sculpture. The fact that it reliably and accurately churns out complex calculations to a standard of accuracy impressive even today is its reason for existence but also the icing on the cake. The book is harshly realistic about Babbage's legacy to the world of computing and yet the engine project and this book are a fitting legacy. Criticisms of the book are few, really only one: we need an explanation of how the mathematical process "method of finite differences" actually works. (I looked it up - surprisingly simple and elegant, easily understood by anyone with high school maths). The list of competing mechanical calculators is not well described but further research shows just how far ahead of the others Babbage actually was. Now as soon as this COVID thing is done I will be planning a trip to the UK that will include the Kensington Science Museum and the Babbage's Difference Engine #2!

  7. 5 out of 5

    George

    This took a while to read. The book is made of three parts. The first two are about Babbage's journey on trying to build his engines. These were a bit difficult to read, since at some times it was a bit boring. However there were a number of hidden gems in there. For example I became aware of the real contributions of Ada about the engine, which were not what I expected. The third part of the book is about the efforts of the author and a team of people, to build the Difference Engine 2, before th This took a while to read. The book is made of three parts. The first two are about Babbage's journey on trying to build his engines. These were a bit difficult to read, since at some times it was a bit boring. However there were a number of hidden gems in there. For example I became aware of the real contributions of Ada about the engine, which were not what I expected. The third part of the book is about the efforts of the author and a team of people, to build the Difference Engine 2, before the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birthday. This part was gold. While the other parts were cumbersome, reading on this was one focused period were I lost track of time. Besides portraying an interesting view of the computing landscape in the late 80s England, this part concludes with some remark on the actual contributions of Babbage to the field of computer science, which, again, was were not what I expected. (view spoiler)[ In short the author presents a number of resources saying that although Babbage's Analytical Engine was the first idea of a complete computing system, the other pioneers of later computing, where not influenced by his designs and ideas. On the contrary, the public knowledge of Babbage's failed endeavor on creating such a machine made a lot of people and public institutions more constrained in funding other projects related to computing, and thus actually delaying this revolution. (hide spoiler)] All in all, it was worth reading, although the first parts could be improved / reduced.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Markt5660

    I really enjoyed this book. It is broken up into 3 sections with each section covering both a time period and a specific project/goal. The first section is about Babbage's early work on the Difference Engine and the difficulties involved in building it (given the limits of "high" quality machining of the day). The second section focuses on Babbage's later work on the Analytical Engine and much of the genius behind the unbuilt device (including many of the same architectural ideas that Von Nueman I really enjoyed this book. It is broken up into 3 sections with each section covering both a time period and a specific project/goal. The first section is about Babbage's early work on the Difference Engine and the difficulties involved in building it (given the limits of "high" quality machining of the day). The second section focuses on Babbage's later work on the Analytical Engine and much of the genius behind the unbuilt device (including many of the same architectural ideas that Von Nuemann developed in the 1940's electronic systems). The final section jumps forward to the current day and describes the project to fully implement Babbage's Difference Engine #2 by the author and a team of dedicated experts in time for Babbage's 200th Birthday in 1991. It took over 5 years to build. Some folks have criticized the author for only including 1 chapter on Ada, Countess of Lovelace and her contributions, but I think he makes some valid arguments about her actual contributions (as opposed to much of the love-fest hyperbole that floats around today).

  9. 4 out of 5

    Chris Turner

    This is a strange book. The first half is a history of Babbage which is quite balanced. It's clear the author admires him, but tries to acknowledge his flaws too. The second half is about the author's attempts to complete Babbage's Difference Engine. The problem I had was that I never thought any of it was validated and justified. The reconstruction is an interesting project as a hobbyist, but how it relates to the history of computing is left unclear. Although the book was engaging and Babbage This is a strange book. The first half is a history of Babbage which is quite balanced. It's clear the author admires him, but tries to acknowledge his flaws too. The second half is about the author's attempts to complete Babbage's Difference Engine. The problem I had was that I never thought any of it was validated and justified. The reconstruction is an interesting project as a hobbyist, but how it relates to the history of computing is left unclear. Although the book was engaging and Babbage is clearly very clever, the value of his ideas is not so certain.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Wakefield

    Fascinating story. He reminded me of John Harrison and his clock to some degree.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Emmanuel Garcia

    An interesting look into the technical, logistical, and intellectual hurdles Charles Babbage ran up against in his attempt to build the first mechanical difference and analytical machines.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was most famous for designing a mechanical calculator outputting the values of a polynomial at regular intervals, the Difference Engine. By 1834 he had spent £17,000 of government money on the project and didn't finish it. Back then a new locomotive cost less than £800 and a gentleman could support his family in comfort for £300 a year; according to victorianweb.org, a textile factory worker in 1833 had weekly wages of 33 shillings 8 pence, or £90 a year, and a handl Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was most famous for designing a mechanical calculator outputting the values of a polynomial at regular intervals, the Difference Engine. By 1834 he had spent £17,000 of government money on the project and didn't finish it. Back then a new locomotive cost less than £800 and a gentleman could support his family in comfort for £300 a year; according to victorianweb.org, a textile factory worker in 1833 had weekly wages of 33 shillings 8 pence, or £90 a year, and a handloom weaver in 1831 earned 5 shillings 6 pence a week, or £14 a year. A Swedish inventor and his teenage son constructed a simpler but working machine in 1843, which they eventually sold for the equivalent of £1000 to an American observatory, where it stood unused. Overall, there was no pressing need for a mechanical calculator during the Victorian era, since labor was so cheap; in early 19th-century France, ornate hairstyles were seen as a throwback to the pre-revolutionary epoch, so unemployed hairdressers found work as human computers. After the failure of the calculator, Babbage invented a truly universal computer, the Analytical Engine, capable of executing loops, or as Babbage himself put it, "a locomotive that lays down its own railway", about 100 years in advance of people like Atanasoff, Berry, Eckert, Mauchly, Turing and Zuse; in separating the CPU from main memory, he anticipated the von Neumann architecture. He did not complete a set of drawings for this one, although Babbage's son assembled the CPU after his death. Babbage also went back to the Difference Engine, and produced another set of drawings for a simplified version. In 1985 Doron Swade became the Curator of Computing at the Science Museum in London, and an Australian computer scientist suggested to him that he build Babbage's simplified Difference Engine in time for Babbage's bicentennial in 1991. Which is what his team did, making sense of Babbage's drawings, correcting his mistakes (or were they deliberately put there to confound potential technology thieves?), and debugging the results, sometimes using the un-Victorian electric drill, so at the end it was something of a Piltdown Man. Babbage has also written a pamphlet on natural theology, explaining that what appears to be a miracle may in fact be a manifestation of a law of nature that is more complicated than it seems at the first sight, illustrating his argument with programs for a calculating machine.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ron Arden

    Charles Babbage was one interesting character. He was irascible, friendly, combative and a great inventor. He was simultaneously the toast of London in the early 1800s and a royal pain in the butt. His life's goal was to build a machine that could calculate tables used in business, the military and government. Before we had spreadsheets and calculators, logarithmic and other tables were calculated by hand and published in huge volumes. Sea navigation, engineering, science, bridge building, farmi Charles Babbage was one interesting character. He was irascible, friendly, combative and a great inventor. He was simultaneously the toast of London in the early 1800s and a royal pain in the butt. His life's goal was to build a machine that could calculate tables used in business, the military and government. Before we had spreadsheets and calculators, logarithmic and other tables were calculated by hand and published in huge volumes. Sea navigation, engineering, science, bridge building, farming and a host of other things relied on numerical tables. The problem was that manual calculation and reproduction was prone to error. Babbage set out to build a machine that did it automatically. He was limited by the technology and methods of the day, but eventually had a small working model. Throughout his life, he fought to get his machine built. Many people today believe that he is the father of modern computing. In fact he designed another more complex Analytical Engine, which was closer to an actual computer; neither was ever built. While he clearly laid much of the groundwork for the concepts used in modern computers, the people who built the first calculating and computing devices did not rely on any of his inventions. There is no direct lineage from Babbage to an iPad. This book winds its way through Babbage's life and his ups and downs of trying to realize his dreams. It's a fun read. He was a genius and invented many other amazing devices. He was a prolific author and was one of the greats of the 19th century. Because of all this, in the 1980s, the Science Museum of London and Doron Swade (the author of this book) wanted to build the Difference Engine designed by Babbage. This was a huge undertaking that involved all the angst and drama of a great literary masterpiece. Suffice it to say, the amazing talents of many people eventually got it to work as designed. They proved that Babbage's engine did work. Fortunately modern manufacturing techniques made it easier to build and the end product was a marvel.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Vincent Manapat

    This was not the story I was expecting to read. The vague notion that I had of Babbage was that of a misunderstood genius who, if he had been recognized in his time, would have brought about the invention of the computer far sooner. But despite the Swade’s obvious admiration for Babbage (he did set out to rebuild Babbage’s difference engine just to make a point), he is honest throughout about Babbage’s (and the difference Engine’s) shortcomings, which were many. By the end of the book I was pret This was not the story I was expecting to read. The vague notion that I had of Babbage was that of a misunderstood genius who, if he had been recognized in his time, would have brought about the invention of the computer far sooner. But despite the Swade’s obvious admiration for Babbage (he did set out to rebuild Babbage’s difference engine just to make a point), he is honest throughout about Babbage’s (and the difference Engine’s) shortcomings, which were many. By the end of the book I was pretty much in agreement with George Airy that the difference and analytical engines were just not viable or necessary regardless of Babbage’s lack of business and political acumen. The author even points out that Babbage may have set the development of the computer back many years because of the way he mismanaged the construction of the difference engines. If the book has any shortcomings, it’s that Swade never gives a very convincing justification for why the difference engine is so important, aside from being this incredibly complex machine that was the first of its kind. But aside from that criticism I enjoyed this book and can recommend it. In a lot of ways this is a story about a lot of highly intelligent but difficult people clashing over many years. It's not a book that presents any specific thesis about the difference engine itself, but rather surveys the historical research as well as modern interpretations of what happened, with judicious use of direct quotations throughout.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    A compelling read that provides more insight into the state of mechanics in the 19th century then it does into the history of computers. That is not a disappointment. The lessons on science, funding, diplomacy, and business are all applicable today. A few things of particular interest to me were: - Although it is disappointing from a "our-hero-failed" perspective, the British government rightly (in my judgment) saw Babbage's designs as money sink-hole. While Babbage's ideas were fascinating and fe A compelling read that provides more insight into the state of mechanics in the 19th century then it does into the history of computers. That is not a disappointment. The lessons on science, funding, diplomacy, and business are all applicable today. A few things of particular interest to me were: - Although it is disappointing from a "our-hero-failed" perspective, the British government rightly (in my judgment) saw Babbage's designs as money sink-hole. While Babbage's ideas were fascinating and feasible, the construction of his engine was not practical. -Babbage's ideas were not the foundation for modern computing. Many of his ideas find counterparts in modern computers, but they don't trace back to him. That they were independently conceived, gives credence to the prescience of his ideas. - That he wasn't the "Father of Computers," doesn't take away from his genius, and the inspiration he can inspire now, even if that inspiration skipped a few generations Although I dreaded it, because I was ready to be done with the book, the 2nd part of the book, that recounts the modern construction of one of Babbage's designs is a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a modern science museum, and a small tickling taste of what it takes to create a one-time large and complex mechanical project. It is well worth the time to read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    to'c

    Quite a fascinating book on Charles Babbage. Not quite as hardware oriented as I had hoped but I'll find that elsewhere. What a geek Mr. Babbage was! Nowadays we would have recognized him as such and dealt with him appropriately. Some venture capitalist would have funded his work, he would have built a successful machine, they would have kicked him out when he started redesigning everything, and he probably would have ended up in exactly the same place. So I guess it wouldn't have made much diff Quite a fascinating book on Charles Babbage. Not quite as hardware oriented as I had hoped but I'll find that elsewhere. What a geek Mr. Babbage was! Nowadays we would have recognized him as such and dealt with him appropriately. Some venture capitalist would have funded his work, he would have built a successful machine, they would have kicked him out when he started redesigning everything, and he probably would have ended up in exactly the same place. So I guess it wouldn't have made much difference. (no pun intended) How prolific the man was! Sure, he spent 40-odd years on a single quest but essentially invented much of what we invented from about the mid-1940s through the mid-80s, say EDSAC thru Macintosh. Same time span, different hardware. But he had a Von Neumann (ish) architecture, HDL (ish), Computerized typesetting (ish), microprogrammed (ish) hardware, and even a GUI! (very ish) Not to mention his other studies, books, inventions, and what not. I would have loved to sit down and quaffed some brandy with Mr. Babbage!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Octavia Cade

    Interesting and very readable account of the life and work of Charles Babbage. In a lot of ways it's painful to read, as it's the story of a deeply imaginative thinker and scientist who fails to achieve his goals. Swade doesn't shy away from the times when this failure is a result of Babbage's own efforts - he could be a grumpy, impolitic individual with a penchant for shooting himself in the foot, but that at least makes him a very human subject for a biography. What I found most interesting was Interesting and very readable account of the life and work of Charles Babbage. In a lot of ways it's painful to read, as it's the story of a deeply imaginative thinker and scientist who fails to achieve his goals. Swade doesn't shy away from the times when this failure is a result of Babbage's own efforts - he could be a grumpy, impolitic individual with a penchant for shooting himself in the foot, but that at least makes him a very human subject for a biography. What I found most interesting was the final third of the book, which covers the efforts by London's Science Museum to build, for the first time, a complete and working Difference Engine. The work that went into it is incredible, and I've never really appreciated before how much goes into finding funding for special museum pieces. I'm not sure if the Machine's still there, but next time I'm in Britain I'm going along to the Science Museum to have a look.

  18. 4 out of 5

    So Hakim

    The life and time of the man who wanted to build analog computer during Victorian Era. Charles Babbage comes alive as ambitious, but flawed and ill-equipped dealing with bureaucracy. The last section of the book covers modern effort of British Science Museum to build one of his machines. Indeed they succeeeded -- which leads one to wonder, what if Babbage had his way two centuries ago. All in all a nicely done biography. Characters came alive, including even minor figures like Babbage's best frien The life and time of the man who wanted to build analog computer during Victorian Era. Charles Babbage comes alive as ambitious, but flawed and ill-equipped dealing with bureaucracy. The last section of the book covers modern effort of British Science Museum to build one of his machines. Indeed they succeeeded -- which leads one to wonder, what if Babbage had his way two centuries ago. All in all a nicely done biography. Characters came alive, including even minor figures like Babbage's best friend John Herschel and Lady Byron (i.e. Ada Lovelace's mother). It should be said that the author took pains to give balanced views: instead of glorifying Babbage as lone genius against the world, he listed the reasons why his failure is partly his own making. In the world where science-related titans often get halo treatment -- for instance Tesla & Feynman -- I find it a big positive.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rory Armstrong

    An interesting history of Babbage's machines and an attempt to actually build his Analytical Engine in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The author gives a clear and balanced viewpoint on Babbage's success and influence (and also that of Ada's) which can be basically summed that they had little and even potentially had a negative impact on computing by putting Goverments and Inventors off the ideas for decades. However, what the author does do is a portray a driven (sometimes to the point of fanantical) An interesting history of Babbage's machines and an attempt to actually build his Analytical Engine in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The author gives a clear and balanced viewpoint on Babbage's success and influence (and also that of Ada's) which can be basically summed that they had little and even potentially had a negative impact on computing by putting Goverments and Inventors off the ideas for decades. However, what the author does do is a portray a driven (sometimes to the point of fanantical) polymath who from nothing managed to invent and describe machines capable of being programmed in the same vein as modern computers using metal rather than electricity. It's a tragic tale written fairly well. I'd recommend it for people interested in the history of computing as it does clear up some myths about Babbage and Ada.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Evan

    This book is very thorough and complete. If you are looking for more generalized information about Babbage's engines do not read this book. This book covers the politics, relationships, and monetary fiascos related to Babbage's engines. This is probably the most complete work of Babbage today. Since the book is very complete, it can become quite boring to read. If you are not interested in computers or engineering this book can be quite bland. Some of the information becomes repetitive throughou This book is very thorough and complete. If you are looking for more generalized information about Babbage's engines do not read this book. This book covers the politics, relationships, and monetary fiascos related to Babbage's engines. This is probably the most complete work of Babbage today. Since the book is very complete, it can become quite boring to read. If you are not interested in computers or engineering this book can be quite bland. Some of the information becomes repetitive throughout the book. Keep in mind Doron Swade is the author so he is not going to be as reader-focused as a professional author. Overall, very good book despite being too lengthy at times.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    An interesting non-fictional account of the life of Charles Babbage. The title is a little misleading as it's arguable that he was attempting to build a computer... more like a calculator... but the fact remains that he used many of the principals that we now take for granted in computing. Also covers the eerily similar attempt by the British Science Museum to complete the never-constructed machine from Babbage's old plans. If you're a techno-geek, you should probably put this on your to-read lis An interesting non-fictional account of the life of Charles Babbage. The title is a little misleading as it's arguable that he was attempting to build a computer... more like a calculator... but the fact remains that he used many of the principals that we now take for granted in computing. Also covers the eerily similar attempt by the British Science Museum to complete the never-constructed machine from Babbage's old plans. If you're a techno-geek, you should probably put this on your to-read list.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark Harding

    How computers screw things up. Appropriately for a book about computer tech, Goodreads computer has screwed up here. My library shelf of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling has been replaced by the a book by Doran Swade. The little review below refers to the SF novel.... I love the elegance. The way deep texture of the world is described, mixed with Victorian dialogue and a narrative prose that never jars with the milieu. And all so easy on the ear and eye. Terrifically en How computers screw things up. Appropriately for a book about computer tech, Goodreads computer has screwed up here. My library shelf of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling has been replaced by the a book by Doran Swade. The little review below refers to the SF novel.... I love the elegance. The way deep texture of the world is described, mixed with Victorian dialogue and a narrative prose that never jars with the milieu. And all so easy on the ear and eye. Terrifically entertaining and hyper-intelligent. Ultimately mad as a box of hatters.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    The difference engine gives what looks like a fair and well informed presentation of the life, ideas and, unfortunately, failures of Charles Babbage. It always feels good when it busts some myths. For instance Ada Lovelace was not that important in the development of the engine or considering Babbage as the grandfather of computer is a big exaggeration. As it is often the case in such biographies, the book suffers from some lengths and less interesting chapters. All in all, this is a nice bit of The difference engine gives what looks like a fair and well informed presentation of the life, ideas and, unfortunately, failures of Charles Babbage. It always feels good when it busts some myths. For instance Ada Lovelace was not that important in the development of the engine or considering Babbage as the grandfather of computer is a big exaggeration. As it is often the case in such biographies, the book suffers from some lengths and less interesting chapters. All in all, this is a nice bit of history.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Elisabeth

    A fascinating read, as engaging as any novel. Towering intellect, clashes of character, personal drama, and a race against the clock. The author draws his subjects with care and integrity; each antagonist, each minor character is treated with equal honesty. The best non-fiction since The Right Stuff. I really want to go to London's Science Museum now. A fascinating read, as engaging as any novel. Towering intellect, clashes of character, personal drama, and a race against the clock. The author draws his subjects with care and integrity; each antagonist, each minor character is treated with equal honesty. The best non-fiction since The Right Stuff. I really want to go to London's Science Museum now.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    I quite enjoyed this book, especially since Babbage is widely recognized in the software world, but hardly anyone seems to know much about him. But more than the details of Babbage's life, the portion of the book about the modern efforts to build a Difference Engine was very well written and quite compelling. I quite enjoyed this book, especially since Babbage is widely recognized in the software world, but hardly anyone seems to know much about him. But more than the details of Babbage's life, the portion of the book about the modern efforts to build a Difference Engine was very well written and quite compelling.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    Interesting, educational, and dry. The academic biography without embellishment of Babbage's life and his difference and analytical engines was an okay read but very slow going. Surprisingly the faster read was the final 1/3 which detailed the auhtor's quest to have his museum build Difference Engine #2 in time for 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. Interesting, educational, and dry. The academic biography without embellishment of Babbage's life and his difference and analytical engines was an okay read but very slow going. Surprisingly the faster read was the final 1/3 which detailed the auhtor's quest to have his museum build Difference Engine #2 in time for 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kathy Petersen

    An admirable effort, The Difference Engine was in many places hard to get through. I admit to being a bit too dense to follow all the discussion and description of Babbage's inventions and a bit too restless during the details of Swade's struggle to at last build a model. But it's a fascinating story, and I'm happy to be acquainted with it. An admirable effort, The Difference Engine was in many places hard to get through. I admit to being a bit too dense to follow all the discussion and description of Babbage's inventions and a bit too restless during the details of Swade's struggle to at last build a model. But it's a fascinating story, and I'm happy to be acquainted with it.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Duncan Jones

    Interesting read that covers Charles Babbage's quest to build an analytical engine. The second half of the book covers the building of a partial analytical engine by the Science Museum in London and the challenges they faced working with Babbage's drawings. It provides a balanced view of Babbage, Ada Lovelace and the impact (if any) that Babbage's work had on modern computing. Interesting read that covers Charles Babbage's quest to build an analytical engine. The second half of the book covers the building of a partial analytical engine by the Science Museum in London and the challenges they faced working with Babbage's drawings. It provides a balanced view of Babbage, Ada Lovelace and the impact (if any) that Babbage's work had on modern computing.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Summers-Stay

    The material about Babbage and Ada was mostly the same I had found in other places, especially Babbage's autobiography. But the section about how the engine was actually built by the author and coworkers in the 1990s was very interesting. The material about Babbage and Ada was mostly the same I had found in other places, especially Babbage's autobiography. But the section about how the engine was actually built by the author and coworkers in the 1990s was very interesting.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cryselle

    After renewing it twice at the library, I realized I wasn't going to finish it. The parts I enjoyed were the technical bits, the parts that stopped me in my tracks were the endless harangues about money. After renewing it twice at the library, I realized I wasn't going to finish it. The parts I enjoyed were the technical bits, the parts that stopped me in my tracks were the endless harangues about money.

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