The Computor That Never Was

Extract from the British Imperial Times, Wednesday, 5th January 2005, London (World Capital) – Lord Babbage, chairman of Imperial Babbage Machines (IBM), and great-grandson of the company’s illustrious founder, Sir Charles Babbage, today unveiled the Generation 22 Babbage Engine to an astonished international audience. Her Imperial Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Imperial Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Blair, and the Imperial Deputy Prime Minister (West-Atlantic) Sir William Clinton, hailed the new engine as another great milestone for IBM and the British Empire. Her Majesty said that everyone on Earth and the Empire’s interstellar territories would benefit immensely. She praised in particular the new machine’s universal warp-speed networking, saying that the peaceful future of mankind depended upon eliminating every obstacle to the sharing of knowledge, experience and daily life.
The new engine, third-level quantum device, has the form of wristwatch (displaying time is one superficial function). Standard features include 3D imaging and avcomms through projectorcam in the standard headband, and realtime translation of any language. The new engine is also remarkable for…

That introduction may seem fanciful,
but if the blind stupidity of Sir Robert Peel’s British government had not in 1842 stopped the funding of the most brilliant and farsighted R&D project ever proposed to any administration, thus depriving us of the first computer in the mid-19th century, it is reasonable to presume that the British Empire would have survived and flourished, and even been rejoined by the United States; and that we would now have engines (they never would have been called computers) of extraordinary power, that every other technology developed in the last 150 years would have been accelerated by engine-processing, and that we would have sped to undreamed-of achievements. The Windows/Intel Great Leap Backwards would certainly never have happened.

Viva la difference
Babbage’s Difference Engines and Analytical Engines were mechanical devices, to be powered by steam, but if 19th century technology, especially electromagnetic, had been accelerated by their processing power, that century should have produced the electronic computer – even well before Babbage’s death in 1871.
Mechanical or electronic, the information revolution would have begun century earlier, when Britain was at the height of its power. We would live in profoundly different world. Instead, the first computer, the electronic Colossus, built by the British at Bletchley Park to break Nazi Enigma codes, did not happen till 1943.
Babbage’s fascination with mathematics began when he was schoolboy. Eventually he became one of the leading mathematicians of the age, and Lucasian professor at Cambridge – the chair earlier occupied by Sir Isaac Newton and now by Stephen Hawking.

Cannons, carriages and
In 1821 he thought of making machine to carry out mathematical functions, the Difference Engine. That idea grew, and in 1834 he conceived the great Analytical Engine, an achievement that astounded scientific contemporaries. Single-handedly, and seemingly out of thin air, he invented an automatic, programmable, digital-processing machine. That would have been remarkable in any age. In his, it was extraordinary.
He began work on the Difference Engine only six years after the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought with cannon and flintlock rifles; transportation of the day was by horse and carriage; the first railway was still four years away. Where modern computer pioneers worked in teams, Babbage worked alone, far ahead of contemporary thought. He not only had to elaborate the designs but also develop the concepts, the engineering, and even the tools to make parts. He had to develop the mathematics, and mechanical notation through various stages, he had to pioneer microprogramming and coding – even conceive the idea in the first place. He stands alone, the great ancestral figure of computing.

Babbage’s father Benjamin was merchant banker. Although that inherited wealth provided him with independent means, and gave him the leisure to pursue his many researches, he was not rich enough to fund the development of his engines unaided. And because he believed that his Difference Engine should benefit the nation, he sought government aid. His case rested primarily on the production of navigation tables, which were then calculated manually and were full of errors, which caused many shipwrecks. Saving even small number of vessels would justify the cost of his project.
By 1822 Babbage had working model of the Difference Engine. In 1823, supported by the Royal Society, he sought public funds to construct full-scale machine, complete with printer. His initial grant was for £1500; he believed he could complete the work in three years. He began by carrying out an exhaustive study of machines of all types up and down the country, which not only greatly increased his knowledge of machinery but also of wider matters, and led to his epoch-making book, On The Economy of Machinery and Manufacture, which was published in 1832 and established him as an important economist. It went to four editions and was translated into six languages.
By 1828 the government’s £1500 had been spent and Babbage was financing development of the Difference Engine himself. He made direct approach to the Duke of Wellington, the then-Prime Minister, and speedy action was taken. further £7500 was made available over the next two years. Support continued under the Reform Ministry of Lord Grey (1830-1834), but Babbage still had to supply substantial amounts himself.
In 1832 he instructed Joseph Clement, the engineer who was manufacturing the parts to his specifications, to assemble portion of the Difference Engine. It can still be seen in the British Museum and works perfectly. If the full engine had been completed it would have been the wonder of 19th-century precision engineering. What was completed was triumph.
Clement made difficulties over how much he should be paid, and became so intransigent over that and other matters such as ownership of the working drawings, that work on the Difference Engine stopped. After 18 months of these difficulties, Babbage regained possession of the drawings, and began to reconsider the design of the machine, both its principles and its detail.
New ideas blossomed. In late 1834 he conceived the idea of the Analytical Engine, mechanical computer, which was to enthral him for the rest of his life. Funding for the Difference Engine remained in suspense. Work had stopped in 1834, after £17,000 of public money had been spent, and £6000 of Babbage’s.
The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was disinclined to finish the project. His successor, Sir Robert Peel, was even less keen, in spite of the recommendation of the Royal Society. After eight years of shilly-shallying, further funding was finally refused in 1842.
Charles Dickens, friend of Babbage’s, later reacted to that in Little Dorrit, in the chapter Containing the Whole Science of Government, where he pilloried “?The Circumlocution Office’… whose motto is ?HOW NOT TO DO IT’.” Therefore, because “its finger is in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart”, little gets done, and even that only after “half score of boards, half bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence”.
After his experiences with the Difference Engine, Babbage decided not to seek government support for the Analytical Engine, and in the end, although he never gave up hope, he resigned himself to never seeing it built.
Lasting legacies
Babbage’s great series of engines included many of the basic concepts of the modern, stored-program computer. The Analytical Engine, which were flexible, powerful, general-purpos

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