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.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 352 pages, Section: 16, B&W
- Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
- Publication Date: 02/08/2001
- Category: Biography: general
- ISBN: 9780349112398
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Review by gbsallery
Impressively readable account of Babbage's life, engines, and contributions to computing. The subject is handled objectively, not falling for the flat assertion that Babbage was the "father of computing" (and incidentally prompting a reappraisal of the role of Ada Lovelace); that said, the book still sets forth the tremendous (if isolated) contributions Babbage made to the idea of mechanised logic. The account of the construction of a Babbage difference engine at the Science Museum is also fascinating, and makes me regret the loss of ICL.