Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The first nerd

Some facts which turned up in the autobiography of Charles Babbage, the Victorian mathematician and inventor who designed and partially built a Turing-complete mechanical computer eighty years before the birth of Turing.

1. As a young schoolboy, Babbage was told the story of a man who sold his soul to the Devil. It occurred to him that the part about the man becoming rich and powerful in his lifetime was a matter of verifiable historical record, but the part about him being damned for eternity could only be conjecture. Accordingly, young Charles attempted to summon the Devil in his school common-room, but was unsuccessful.

2. The first computer error message was "Wrong tabular number."

3. In later life, Babbage claimed to have had a telepathic communication from a piece of Gloucester cheese, which revealed a great deal about the nature and origins of the universe. Unfortunately Babbage deemed the revelation unreliable because a piece of cheese has obviously no real understanding of the universe.

4. Babbage was asked "If you put the wrong numbers into the Engine, will the right answers come out?" twice, both times by Members of Parliament.

5. Babbage took several shiny steel buttons with him everywhere he travelled, but pretended there was only one and that he treasured it greatly, so he could swap it for things.

6. Explaining the Analytical Engine to an audience, Babbage told of how, when it wanted a logarithm to use in its calculations, it would stop, ring a bell, wait for the number to be punched in by the operator, check the logarithm was correct, and then continue. Somebody asked, if it had to check the logarithm was correct anyway, couldn't it just calculate it instead of stopping work to ask for it? Babbage expertly fielded the question: "That is far too simple to explain at present, but if you stop by my workshop in a few days I shall have prepared you an answer."

7. Babbage's use of 'want' in the above may be the first implied attribution of consciousness to a machine, the Engine being the first machine sufficiently complex for it.

8. The child Babbage was shown a miniature clockwork dancer, called "The Silver Lady", at a street exhibition. Much later, he found it in a junk shop, bought it, restored the mechanism, and dressed it in a different outfit each day.

9. Babbage invented the pilot or cow-catcher for steam locomotives.

10. Babbage mentions Ada Lovelace only once in passing in his autobiography, though other sources indicate it was Lovelace who first realised the true capabilities of the Engine.

At the risk of jinxing it, my next farce will probably be about him and Lovelace.


Alex said...

Hello Robin, good post. I have just started a blog for my gcse biology course. It's a wonderful subject, and I love going to lessons, but I need constant praise to get things done. I also spend an awful lot of time on the net, so I maay as well put my course notes there. it's a bit plain at the moment, but there is a lovely picture of a vulture here: http://gcsebiology-alex.blogspot.com/

rain said...
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Stuart Kerrigan said...

A play about Babbage and Lovelace could be... interesting. I'd pay to see that.

オテモヤン said...
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