Dr. Fred Bortz

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

by Doron Swade

(Viking, 2001, $24.95 hardcover, 352 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In the history of computing, Charles Babbage and his quest to build The Difference Engine, a mid-nineteenth century mechanical progenitor of the electronic digital computer, have become the stuff of legend, and Babbage has become the archetype of the person whose ideas are a century ahead of their time. The truth behind the legend, writes Doron Swade, is richer and more complex. "It is a tale of squabbles over money, personal tragedy, a vendetta, a beautiful countess, a confrontation with the Prime Minister, political instability and public protests."

Love, money, untimely death, politics, nobility, venality, and a passion for mathematics and technology -- what more can a science reader ask for? How about an author who lived a revealing "twentieth century sequel set in Thatcher's Britain..., a story of funding crises, technical setbacks, impossible deadlines, a company going bust and institutional politics"?

In 1985, newly arrived at the Science Museum of London where he is now Assistant Director and Head of Collections, Mr. Swade had begun to study the museum's collection of manuscripts, diagrams, and artifacts from Babbage's never completed machines, wondering why had no one ever tried to finish what Babbage had started. As if on cue, Australian computer science professor Allen Bromley arrived, declaring that he had not only been wondering the same thing, but also had a plan to do something about it.

Dr. Bromley proposed to challenge one of the key elements of the Babbage legend, that his failures were due to limitations of nineteenth century manufacturing. From his study of the design documents of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, he was convinced that it could have been built. Indeed, he argued, it could and should be built in time for Babbage's two hundredth birthday, December 26, 1991. Mr. Swade and an entrepreneurial museum administration enthusiastically concurred.

So the Difference Engine project, abandoned a century-and-a-half earlier, resumed. Recounting the project's beginnings, the book delves into Babbage's complex genius. Along the way, it sheds light on other aspects of the legend. Was the project derailed by Babbage's personal tragedy? Did Babbage's penchant for speaking his mind alienate key decision-makers and cost him his funding? Did Babbage allow himself to be sidetracked his own inventiveness, conceiving of the programmable Analytical Engine and later a much improved Difference Engine No. 2?

Babbage Legend-lovers eagerly await the entrance of the world's first programmer, Lady Ada Lovelace, the beautiful, mathematically gifted daughter of Lord Byron; but they soon discover that her brilliance was tainted by mania. Likewise, they expect to see a stark black-and-white picture of Astronomer Royal George Biddel Airy, the powerful villain who opposed funding Babbage because of personal animus; but they discover the portrait has many shades of gray.

And what of Mr. Swade and Dr. Bromley's project? The museum now has an operational difference engine built with manufacturing technology that was available in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet, according to Mr. Swade in a brilliant final chapter, the question remains open whether Babbage deserves to be called the Father of Digital Computing. It is, he implies, a question that Babbage himself may have anticipated.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of eight books for young readers, including Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence.