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

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Viking, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 342 pages
38 Reviews
"In 1821 an inventor and mathematician, Charles Babbage, was poring over a set of mathematical tables. Finding error after error Babbage exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." His frustration was not simply at the grindingly tedious labor of checking manually evaluated tables, but at their daunting unreliability. Science, engineering, construction, banking, and insurance depended on tables for calculation. Ships navigating by the stars relied on them to find their positions at sea." "Babbage launched himself on a grand venture to design and build mechanical calculating engines that would eliminate such errors. His bid to build infallible machines is a saga of ingenuity and will, which led beyond mechanized arithmetic into the entirely new realm of computing. Through Ada, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of Lord Byron, we gain tantalizing insights into how at least one Victorian glimpsed the promise of what was to come. Babbage springs out of history like a jack-in-the-box: a gentleman philosopher, a tireless inventor, a vigorous socialite, and a mesmerizing raconteur. "Mr. Babbage is coming to dinner" was a coup for any hostess." "Drawing on previously unused archival material, The Difference Engine is a tale of both Babbage's nineteenth-century quest to build a calculating engine and its twentieth-century sequel. For in 1991, Babbage's vision was finally realized, at least in part, by the completion at the Science Museum in London of the first full-sized Babbage engine, finished in time for the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. The two quests are mutually illuminating and are recounted here by the then Curator of Computing, Doron Swade - one of the main protagonists of the successful resumption of Babbage's extraordinary work."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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

User Review  - Goodreads

Swade makes a clear and memorable narrative of Babbage's halting and imperfect progress, without papering over the difficulties. Well-written, by the curator of a Babbage exhibit, someone who knows the machine inside and out - and gives the people a good treatment, too. Read full review

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

User Review  - Catherine Siemann - Goodreads

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. Read full review


The Tables Crisis
A Personal Question
Tragedy and Decline

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About the author (2001)

Doron Swade is Assistant Director and Head of Collections at the Science Museum in London.

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