Inventing Modernity: Charles Babbage and Ada Byron King

Just about 200 years ago, a group of youthful British math aficionados were kibitzing. At the time, things like logarithm tables were indispensable but required immensely onerous computations (prone to error, moreover). Queried the young Charles Babbage, “Couldn’t a machine do this?”


An excellent – and timely – question. For most of human history, our sole energy source was our own muscles. Eventually we harnessed animal energy; horsepower was ten times greater than manpower. But the real quantum leap was just starting in Babbage’s day, when we could tap the power in fuels, and commenced developing the machines to exploit and multiply it. Thus began humanity’s climb – slow at first, then rocketing – up from meager subsistence.

I’ve been reading about Charles Babbage (1791-1871) in James Gleick’s book, The Information, a history and analysis of information’s role in the development of human society. Babbage was a (half?) mad genius whose story reads like a Steven Millhauser phantasmagoria.

Part of the Difference Engine

Babbage set out to design, and then actually build, the calculating machine he’d dreamed of, calling it the “Difference Engine.” It may not sound very sexy to modern ears, but what he envisioned was way ahead of his time, and consequently hugely difficult to actually engineer. Through decades of obsessive devotion to the project, Babbage was never able to achieve a fully operating device that realized his vision. And meantime, his vision transmogrified into what he wound up calling the “Analytical Engine” – something much beyond a glorified adding machine.

You can see where this is going. Gleick’s book mentions the Jacquard Loom. That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was just a simple little innovation: fitting a loom with a card in which holes were punched in a configuration that would direct the loom’s moving parts to create a desired color pattern. This, from my modern perch, I recognized as the first tiny embryo of a concept that would transform the world. Babbage wasn’t privy to that history when he first saw a Jacquard Loom; but the hairs on his neck stood up too because, presciently, he too grasped the profound implications.

Portrait by Margaret Carpenter

Babbage’s collaborator was Ada Byron King (1815-52, Countess of Lovelace, the poet Byron’s daughter), with a prodigious intellect at a time of huge barriers to female intellectual achievement. But, brainstorming together with Babbage, with his ideas for the “Analytical Engine” and extrapolating the Jacquard system, it was Ada Byron King who – in the 1840s! – actually invented computer programming.

Or at least she invented the concept. It virtually defied expression, when there was nothing remotely resembling a computer, and they didn’t even have the words for talking about such things. Nobody else knew what they were talking about either, nor could anyone else see its value.

Why am I telling you all this?

Most of us take modernity for granted, rarely pausing to contemplate its stupendous achievement. Indeed, it’s chic to mock it, even denounce it, as a Faustian bargain we should repent.

But I for one am ever mindful of the titanic efforts and creativity of human beings across time that were required to give us the cornucopiae enabling us to live so hugely better than our forebears.

The story of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron King exemplifies this. They struggled mightily, and ultimately failed, to properly conceptualize, let alone realize, their grand idea. Much more had to happen first, much more effort and discovery, before their vision could bear fruit. And oh what fruit.

Gleick’s book also relates the history of the telegraph. We imagine that Morse one day just up and invented it. Not so; the idea went through a very tortuous history of false starts and dead ends, and gigantic problems to be solved, by numerous people, before wires finally started carrying messages. And of course, that idea of transmitting information has metastasized far beyond what anyone could imagine in Morse’s time.

Thus goes human progress: an almost infinite synergistic complex, not of leaps, but of baby steps; but millions of baby steps turn into leaps, like droplets of water coalescing to create a thunderous ocean wave.

And so we sit down with our modern “Analytical Engine” and press a button, and summon forth . . . well, as Arthur C. Clarke remarked, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

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