Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Charles and Ada: The Computer's Most Passionate Partnership, by James Essinger

The History Press, ISBN 9780750990950, February 2020

While this is presented as a biography of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, his professional partner and collaborator, it's mostly about Babbage. One gets pretty far in before there's much about Ada Lovelace.

It's true that there was a considerable difference in their ages, and they met when he was a widower in his thirties and she was nineteen. By the time he met Ada Byron, later Ada Lovelace, he had built a working 1/7 prototype of the Difference Engine. After they met, they quickly became friends, based in their shared love of science and mathematics, and more gradually, dedicated professional partners. Ada Lovelace became an essential part of his work on the Difference Engine 2 and the Analytical Engine. But really, this book is mostly about Charles Babbage.

That said, it's a very interesting account of both the roots and the development of Babbage's ideas, including the seemingly unexpected role played by advances in weaving, most importantly, the development of the Jacquard loom, producing intricate and beautiful designs by means of punchcards.

I suppose many younger readers may not know what punchcards have to do with computers, but those of use growing old and gray remember carrying shoeboxes of them to the computer center to have our programs run. It's a little disconcerting to realize that goes right back to the late 18th/ early 19th century--and to expensive, artistic weaving.

The original machine, the Difference Engine, only needed cogwheels, but that was a major challenge. A significant limitation on Babbage's ability to build a full-size Difference Engine was the inability, in the first half of the 19th century, to manufacture large numbers of identical cogwheels. Each had to be made individually, and while there were ways to reduce the differences, making them identical required extensive polishing and finishing by hand. This in turn made them extremely expensive, even for a machine that would be primarily intended for large, profitable, manufacturing companies.

But the Difference Engine only needed the cogwheels, and a handwheel to start it working. Collaborating with Ada Lovelace, and continuing to read, study, and research, the idea of the far more sophisticated, flexible, powerful Analytical Engine, capable of far more, and more complex, mathematical calculations. The Analytical Engine needed the punchcards to do its work.

Of course, it also still needed the cogwheels.

And Charles Babbage, brilliant, insightful, inventive, was not cut out to manage a large project, while the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, if they were to be perfected and built, would be large projects. The invention was more than within his grasp. Project management was not.

Still it's an interesting and enjoyable book, even if not quite everything it promises.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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