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The Difference Engine


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One of the first devices to be considered an automatic digital computer was conceived by the eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage in 1822. In Babbage's time, teams of mathematicians working around the clock with primitive calculations generated complex logarithmic and trigonometric tables manually. Noting the large number of errors in these tables, Babbage proposed building an enormous mechanical calculator that he called a "Difference Engine" to calculate them automatically. Engineer and historian of technology Swade (coauthor, The Dream Machine) tells the story of Babbage's determined efforts to construct the first computing machine, which was, unfortunately, only partially completed despite financial backing from the British government. Nonetheless, Babbage's story, set against the politics and science of the early Victorian age, is fascinating. More than 150 years after its conception, one of Babbage's Difference Engines was constructed from original drawings by a team headed up by Swade at London's Science Museum. Recommended for an informed audience. Joe Accardi, William Rainey Harper Coll., Palatiane, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Englishman Charles Babbage (1791-1871), an eccentric, ingenious mathematician, decided that existing tables of computations included far too many errors: the day's textbooks came with errata sheets appended by more errata sheets. The inventive Babbage entered completely new territory in his struggle to design an automatic computing machine that could achieve an "absolute integrity of results," and in the 1820s he completed plans for the "Difference Engine." Swade (coauthor of The Dream Machine), an assistant director at the London Science Museum, offers an engaging biography of Babbage and his milieu (buttressed by 16 pages of b&w photos and illustrations). Babbage convinced the government to invest in his invention, but the technology of the day made it prohibitively expensive to complete the machine to his satisfaction. He went on to design the "Analytical Engine," a quicker, more advanced, more broadly applicable machine that could be programmed with punch cards to do computations and store data. Unfortunately, Babbage never got to build this second machine, either. His life was full of personal tragedy, political confrontations, the personal vendettas of colleagues and the frustration of being unable to build what he designed. In the 1980s, Swade gathered a team of experts and tried to make sense of Babbage's drawings and notes in a modern quest to construct what Babbage could not. Swade's able account of this gifted scientist, his cohorts and their curious endeavors enhances and broadens the growing body of literature on computer history. (Sept. 10) Forecast: The "technological frontier" parallels between Babbage's age and our own are becoming increasingly clear, and Swade's immersion in and love for Babbage's project comes through here (beyond some British reserve). Of all the books this season whose flap copy compares them to Longitude, this title has one of the best shots at a similar breakout. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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