Heroes of the Internet Part One: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace

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heroes of the internet part one, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

Heroes of the internet part one: Although it sounds like something out of a steampunk based parallel universe, the earliest computers ran on handles and cogs, and were conceived in a time before electricity, microchips and Pong… and arguably Christianity.

Charles Babbage and his engines.

Charles Babbage (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was a polymath. One of those people that’s really good and anything they put their mind to, and he put his big mind to work inventing (amongst other things) one of the first computers.

Not only did he invent one of the first computers, but he managed to do this before we even had household electricity. How is this even possible? With cogs, lots and lots of cogs. About 4 tonnes of them.

The Difference Engine was designed to calculate (and print!) mathematical tables automatically. You might think of it as the first, biggest, heaviest, calculator. The purpose of this machine was to calculate the differences between consecutive values in a sequence, and it could be used to generate tables of functions, which at the time had to be done by humans. A giant machine, made of cogs, doing maths so that humans didn’t have to.

How it worked sounds even more nuts. The operator would turn a crank to set the initial input values on the input dials of the engine, and the engine’s mechanical components would then calculate the differences between successive values. I guess that adds a new level of meaning to cycles per second.

Sadly, it never got made until 1991, and by then we had Windows 3.0 doing the cranking for us. Here it is:

Heroes of the internet part one

A small prototype Difference Engine was made by Babbage in 1822, and gained the interest of the British Government who were, by then, getting a bit bored of producing the mathematical tables that the Difference Engine could potentially generate for them. They gave Babbage a grant of £1700 (about 1/4 of a million in today’s money) to produce the Difference Engine. Yay! No more table making! Difference Engine FTW!

Although Babbage’s design was feasible, making all the cogs to the required degree of accuracy in a great enough quantity wasn’t. This ultimately resulted in a smaller, less powerful machine being produced in 1832. By 1842 to government had abandoned the project an Babbage had moved on to the Analytic Engine.

The Difference Engine and the Analytic Engine were quite significantly different (but still made of cogs). The Difference Engine was designed to automate the calculation of mathematical tables, whereas the Analytical Engine could handle not only numerical calculations but also symbolic manipulations and even execute instructions based on conditional branching and looping. The Analytical Engine also had integrated memory, making it the first design for a general-purpose computer that could be described in modern terms as Turing-complete. Like, y’know, a computer computer. Here’s PART of it:

Babbage and his machines, if only he'd FINISH one.

That didn’t get made either. 

That Babbage, always coming up with these ideas for engines and never finishing them off properly! We’ll never get an internet at this rate!


Ada Lovelace gets interested, and runs with it.

Charles Babbage circulated in the social and intellectual circles of his time (they didn’t have telly then, what else could they do?). These same circles were frequented by a certain Lord Byron. Yep, THAT Lord Byron. The mad one.

Lord and Lady Byron were invited to take a look at Babbage’s “thinking machine” (the Difference Engine). Their daughter, Ada, from an early age had shown a strong interest in mathematics. Her mother had been keen to provide her with an education that focused on mathematics and logic, in an attempt to prevent her from inheriting the supposed “madness” of Lord Byron.

Charles Babbage was introduced to Ada Lovelace by her mother, who saw Babbage as a suitable mentor for Ada’s mathematical education. Babbage himself was intrigued by Ada’s potential and took her education seriously.

Babbage and Ada corresponded extensively about his work, particularly his design for the Analytical Engine. Their letters and interactions evolved into a professional and intellectual relationship. Ada began to deeply understand Babbage’s ideas and concepts, and she developed her own insights into the capabilities of the Analytical Engine.

Ada Lovelace’s most famous contributions are her notes on Babbage’s work, where she not only translated an article about the Analytical Engine written by the Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea but also added her own annotations. Her notes included an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, and she also provided explanations that are considered the first computer program and an early exploration of the concept of computer programming.

So the first computer programming came about in the mid 1840s, for a computer made of cogs, that only existed in someone’s mind. You couldn’t make it up could you?


If you liked that you’ll love this.

Here’s the thing. Babbage wasn’t the first person to come up with a cog based computer that could do some kind of maths based working out.

The ancient Greeks were.

The ancient Greeks came up with this thing that we call the “Antikythera mechanism“, which was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, in 1901 (about 73 years after Babbage’s first iteration of the difference engine).

The Antikythera mechanism was a small (about 34 cm × 18 cm × 9 cm) hand cranked orrery, containing around 37 bronze gears. An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, so it’s thought that the Antikythera mechanism was used to predict astronomical positions and things like eclipses, decades in advance. The gearing of the Antikythera mechanism suggests that it could model the irregular orbit of the moon, which we know was studied in the 2nd century BC by Hipparchus of Rhodes

Ancient Greeks inventing whatever the weather

The shipwreck in which the discovery was made was dated at between 70-60 BC, so it’s highly likely that the Antikythera mechanism is older (how old varies between 87 BC and 205 BC according to who you listen to). The calibration (not construction) date of the Antikythera mechanism could have been the 23 December 178 BC. Other experts have suggested a calibration date as early as 204 BC.

We don’t know exactly when the ancient Greeks first invented orrerys of this nature. It’s possible the Antikythera mechanism could have been the only one ever made, but then again, it could have been one of many, and if there were many, it’s likely the Antikythera mechanism wasn’t the first.

We do know that there’s only been one of these types of orrery found, and we also know that machines of this complexity didn’t appear again until the astronomical clocks of Richard Wallingford in the 14th century.

Can you imagine two ancient Greeks arranging a future social engagement?

“Alright? Doing anything on eclipse day?”

“Let me check…”

Crank, clunk, boing, whhhhrrrr

“Nah, I’m free, shall we go down the agora and sink a few amphoras?”

And here I was thinking Palm Pilots were old school.


How are these people internet heroes?!

These people were really the pioneers of getting machines to work things out for humans. 

This was where the ideas that would eventually evolve in to the computers that we know today came from. 

It was ultimately a mixture of the application of computers and, unfortunately, the threat of war that would be the next steps on the road from the Antikythera mechanism and Babbage’s engines to the internet and world wide web that we know today.

If these people hadn’t had these ideas, or hand’t made these machines would we still have ended up with the internet? Well, we probably would. Nonetheless, these people were pioneers of their time, even if one of those times was completely forgotten for somewhere between 2106 and 1961 years.


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