This post was inspired by some wikipedia clicking. I should donate when they ask.
I have heard about this before, and stumbling on it made me want to write about it. If you don’t want to be overly biased to my view you should at least skim the article.
I like learning about a time when the idea of a computer as we think of it wasn’t even feasible. I think it shows an interesting principle in the fashion oriented industry of software. The foundations of what this infrastructure have been known for quite some time. Computers were originally developed by mathematicians. Serious capital only got invested into developing the machines after the Manhattan project. A time where so much of the global spending was in arms research. I’ll leave that for a post about John von Neumann though.
Back then no one knew how small we end up making transistors. I am going to investigate what Babbage has done well, and what he has done poorly, and see if I can draw any useful lessons from it. Babbage performed an amazing feat of engineering, but in his eyes it was an abysmal failure. The analytical engine(the earliest computer) remained in obscurity, and the engineers in the 1900’s end up reproducing much of his labor.
I think the Analytical Engine was successful in the sense that it was shown to work as intended later on. The fact that there is a wikipedia article and I am blogging about has left him some sense of legacy, where as there is no remembrance of his other labours.
I don’t see the value of legacy myself though, but my elders tell me that will change with age. So for this I will credit him. It also goes to show that good things come from unexpected places. I doubt Babbage would have thought he would be known for an incomplete project hundreds of years in the future.
I also admire his courage. He was a good way into making the difference engine(the first calculator) he would have been able to complete with the funds he was available to get. I look up to people who are willing to take a chance on a better product. Still I think switching his efforts when he depended on other people to finance his ambitions was a poor move.
The analytic engine is a failure in the sense that it was never profitable. It cost the investors considerable sums in development costs, in which they could not recover. It also consumed a considerable amount of Babbage’s time.
Despite how impressive the design is for the time, it did little to enhance his life, and much to detriment it. A man of his talent would have had many profitable opportunities come his way, in which he would have turned down do to preoccupation with his machine.
While Babbage’s vision was ambitious, he underestimated the time and energy his project was going to take. I think everyone will make this mistake at one time or another and many of us can empathize with his decision to switch projects. A computer is much more impressive than a calculator.
The main lessons I got from learning about the Analytical engine was that most feats of engineering will be harder than we anticipate. Perhaps this is an advantage, for if we accurately foresaw the difficulties in out projects before we started them, we might not start them. It is the sunk cost that compels us to overcome the difficulties when they arise.
If we do not have the means to finance our projects independently we also must be considerate of the wants of our patrons. I think it would have been a much better decision for Babbage’s career had he delivered the Difference engine, and only then proceeded to start work on the Analytical engine. I think he would have had a much easier time to continue to receive investment in that manner.