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What If Babbage Had Succeeded?

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the steampunk-personal-computing dept.

Programming 212

mikejuk writes "It was on this day 220 years ago (December 26 1791) that Charles Babbage was born. The calculating machines he invented in the 19th century, although never fully realized in his lifetime, are rightly seen as the forerunners of modern programmable computers. What if he had succeeded? Babbage already had plans for game arcades, chess playing machines, sound generators and desktop publishing. A Victorian computer revolution was entirely possible."

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Of course it was possible (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496790)

There is nothing special in the time we live that allows this technology to exist. Computing could have been a reality at any time given the correct understanding of math, mechanics and a society forward thinking enough to see the value in pursuing it.

Re:Of course it was possible (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496822)

Uhm... it didn't ask "what if it was possible". The last sentence of the summary is, "A Victorian computer revolution was entirely possible."

The question was more, "What would the world have been like had he succeeded, then and centuries later". Or did you skip most of it to get a first post?

Re:Of course it was possible (5, Interesting)

mikael (484) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497114)

It almost seems possible that it could have been done much earlier. Automatic sources of rotary motion were known (waterwheel, steam engine) along with gearing mechanisms.

One of the first "programmable toys" was a cart controlled by a winding string [newscientist.com]

But it wasn't until the Industrial revolution in the 1850's, that the use of punched cards for storing instructions and input data that made mathematical calculating machines possible. That's one important factor. The other one is the use of mathematical notation for expressing algebra that can be converted into instructions.

What if he had got both these engines working by 1849? Would he have moved onto more advanced calculations or extended the use of mechanical computation to commerce like Hollerith punched cards did in 1889? If so, that would have advanced computing by 40 years.

First documented geared calculating mechanism (Antikythera) 150 - 100BC [wikipedia.org]

First documented use of waterwheels - 300BC [wikipedia.org]

First documented Steam Engine - 1AD [wikipedia.org]

First use of punched cards - 1725AD [wikipedia.org]

Re:Of course it was possible (2)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497430)

All of this is post Renaissance which is a phenomenon born of a totally different set of circumstances. Had their not been a need for the renaissance you could subtract the time between antiquity and the Renaissance that was needed to advance technology of any nature. This time subtraction amounts to about 1000 years (the dark ages).

Re:Of course it was possible (2)

V!NCENT (1105021) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497738)

I'd say the internet is much more important than the computer itself, even though a computer is needed to fuel the internet.

Global communication is what made the computer explode in terms of usefulness.

Re:Of course it was possible (5, Interesting)

realityimpaired (1668397) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497788)

But it wasn't until the Industrial revolution in the 1850's, that the use of punched cards for storing instructions and input data that made mathematical calculating machines possible. That's one important factor. The other one is the use of mathematical notation for expressing algebra that can be converted into instructions.

What if he had got both these engines working by 1849? Would he have moved onto more advanced calculations or extended the use of mechanical computation to commerce like Hollerith punched cards did in 1889? If so, that would have advanced computing by 40 years.

Yes, it would have advanced computing by about 40 years. But computing had reached a plateau in the 1940's (and arguably before then, there just wasn't any impetus to make a digital computer before WWII), and couldn't really advance any further than it had at that point until the invention of the transistor... the transistor itself arose from a chance discovery in late 1947, and wasn't readily available until the mid 1950's. Similarly, the integrated circuit wasn't available until the mid 1950's, either. In the absence of those technologies, it's arguable how far computing could have advanced beyond how far it had already advanced by the late 1940's, and neither IC's nor the transistor arose from people researching how to improve computers.

It really is debatable how far computing could have gone if Babbage had succeeded, considering that the computer revolution really didn't take off until integrated circuits made miniaturization possible in the 1960's.

Re:Of course it was possible (4, Interesting)

CAIMLAS (41445) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497842)

The difference is that there was no popularly conceived need for such tools back then. Would you rather spend the modern equivalent of millions on a tabulating machine of some sort, or hire several accountants?

Bookkeeping wasn't nearly as complex than as it is today. There was negligible need for anything like this: society at large moved much slower, and there was time to do the basic arithmetic necessary to meet their needs. (Even today, most people don't need anything much more complex than a calculator around tax time...)

Cryptography was the first demonstrated use for modern computing (during WWII). Now, consider cryptography during the US Civil War. It basically didn't exist: they used cipher disks which utilized simple substitution ciphers and what we might today call a seed (by means of a visual or auditory cue). "Something you know and something you have". Imagine how complex, expensive, and precise the machinery needed to perform WWII-era ciphers would be if it were purely mechanical. It would also have to be fairly single-purpose.

The sad fact is, there's really little practicality to computers until you get to electronics. Even with electronics, it was a long time coming until they were practical for common use, and were only significantly used by governments and large corporations for one-off massive computation (code breaking, report generation, number crunching). The IC really was the bottleneck that needed to be beaten to make them generally practical (in terms of time and money vs. the results).

Re:Of course it was possible (1)

EdIII (1114411) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497280)

I think he was stuck on the many-worlds interpretation which allows for a universe to exist in which he is not a virgin in his mother's basement.

When you think about it in that context, of course anything could be possible.

Personally, I think that computing as it exists now is much like finding life in the universe similar to ours. If you think about it, so many things could have gone differently. Personal computing may have never taken off, languages could be different, etc. Imagine that the US lost World War II and you had a fascist state in which personal computing was trying to evolve. Not that hard to imagine considering that is where we are headed with legislation.....

The world of computing is in constant flux and changing from one moment to the next which is what makes it so interesting to me.

Re:Of course it was possible (1)

V!NCENT (1105021) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497752)

Not much about it has changed. In fact I'd say almost nothing changed. It's more software than hardware.

Re:Of course it was possible (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497388)

Yes. A Victorian computer revolution was certainly possible.

For that matter, I suppose a Roman computer revolution was possible too.. Primitive, toy steam engines have been excavated from roman ruins; and there's the Antikythera that show evidence that ancient Rome was, perhaps, on the cusp of some major breakthroughs.

Imagine if Rome hadn't been sacked by the Goths. If the dark ages hadn't fallen. If we hadn't had to wait 1000+ years for the Renaissance. The industrial revolution might have taken place in 600 C.E. and we might have had a 'Roman Babbage' by 700 or 800 C.E. instead.

Then image where we'd be now.

Re:Of course it was possible (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497568)

It would have been like the hacking game in Bioshock, derrrrr!

Re:Of course it was possible (4, Interesting)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497398)

From my study of Catholic cultural intervention (the various crusade activities) I realized that we would have had our current level of technology about 1000 years ago had they not meticulously stamped out all attempts to gather and exchange knowledge (particularly the Albigensian era). To the minds of most educated people I think this trend kicked off at the two burnings of the library of Alexandria.

Re:Of course it was possible (3, Insightful)

Shadow of Eternity (795165) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497630)

Given the current state of things in the US I'm not entirely sure that deserves to be in the past tense.

If he had succeeded (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496796)

The south of Europe flourished. Rome was founded and grew in power several centuries sooner than had previously been the case. Greece was conquered before the flame of Athens burned with its greatest intensity. With the death of Cato the Elder the final Punic War was postponed. Carthage also continued to grow, extending her empire far to the east and the south. The death of Julius Ambrosius aborted the Mithraist revival and Christianity became the state religion in Rome. The Carthaginians spread their power throughout the middle east Mithraism was acknowledged as their state religion.The clash did not occur until the fifth century. Carthage itself was destroyed, the westward limits of its empire pushed back to Alexandria. Fifty years later, the Pope called for a crusade. These occurred with some regularity for the next century and a quarter, further fragmenting the Carthaginian empire while sapping the enormous bureaucracy which had grown up in Italy. The fighting fell off, ceased, the lines were drawn, an economic, depression swept the Mediterranean area. Outlying districts grumbled over taxes and conscription, revolted. The general anarchy which followed the war of secession settled down into a dark age reminiscent of that in the initial undisturbed sequence. Off in Asia Minor, the printing press was not developed.

"Stalemate till then, anyway," said Blood.

"Yes, but look what Newton did."

"How could you have known?"

"That is the difference between a good player and an inspired player. I saw his potential even when he wasfooling around with alchemy. Look what he did for theirscience, single-handed—everything! Your next move wastoo late and too weak."

"Yes. I thought I might still kill their computers bydestroying the founder of International Difference Machines, Ltd."

Dust chuckled.

"That was indeed ironic. Instead of an IDM 120, the Beagle took along a young naturalist named Darwin."

Blood glanced along to the end of the sequence where the radioactive dust was scattered across a lifeless globe.

"But it was not the science that did it, or the religion."

"Of course not," said Dust. "It is all a matter of emphasis."

Re:If he had succeeded (1)

iluvcapra (782887) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497088)

It's traditional to attribute such quotes [uchronia.net] .

Re:If he had succeeded (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497496)

I read that in a compendium of short stories. Do recommend! (GP modified the story a little)

We'd be all programming in Ada right now (5, Funny)

zill (1690130) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496798)

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (5, Informative)

smpoole7 (1467717) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496930)

Stephen Stirlings "Peshawar Lancers" has the British Empire move to India after an catastrophe, and they had an analytical engine as well. Eric Flint's alternate history might make better reading if you're postulating "what if." Flint covers "gearing down," because in order to make advanced technology, there's a logical procession. Many of the things that we take for granted are the result of incremental improvements and discoveries.

Simply put, there's no way to make the leap from a mechanical "analytical engine" OR a mechanical "difference calculator" even to to the original IBM PC. (Or for that matter, the first Z80-based 8 bit computers.)

There's no doubt that Babbage might have moved technology forward a few decades. But what you and I know of as "computers" nowadays are based on a number of discoveries, from physics (Quantam Theory, in particular) to electromagnetism to advanced fab technologies for silicon to you name it.

I love reading alternative history, but I prefer those that are realistic. If you and I were to find ourselves as the "Yankee In King Author's Court," we'd actually be frustrated more than anything else. There's so much technology that even our grandparents took for granted that wouldn't be available.

Just the ability to measure down to microns (and smaller) is vital when making a great deal of modern technology.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

smpoole7 (1467717) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496970)

And by the way, I also ought to add ... if Babbage HAD started a revolution that moved technology forward even just a few decades, WWI quite possibly wouldn't have been survivable for the species. There would have been pockets of civilization that survived with a hunter-gatherer or farming level of technology, but it would have been bad. VERY bad.

Think about it. Given the attitudes and mores of the time (and that's something else that most of us don't think about, by the way), if either side had had nukes (just to name one), much less truly accurate targeting "computers" and other innovations (or unmanned drones with nukes, sheesh!), it would have been an even greater bloodbath than it was. :/

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (3, Insightful)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497122)

Jus being able to refine ballistic tables could have made WWI much more lethal. It mightmade longer-ranged artillery practical, and of course better weapons get used more.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

smpoole7 (1467717) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497234)

> Jus being able to refine ballistic tables could have made WWI much more lethal.

Exactly. Like I said, though, the big problem was the attitudes back then. We easily make the mistake of assuming that people back then thought like we do nowadays. That's NOT the case. Look up that famous image of a young Adolf Hitler standing in the square when WWI was announced, hat waving in the air and cheering. Then look at that equally-famous image of Americans equally as thrilled when the US entered the war, cheering Woodrow Wilson.

Kind of frightening, really, if you were to give these people even just the technology that existed in WWII -- real fighter planes, aircraft carriers, submarines, better calculators for targeting, and so on.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

Shadow of Eternity (795165) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497672)

As opposed to americans cheering over entering Iraq and casting bitter recriminations and epithets at those who disagreed?

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

znerk (1162519) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497802)

See my comment [slashdot.org] , above, for more information concerning WW1 long range artillery. As in, "75 miles (120km) to target" long-range projectile weapons.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

turbidostato (878842) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497492)

"Given the attitudes and mores of the time"

Well, for once, it was not the attitude of the time to focus on civilian targets; that was more the WWII attitude.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497608)

I'm no historian, but I seem to recall that in WWII, when the Allies bombed Germany, the targets generally were the factories; and the Germans deliberately put their factories in the middle of populated areas. (Were they relying on us being less willing to bomb them for fear of collateral damage?)

But when the Germans bombed London, they weren't targeting factories, they were deliberately trying to terrorize the civilian population.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (2)

znerk (1162519) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497774)

But the Germans *did* have long range targeting, and weapons capable of using that data (indeed, the "Paris Gun" [wikipedia.org] was the reason for discovering how the Coriolis Effect [wikipedia.org] affected their targeting - at ranges of roughly 75 miles (120km), the rotation of the earth was enough to affect the projected 3-minute trajectory of the weapon's explosive projectiles).

In other words, your conclusion is based on a false premise. More information is always a good thing, when asking questions about possibilities.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497884)

You've been playing too many RTS games with a grand unified "technology pole."

Having advanced analog calculating devices would have made crunching numbers to verify hypotheses in subatomic physics easier to verify, but it wouldn't necessarily have made devising the hypotheses themselves any easier or faster. Besides, never underestimate the number-crunching power of desperate grad students.

Consider the age of the Antikythera Device [wikipedia.org] and compare it to how "old" the falsifiable heliocentric model is.

Re:We'd be all programming in Ada right now (1)

peragrin (659227) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497716)

This is why I love conspiracy theories involving aliens in 1949. Literally the technology to understand one quarter of a crashed alien spaceship wouldn't get invented for another 30+ years.

Then.. (5, Funny)

Haedrian (1676506) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496800)

1800 would have been the year of Linux on the Desktop.

Re:Then.. (5, Funny)

zill (1690130) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496818)

Sucks for Linus I guess, getting kidnapped by a bunch of time traveling Victorian thugs.

fyrmest (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496802)

fyrmest !

Here's TFA (5, Funny)

rgbrenner (317308) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496804)

Very interesting read. Here's a complete copy of the article for anyone who's interested:

Catchable fatal error: Argument 1 passed to TeraWurfl::addTopLevelSettings() must be an array, null given, called in /home/iprogr6/public_html/plugins/mobile/terawurfl/TeraWurfl.php on line 334 and defined in /home/iprogr6/public_html/plugins/mobile/terawurfl/TeraWurfl.php on line 463

"what if" game (2)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496812)

and what if a great-grandmother had balls? She'd be great-grandfather.

The point is that Babbage did succeed, except it was through his inspiration, which took his ideas and better manufacturing processes and newer knowledge of materials and a refined computing model.

Re:"what if" game (5, Interesting)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496958)

"The point is that Babbage did succeed, except it was through his inspiration, which took his ideas and better manufacturing processes and newer knowledge of materials and a refined computing model."

This is a common misconception based on earlier analyses. In fact, portions of his engines have been built from the original plans, using techniques available in his day, and it has been determined that it would indeed have worked if only it had been built.

Contrary to popular belief, the two biggest problems that Babbage faced were: (1) his inability to convince investors in the worth of his invention, and (2) his insistence on constant refinement rather than freezing the plans at some viable point, in order to make a working device.

Re:"what if" game (2)

timeOday (582209) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497144)

The mechanical approach was still a dead end that was not on the path to anything like where we are today. He was like the guys, previous to the Wright Brothers, who spent their (short) lives working on flapping wings. You could argue they had the right idea - heaver-than-air powered flight - and thus inspired those who came after - but the fact remains, they were barking up the wrong tree.

I think people are overvaluing the idea of "computation" in the abstract, rather than the implementation of actual machines to do it quickly, reliably, and cheaply. The ones that finally did so didn't owe much to Babbage. The idea of doing calculations faster has always been there, and once there were practical machines to do so, there was no delay waiting for a conceptual leap in how to exploit and generalize them.

Re:"what if" game (5, Insightful)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497216)

Yes and no. Mechanical computers do not have the scalability of electronic computers, to be sure, so that line of development would have reached its end.

At the same time, having a Turing complete computer, even a mechanical one, in the first half of the 19th century would have given mathematicians and engineers a whole new grammar to begin working on, much as even the relatively primitive digital computers of the 1940s to 1960s spurred on an absolutely astonishing amount of R&D, some of it still bearing fruit today.

I expect that if the Babbage machines had been built and had been put to use, they would have spurred the digital revolution nearly a century earlier, concentrating huge amounts of R&D by the Great Powers in the post-Napoleonic era. The military value, for instance, of fast and accurate cannon/mortar trajectory calculations would have given whoever developed such machines a considerable edge. The late 19th-early 20th century arms race was transformative in many ways, and the successors of Babbage's machines would have been caught up in that.

Re:"what if" game (4, Informative)

JustNilt (984644) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497364)

The mechanical approach was still a dead end that was not on the path to anything like where we are today. He was like the guys, previous to the Wright Brothers, who spent their (short) lives working on flapping wings. You could argue they had the right idea - heaver-than-air powered flight - and thus inspired those who came after - but the fact remains, they were barking up the wrong tree.

The difference (ha!) here is that the flapping wings didn't work for powering manned flight while the Babbage machines would have. Sure they'd have been limited but they would have worked ! From there, as TFA says, refinements would have been implemented. It isn't as though modern computers are what was first designed, implemented or even conceived of. Great progress such as we've seen typically requires LOTS of folks putting their own mark on things.

Somewhat OT but imagine what would have happened had the Greeks realized the true power of steam. That they were tinkering with it is well known. We might have had flying chariots by now!

Re:"what if" game (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497488)

Somewhat OT but imagine what would have happened had the Greeks realized the true power of steam. That they were tinkering with it is well known. We might have had flying chariots by now!

Flying chariots? Like these? [media-imdb.com]

Re:"what if" game (1)

znerk (1162519) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497866)

Unfortunately, the link you supplied is broken, due to the referrer being outside imdb.com's domain. Perhaps if you linked to the movie the image belongs to, instead, you would have at least gotten a "funny" mod, instead of being largely ignored because you didn't check your links in the preview pane.

Just saying.

Re:"what if" game (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497574)

On the contrary: mechanical "adding machines", while far simpler than Babbage's more general device, could be and were built, using principles similar to Babbage's. They were in commercial use clear up until 1985.

So even if a few of Babbage's full-scale machine were only used by rich institutions (like government), smaller and simpler versions would surely have found plenty of good use.

Even a custom-built device, designed to do nothing but calculate cosines, could have had a major impact on war.

Re:"what if" game (1)

znerk (1162519) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497846)

... as spoken by someone who obviously didn't read the article.

Your entire premise is flawed, in that had Babbage been able to fund the production of his machine, then he would have created "an actual machine to do it quickly, reliably, and cheaply." His Analytical Engine was a precursor to modern digital machines, and the article expresses how we might have been exactly where we are now, except 100 years earlier... and with a different power source.

It even postulates that something approximating the internet might have emerged, using the telegraph instead of the telephone - and we wouldn't have had to convert from digital to analog and back again, because the dots and dashes are digital to start with.

Babbage's Analytical Engine worked, he just never actually built it.

Re:"what if" game (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497534)

and (2) his insistence on constant refinement rather than freezing the plans at some viable point, in order to make a working device.

So in other words, he also invented the "causing a project to fail by constantly changing requirements" method so popular in IT management nowadays... :)

Re:"what if" game (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497446)

All of which were set back about 1000 years by the dark ages and the mentality that still pervades.

"We wouldn't just be looking at the stars... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496820)

...we would be living in dem. "

But really, we'd probably actually have decent internet and flying cars. And robots. Can't forget the robots.

Re:"We wouldn't just be looking at the stars... (1)

V!NCENT (1105021) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497790)

Flying cars are totally possible, were it not for the fact that it's politically impossible to have everyone flying.

Apple would still patent whatever he had invented (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496826)

:) Except it would be called an iPod or an iPad, it would be a yeoldePod and yeoldePad. :)

Re:Apple would still patent whatever he had invent (1)

niw3 (1029008) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497080)

The point is, we could be using tablets for a century by now, such patent wars would be a part of tech history, all related patents would be expired, of course. Also, DiffAppStore, or DAppStore, could be cool.

What if? (0, Offtopic)

AngryDeuce (2205124) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496828)

What if the Black Death hadn't have occurred? What if Rome had never fallen? What if the Chinese had used gunpowder for more than fireworks? What if Christianity had never caught on? What if Native Americans had thrown off the colonists?

Until we start figuring out how to travel the multiverse, it's all subjective opinion...

Re:What if? (4, Funny)

jd2112 (1535857) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496848)

What if the Black Death hadn't have occurred? What if Rome had never fallen? What if the Chinese had used gunpowder for more than fireworks? What if Christianity had never caught on? What if Native Americans had thrown off the colonists?

Until we start figuring out how to travel the multiverse, it's all subjective opinion...

What if there were no rhetorical questions?

Re:What if? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496956)

What if I were to ask what do you mean?

Re:What if? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497036)

What if there were no rhetorical questions?

You would get an answer.

Re:What if? (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497140)

Some of those questions are worth considering because they were single point sources. Presumably there existed one rat and one dead dude on a probably italian sailing ship who brought the plague to Europe... If a cat killed that rat with the flea holding the mutated virus, life would be quite different.

Some of those questions are kind of pointless, like the fall of rome. Rome was getting the giant flushing sound because of centuries of bad decisions and cultural failings, there is no "the" fall of rome. Read your Gibbon it arguably took 400 years of decay until arbitrarily you pick a fall date (all provinces abandoned in the west? no longer militarily relevant in the greater world? first sack of the city? no longer politically in charge of themselves? last distinctly roman leader killed and replaced by an outsider? this is like a hundred years range or more). Chinese and gunpowder, yeah that'll go really well, just replace most of Chinese cultural attitudes at that time and social mores, no big deal, just like brainwashing an entire empire simultaneously, how hard could that be?

The christianity thing was also seemingly inevitable in a "fall of rome" scenario, again, read your Gibbon without civil war and rebellion you're not getting a leader to convert.

Re:What if? (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497484)

You have to have excess food, universities, a thriving and dynamic economy, stable liberal government, and a mobile work force to arrive at the means to produce technology on the level which we now have. If any of these factors suffer a setback you can forget it because it is created by people with time on their hands who don't have to worry about where they are going to live or what they are going to eat or if their family is going to be robbed in the night.

read the book (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496834)

The Difference Engine. We'd eventually get to the same place.

Re:read the book (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496890)

Yeah I read the book but I reckon that scenario used too much energy, particularly once you started talking about GUIs and processors running at Ghz. We would have needed transistors then, just as we need photonic logic now to keep improving.

Re:read the book (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497032)

Improvement? I haven't seen any advances in computing in 10 years.
Machines get faster, But it's diminishing returns. More cycles eaten by idiotic programming
Being able to check you facebook page every 5 minutes is questionable progress.
All the important computing advances occurred in the 50's-70's

Re:read the book (1)

The Archon V2.0 (782634) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496900)

Eugh, must I? I really didn't like that book. It's been years, I admit, but all I remember of the story was complaints about pollution, complaints about bureaucracy, a MacGuffin everyone wanted, and a nonsensical epilogue. It felt like it was a modern-day thriller except with a thin coat of Ye Olde.

The middle third (it's split into three parts, with three different protagonists who don't interact much, so it's more like three short books) wasn't bad, but when it ended it felt like the story ended while there was still 150+ pages to read.

Roman steam engine (1)

Nidi62 (1525137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496842)

I always wonder what the world would have been like had the Romans realized that the steam engine-primitive forms of which were used only in temples and in entertainment/toys- could be used as a form of locomotion. Hind sight really is always 20/20, and makes you wonder if we have anything today that we use that could be used for something we could never dream of.

Re:Roman steam engine (1)

Coldmoon (1010039) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496964)

They still would not have gone there as human labor was too cheap to spur investment in productivity. It is similar to what the Chinese have now - far cheaper to throw a 1,000 people at the problem then to create something that would reduce human labor in deference to a machine approach...

Re:Roman steam engine (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497172)

Naah, they were more expensive. The problem is cultural, in that the leaders came more or less directly from military success, both against barbarians and in civil war. Military success implies capture of slaves. Coming up with a technological "solution" that expressly does not require the leaders most important product, is not gonna fly.

Its like trying to sell electric cars to Americans, no matter how much better they are than gas powered cars its culturally unacceptable. Must wait for the culture to slowly change, or suddenly die off, or be absorbed by a bigger more important culture, or otherwise be replaced from within, in both scenarios.

Imagine a housing solution for human beings that didn't involve big new york banks getting bigger. Possible? I think not. The technology doesn't prevent it, the culture does.

Similarly I don't know if victorian era england would really have found a wide ranging use for a mechanical computer given the culture of the time. If you need to add two numbers, don't you just hire a member of the lower classes? If you have to add a lot of them, for accounting purposes, you hire a lot of them... Its only when that starts to fail to scale decades later that you need a "solution"

The thing they missed was optics. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496982)

They were this -> - close. Jewlers had green glass ovals they
looked into to rest their eyes. Part of the problem was that dip***t
Aristotle thought we saw by sending things OUT of our eyes.

Just think how much telescopes would have helped the navy or
the army on the Danube.

Re:Roman steam engine (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497006)

Romans didn't use steam engines because slaves were much cheaper. Which is the reason Babbage's would have been just a similar toy: just because something is technically feasible doesn't mean society is ready for it.

Re:Roman steam engine (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497514)

Hence free energy in our age. We would just kill each other in short order.

Not really (1)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497242)

The engines they've used (basically a sphere with a couple of nozzles) had very poor efficiency. They were not really suitable for anything but simple toys. They'd have to invent a lot of new technology to make real piston steam engines. Never mind steam turbines.

That's the same problem as with Babbage's engine.

This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (5, Interesting)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496866)

The concept of huge mechanical computers fulfilling any purpose that seems hard for us to comprehend today.

Yet huge mechanical computers for specialized use were in actual deployment in several industries, not the least of which were "fire control computers" [wikipedia.org] on US and British Battle Ships and Heavy Cruisers in the pre WWII era. These were initially fairly huge mechanical beasts [wikipedia.org] that were originally developed around the time of the first World War, and which were initially totally mechanical in nature. By the Second World War they were electro-mechanical (solenoids and relays and stepper motors), and were enclosed in battle hardened enclosures [wikipedia.org] .

Still 1920-to-1945 is hardly 1833, and the size and complexity of such devices taxed the manufacturing capabilities of the day, and the size and complexity of the problems they could solve was probably more easily worked out on paper than set (programmed) onto the machine.

Having worked out the concepts, one wonders how far Babbage could have progressed with a large budget and a larger machine shop to build his engines. There were precious few problems to which you could apply this technology in that day. But its a chicken and egg problem. Its hard to know what computations would have been attempted had such equipment been available. The calculation problems any society tackles tend to be near the limits of the computing capabilities available to the task.

A man before his time.

Re:This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (2)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496938)

Babbage was working at the bleeding edge of the engineering of his time. Engines which have been built to his designs, and using the machining available to him, barely work. The long chains of gears frequently jam. There is just too much slack built into his systems. Its not his fault, just a natural consequence of the way engineering was done when he was alive.

So no, I don't think it could have gone far.

Re:This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497324)

Once a good use was found for it, the technology would have improved. It always has.

Re:This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (2)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497384)

Well okay so that gets us to The Diamond Age if you assume it has to use moving parts. Maybe working Babbage machines would have brought forward the development of electronics.

Oh no, not this again. (5, Interesting)

Ga_101 (755815) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497138)

Babbage was not "a man before his time". He didn't need more money. He didn't need a larger machine shop. He blew it!

He had the money.
The people in 1800's Britain knew a good thing when they saw it. And when small prototypes were demonstrated the British Government committed to build the difference engine. And guess what, they wanted to use it for gunnery on ships! They invested *big*. How much? One fully kited out battleship's worth. One of these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Warrior_(1860) [wikipedia.org] (more or less). That is a huge amount of money.

The skills were available.
Have a look at a British clock from this period. Very intricate work and at a lot smaller scale than Babbage required. Sure, what he was doing was on a large scale, but the skills and tools were out there. Indeed, Babbage teamed up with them and had the money to do it.

But he committed the cardinal sin. Babbage was forever changing the design. Yes Mr Babbage, your analytical engine idea is nice but we are paying you for the difference engine! He could not stay focused to build what was paid for and required. Falling out with the machinists capable of building it hardly helped maters. He did not deliver. As a result he blew not only his own reputation but that of the whole idea, killing it for the best part of a century. That is how bad he was.

You can be the most talented man in the world, but if you are so disorganised and uncivil that nobody wants to work for you it is all for nothing. A lesson we can all still learn form.

Re:This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (1)

The Master Control P (655590) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497420)

the size and complexity of the problems they could solve was probably more easily worked out on paper than set (programmed) onto the machine.

Obviously not or they'd not have gone to the difficulty of building machines which tax the limits of precision mechanical engineering to solve them. And part of what the mechanical FC computers did - stabilize the guns on a ship that's pitching and turning and rolling - can't be done with a precomputed table.

Re:This is where Steampunk died (or was born) (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497798)

And part of what the mechanical FC computers did - stabilize the guns on a ship that's pitching and turning and rolling - can't be done with a precomputed table.

Fire Control computers of that vintage did not attempt to stabilize the guns. That didn't come till much later, and never was used on very large bore guns (> 6inch). Simply too much mass to control. Instead the delay firing until the ship rolls or pitches thru the optimum fire point.

Two words for you... (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496870)

Two words for you: "Difference Engine" [wikipedia.org] . Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. That's what would happen if Babbage had succeeded.

Re:Two words for you... (1)

pmontra (738736) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497272)

Exactly. We'd be stuck with billions of km of gears and transistors would be a fringe technology with no commercial future because of all the investments on the mechanical computing platform.

Not possible. (3, Insightful)

artor3 (1344997) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496876)

A Victorian computer revolution was not possible, as should be obvious to anyone who understands how computers work. Just think of how massive (and weak) computers were back in the days of vacuum tubes. Now imagine how massive, weak, and prone to break downs they'd be if they were made of clockwork. You'd have an entire warehouse filled with moving parts that might be equivalent to a digital watch... at least until one of the gears breaks. The technology simply didn't exist to make computing feasible.

Re:Not possible. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38496996)

You dumbfuck shit for brains. "Computing" wasn't always about how bloated you can make software to play games on a cell phone. Of course computing would have been possible.

Re:Not possible. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497028)

And thats exactly why we gave up on compters in the 1940's and haven't bothered with them since..........

Re:Not possible. (1)

msobkow (48369) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497066)

But a computing machine is actually far more straight-forward than the way an electronic computer works. It would be much slower, but I don't think it would be any more prone to breakdown than the vacuum tube machines were to burned-out tubes. Compare a mechanical desk-top adding machine of old to the earliest calculators -- they really weren't that much bulkier near the end of the era of the adding machines.

And the odds are, if you find one, the adding machine will still work.

Re:Not possible. (1)

melonman (608440) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497116)

Also, the computer revolution really took off because computers became ever cheaper and easier to manufacture. The problem with Babbage's design was that a lifetime wasn't long enough to build one without CAD/CAM. So, even if he'd worked twice as fast and got the thing working, it would have been a one-off for another few decades.

If Babbage had succeeded, it would have sparked the "man as machine" line of thought that has changed so much in our society, and that could have changed the course of history in all sorts of ways. Maybe we would have had wetware trials rather than monkey trials. But I don't see mechanical computing ever getting past the early mainframe stage in terms of numbers of machines or direct relevance to the average person's life. The Babbage Clone industry would really have struggled.

Analog Computers not possible. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497142)

A Victorian computer revolution was not possible, as should be obvious to anyone who understands how computers work.

Analog Computers [wikipedia.org] of which the transmission in a car is an example.

Re:Not possible. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497166)

These are the Victorians that you are on about, I wouldn't bet against them being able to
do something with cogs and gears.

Re:Not possible. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497332)

But if he had "succeeded", it's possible it could have kickstarted research into technologies to make it smaller. I'm not sure it would have actually changed much, except just moving everything forward 50-100 years.

But the whole reason he failed was because no one cared. A lot of things would have to have been different already; they simply didn't have a use for it. We needed to crack encrypted broadcast messages. Just think of where computers would be now if WWII either didn't happen or turned out differently.

butterfly effect my a55 (1)

Locutus (9039) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496882)

you or I wouldn't be here to ask the question for one thing because the world would be an entirely different place. Probably much stranger weather-wise too since the industrial revolution would have occurred a century or so earlier and who knows what military(s) would have used it to the best of their ability.

LoB

Re:butterfly effect my a55 (2)

Psion (2244) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497200)

But the Industrial Revolution was in full swing by the 1830s. In many ways, Babbage's ideas were a product of that era. I don't think the world would be too terribly different a place than it is today. Perhaps, with proper error-free reference tables, science and engineering would have made a few more advances, but the complexity of all those moving parts in Babbage's Analytical Engine would have prevented something like Victorian PCs. I think the big change would have happened around the second World War, where ENIAC and similar computers would have been hybrid machines combining established mechanical computational constructs with vacuum-tube electronics to speed up calculations. Might the Germans have used aluminum calculating machines for more accurate V1 and V2 missiles? Could that have made a difference in the Space Race, or would that still have to wait for the weight-saving economy of the transistor and integrated circuits?

The thing to remember about technological progress is that invention is an interdependent process that involves more than just science and engineering, but politics, religion, and other social customs. Maybe the Analytical Engine would have gone nowhere until the invention of modern electronics. Or maybe minds like Tesla and industrialists like JP Morgan would have seized on the potential and changed everything. The most optimistic estimate would be that it would trigger a Victorian or at least Edwardian Internet era, with speech, information, and ideas flying around the planet at the speed of an automated telegraph. But computing with gears and the odd solenoid is a clumsy, tricky thing, and I can't help but think such ideas would have only tiny influences on our modern world.

Re:butterfly effect my a55 (1)

The Master Control P (655590) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497556)

Might the Germans have used aluminum calculating machines for more accurate V1 and V2 missiles? Could that have made a difference in the Space Race, or would that still have to wait for the weight-saving economy of the transistor and integrated circuits?

The V2's accuracy was set by the onboard integrating accelerometer, already a precision mechanical device, which integrated an error of some hundreds of meters over the course of its flight. No mechanical computer, in the sense of a gear-based version of the digital control computer, would've been fast enough so it would've still been a PIGA style device; There's a lot of room for the improvement of the PIGA over the V2's version so if mechanical integrators in general had been moved up the V2 would've likely been more accurate.

As for the Apollo flight computer, a very limited orbit-tracking version might have been possible but integrating error would have made it deeply suspect over such a long time period I think. In terms of all the other things the Apollo computer did in terms of attitude control and timing the firing of thrusters correctly, I doubt you could make a one cubic foot mechanical or electromechanical computer do that.

Re:butterfly effect my a55 (1)

Psion (2244) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497832)

As for the Apollo flight computer, a very limited orbit-tracking version might have been possible but integrating error would have made it deeply suspect over such a long time period I think. In terms of all the other things the Apollo computer did in terms of attitude control and timing the firing of thrusters correctly, I doubt you could make a one cubic foot mechanical or electromechanical computer do that.

I'm not suggesting that a mechanical computer could have replaced the Apollo flight computer. But if improvements in pre-calculated tables allowed ballistics and even rocketry to develop a little faster, mechanical computers might have come in handy for pre-Apollo rocket launches. What's the minimum computer functionality required to put a man into space? On the moon? And maybe some of the computing work could have been shifted away from the vehicle to a dedicated Flight Computations building on the ground.

Butterfly effect (1)

jones_supa (887896) | more than 2 years ago | (#38496952)

If/when something bad happens in my life and, something awesome happens later after that, it makes me easier to accept the sucky occurance reasoned with the butterfly effect, as without it the great thing might not ever have happened. :)

Anyway, it's always amazing to think how the current state of world is a result of millions small things coming together. Without everything going exactly like this, even the probability of me existing would be extremely low.

Had He Succeeeded... (1)

Scarletdown (886459) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497060)

If Babbage had succeeded, then there would have been a programming language called Babbage, and a software store chain in malls called Ada's instead of the other way around.

Storage not computing (4, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497100)

Historically computing has never been a processing problem, but a storage problem. Or all computing, from embedded stuff to supercomputers, pretty much seems to revolve around turning a computation bound problem into a storage bound problem, and waiting for storage to improve so you can roll out faster processors to make use of it.

Try it yourself, if you have the skills. I had a pretty decent bitslice ALU design for a relay CPU down a total of 20 relays per bit slice, not just a wimpy bare adder but a pretty full featured design complete with comparator and roller/shifter unit. An 8 bit processor is well within my entertainment budget at a couple bucks per relay, and if I package each bitslice into something the size of a ream of paper, which is probably pretty pessimistic, the entire 8 bit CPU is only about the size of a box of bulk laserprinter paper. I figured for about $500 total all costs of all parts I can get a decent reliable relay based 8 bit CPU operational.

But a couple hundred bytes of relay based ram to run some "real programs" is way outside my budget, both financial, storage, and power. Even tradeoffs don't work, like using latching relays saves me considerable (cheap) power at a cost of roughly twice as much per bit. Inevitably you get into weird dynamic electrolytic capacitor designs, strange attempts at homemade core memory... Cheating and using modern sram isn't cool. Hundreds of latching relays at lets say $5 per bit isn't gonna fly if I "need" a K or so of memory to have fun, that would be $40K just of storage relays to say nothing of the address decode logic etc. Also that would be well in excess of 8000 relays for a K of memory, vs a mere 160 relays for the processor. About 80 times bigger. So that goes from a small box sized CPU to basically a room of my house.

This has interesting MTBF implications, in that any "non-trivial" relay computer is going to mostly fight memory breakdowns, not processor failures.

To an amateur, calculating is the hard part. To a pro, storage is where the real problem lies.

Re:Storage not computing (1)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497244)

There are tradeoffs, depending on the problem. If you had several orders of magnitude faster processing, for some applications storage would become less of a bottleneck, because you could just recalculate a lot of data on the fly instead of storing it (the well-known time-space tradeoff). So in a sense storage is a bottleneck in those applications only because processing isn't fast enough--- meaning the bottleneck is processing when you look at it from another perspective.

Re:Storage not computing (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497330)

Yup thats the problem with trying to replicate what amounts to a 1980 KIM-1 in relays.
The ancients ran in to the same dilema and their solution was wide word sizes like 60 bits. Thus you end up with simpler shorter programs and more calculation per cycle and less memory size required.
An 8 bit machine with a K of ram is what you get when memory and CPU are fast and space is cheap. What I'm used to, basically.
The ancients idea of large word length makes sense if memory is expensive. Also lots of CPU registers make sense if you're not going to multi-process or interrupt process anyway. Thats why my ratios of relays in the CPU vs memory is so far off from historical record of real historical relay computers.

What you're not seeing is I'm talking about primary storage, you're talking about bulk secondary storage. If I have all day I can use papertape or punch cards for bulk storage. There is no way to process ten times faster than storage, unless you mean "bulk storage" like hard drive space. I'm talking about a limit very much like cache memory. You can't out process your cache, at some fundamental level the output of an adder (or whatever) needs to be stuck "somewhere" no matter how fast it can add...

Re:Storage not computing (2)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497392)

Yeah, there's some amount of primary storage that you can't do without, but it's not entirely fixed. In a lot of scientific-computing apps, for example, the trend over the past decade has been towards ripping out things like lookup tables, because they aren't worth the RAM or L1/L2 cache space: it's cheaper to just re-calculate sin(whatever) every time you need it than to store a big sin table, or recalculate pi to 10,000 digits instead of storing it as a giant constant, which didn't used to be the case. Occasionally you might even avoid caching reusable intermediate results and just re-calculate them every time you need them, if calculating them is fast enough.

Too early for production use (4, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497134)

Much as I like the steampunk concept, Babbage's machine was at the upper end of what was buildable as an expensive prototype. Bear in mind that even consistently-good, moderately priced steel wasn't available until the 1880s. That's why fine machinery was made of brass until the 20th century.

The commercial history of mechanical calculators is not what you'd expect. Leibniz built the first mechanical multiplier in 1694. The commercial version, the "Arithmometer", wasn't produced until 1851. (It took a very long time to commercialize technology before there was industrial infrastructure.) Adding machines came later, because an adding machine is only a marginal improvement over an abacus, but a multiplier is a huge win.

The first high-volume mechanical arithmetic device was the cash register. When, in 1884, cash registers first got tape printers, for the first time merchants had some real mechanical bookkeeping assistance. By then, good steel was available, and stamped parts could be made in volume. That's the point at which something like Babbage's machine might first have been a commercial success.

Which it was. Hollerith's first punched card machines were used for the 1880 census. The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company manufactured Hollerith machines commercially. The CTR became the International Tabulating and Recording Company, which became International Business Machines, which is today's IBM.

By 1880, there was enough manufacturing infrastructure to make stuff, and there was continuous year to year progress in mechanical calculation. The peak in purely mechanical systems was probably the Burroughs Sensimatic, in 1953, which was essentially a spreadsheet program made out of gears. IBM tabulators were more advanced, but they were electromechanical.

Re:Too early for production use (4, Informative)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497274)

Bear in mind that even consistently-good, moderately priced steel wasn't available until the 1880s. That's why fine machinery was made of brass until the 20th century.

As an amateur machinist guy I can assure you that fine machinery was made of brass because steel/iron/etc was a nightmare to machine with the tools of the day, but brass is OK, not so labor intensive.

Bulk steel was actually pretty cheap. Not cheap enough to make a bridge out of it, but cheap enough to fill the world with rifles and swords. Before 1880 steel was too expensive to make a steel bridge over every river, or a steel locomotive rail thru every little two horse town, or a steel computer in every house, or a steel computer based internet, which is just as well because they didn't have the proper carbides and HSS to machine it anyway at any affordable rate.

Brass was, is, and probably always will be terribly expensive but it machines and wears (self lubricates, to an extent) like a dream. And the finish is quite attractive and simple, unlike steel or aluminum finishes. To this day, the amateur machinist guys make homemade steam engines out of brass, not steel, if they can afford it, anyway. I certainly prefer to work with brass. There are some issues with the cutting angles on lathe tools etc but its all really no big deal.

Brass is much closer in cost to being a precious metal than it is to being a structural metal. Always has been. This explains the fascination brass holds with the local meth user population, a little pocket sized outside water hose fitting is worth darn near as much as a small iron sewer/drain grate at the recycler.

then the holocaust would have been complete? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497264)

im not sure about this, but here is my initial gut reaction (based on Nazi Census by Goth and Ali, and IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black).

Every last Jew would have been listed in a computer somewhere. There would have been no 'mistakes'.
Renee Carmille wouldn't have been able to sabotage the Nazi census in France. There would have been no problems with supplies of nice paper to the largest punch-card user in the world - the Nazi Party bureaucracy.
Every country would have been like a souped-up version of what happened in the Netherlands, where some duty-bound bureaucrat aided the nazis by making sure that his machines performed exactly to specification.
Nobody would have been able to slip through any cracks - every last hole could have been plugged.
And all the records could have been destroyed with some simple hard-disk wipes, leaving no evidence.

Sci-fi "The Difference Engine" (4, Interesting)

lkcl (517947) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497276)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Difference_Engine [wikipedia.org] - by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is a fascinating and complex exploration of exactly this concept: namely that Babbage succeeded. The key historical difference - the premise of the book - is that England's backing of the American Civil War succeeded, due to cryptography in part. Towards the end of the book it's made clear that the continued war between France and England has turned "cold" and thus much effort is dedicated to sneaking obfuscated "divide by zero" algorithms into the opposing side's Difference Engines. this book is one of the only sci-fi books (out of over 500 that i've read) that i actually found it hard to understand even 50% of what was going on. still made a damn good story, though.

Automatic Telephone Exchange (1)

InterGuru (50986) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497350)

The Automatic Telephone Exchange was patented in the 1890s and was available [wikipedia.org] in the 1900s. The relays could have been rewired as an electromechanical computer, as was done in 1943 on the Z3 computer [wikipedia.org] .

No one thought of it.

It would make a very good Star Trek time travel ep (1)

master_p (608214) | more than 2 years ago | (#38497522)

The Enterprise travels back in time, assists Babbage in finishing his analytical engine, and mankind gets warp drive 150 years before Cochrane did.

In the mean time, Hitler fails to capture power in Germany, thanks to the internet.

Stalin fails to rise to power, because people are quickly informed via their phones about his actions.

etc

the true visionary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38497748)

hero of alexandria [wikimedia.org] had him beat my about 2000 years
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