Monday, October 3, 2016

Autumn 2016 report to the Computer Conservation Society

This was presented on September 22 to the Computer Conservation Society by Doron Swade.

The last report described that reverse engineering a coherent and consistent understanding of the Analytical Engine design by examining the main and best-known mechanical drawings has been less than completely successful to date. I also described that to deal with this we have taken a step back to marshal and review all known sources to assess the descriptive completeness of the surviving technical information i.e. whether Babbage’s archived technical drawings and manuscripts constitute in their entirety a coherent description of the Engine.

Tim Robinson in the US has been trawling through the entire technical archive and compiling a searchable cross-referenced data base for all surviving technical material. In parallel with this I am conducting a fast-track survey of some twenty manuscript volumes of Babbage’s notebooks focussing on material on his notational language (the Mechanical Notation) that he used to describe his machines – this with a view to reading the notational description of the AE designs using the decoded Notation as an interpretative tool to achieve a deeper understanding of the designs. The data-base and trawling exercise is what has primarily occupied us over the last four months.

A major step forward in the overall project has been the online public release by the Science Museum of the major part of the digitised archive. This has been widely anticipated and widely welcomed. The Museum’s intention is that the images are for the time being illustrative only in that the image resolution is sufficient to identify the drawing and its major features, and higher resolution versions are available on request. The current lower resolution images are sometimes adequate for smaller manuscripts but for the larger sheets the detail of the smaller annotations is insufficiently clear. The work of our small team is not hampered by this as we have access to higher resolution off-line images under licence. The relevance of the public release and the usability of the images affect the volunteer effort of folk wishing to help the project, for which they need access to detailed images. The good news is that the Science Museum intends a higher resolution release of the whole archive for early in 2017, and this will include material already digitised but not yet released online. Feedback in response to the first release has confirmed the wider interest in the project and the presence of fair number volunteers eager to help. We expect to benefit from this effort more fully in the new year when the images will support close reading.

In short, we are retrenching by focussing on identifying, reviewing and indexing all known the technical sources to serve both as a datum and as a research tool in the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the designs.

Doron Swade

1 comment: