Friday, January 20, 2017

Winter 2016 report to the Computer Conservation Society

This was presented on January 19 to the Computer Conservation Society by Doron Swade.

The main activities since last report focus on the original manuscript sources of the Babbage technical archive held by the Science Museum. Since the 19 th century there have been several generations of reference systems, and with the digitisation of the archive in 2011 by the Science Museum, a further layer was added. The reference system now used by the Science Museum will be the de facto standard for future scholarship.

What we are doing is reviewing image by image the entire archive holdings (some 7000 manuscript folios) which include all surviving drawings and notations for the Analytical Engine, to reconcile their filenames and titles with the three or four earlier reference systems, to identify anomalies, relate the descriptions to the physical sources for untraced or missing material, identify phantom entries and omissions, and resolve situations in which material is known to exist or have existed for which no physical source is evident. Not all of this is straight forward and in some instances unscrambling layered inconsistent reference systems dating back to Babbage’s time has proved to be nightmarishly difficult. Several visits to the physical archive at Wroughton have been made. More will be required.

The outcome of this process will be a searchable data base, annotated and cross-referenced, that identifies all known sources, and records the status of each source including issues of provenance, anomalous reference history, with a record of links and citations to other material in the archive and elsewhere.

As reported in September, Tim Robinson in the US is going through all known material sheet by sheet to construct the searchable data base with estimated completion by the end of 2017. In London I am going through 20 volumes of Babbage’s ‘Scribbling Books’ page by page, transcribing AE-relevant material, to produce a searchable quick index, estimated for completion by July 2017.

We are in close collaboration with the Science Museum archivists, and our findings are routinely supplied to them in support of their ongoing work to open-source this material. The main outcome to the Analytical Engine project will be a survey-knowledge of all known material relevant to the AE design, consistent indexing, and a powerful software retrieval and reference tool.

While this activity is ongoing we have intermitted our efforts to reverse engineer a more complete understanding of the Analytical Engine design though, it must be said, pursuing the implications of critical new discoveries has proved, on occasions, irresistible.

Doron Swade


  1. So I presume that the efforts to get the high-res scans released by the Science Museum have failed - so the new plan is to transcribe the relevant annotations so that we won't NEED the high res scans anymore?

    If that's the outcome, I guess it's as good as we can get.

    Will you release this data incrementally as it's done - or all at once when the entire task is complete?

  2. @Steve Baker: Not sure how you come to that conclusion.

    In terms of releasing information I think we'll do it bit by bit.