Monday, March 19, 2018

March 2018 report to the Computer Conservation Society

This was presented on March 15, 2018 to the Computer Conservation Society by Doron Swade.

Work continues on the cross-referenced database for Babbage’s Scribbling Books, the set of manuscript notebooks Babbage used to record his daily deliberations.

Our original intention in supporting the wider release by the Science Museum of the Babbage technical archive was to enlist, in due course, the support of a wider community of interested volunteers. Until recently we have not taken up generous offers of help largely because it was not evident how our limited resources could stretch to manage an extended programme of work and to give the new input appropriate attention. A new development has been to make available for transcription by an enthusiastic volunteer images taken of the Scribbling Book held in the Cambridge Library. This trial programme has prompted us to address a number of issues: access to material that is on conditional release to the project by institutional archives; usage rights and access to the database; rights to edit, amend or add material; issues of attribution and checking to maintain the integrity of the content; and the formalisation of editorial conventions for database entries. The experiment has provided a valuable opportunity to address these and related issues in preparation for enlisting wider participation when we return to the task of interpreting the new indexed material to make a final assessment of the designs and the extent to which the material supports a consistent description of a complete machine.

The Cambridge manuscript belongs to Babbage’s later period (1850s and early 1860s) when he returned to refine and develop his earlier work. The most substantial single section consists of some 65 manuscript pages the transcription of which is now complete. Tim Robinson has vetted the transcriptions and incorporated them into the database. Preliminary review of this new material suggests that while cryptic in parts it is more coherent than previously thought and contains some potentially dramatic simplifications of implementation. This material will be the focus of close study in due course.

Doron Swade

Monday, January 22, 2018

Winter 2017 report to the Computer Conservation Society

This was presented on January 18, 2018 to the Computer Conservation Society by Doron Swade.

Work continues compiling the searchable database for Babbage's manuscript Notebooks. This work is being done by Tim Robinson in the US. It has till now been impossible for Babbage scholars to come to definitive conclusions about aspects of the Analytical Engine design because of uncertainty as to what the Notebooks contained: we could not know whether what had already been researched was all that Babbage had to say on any particular topic, nor could we assess the degree of completeness of the designs in ignorance of what else there might be in the some two dozen volumes of his manuscript Notebooks. Digging in the final cracks has been rewarding though we have resisted spending too much time interpreting the content given that the major immediate priority is data capture and cross-indexing. 


The question of the levels of completeness of the various designs is critical to a prospective build and new clues have emerged from the recent work. A manuscript in the Cambridge University Library contains a disconcerting observation by Babbage: that 'when some great improvement arose I only worked out enough to satisfy myself of its truth. I reserved the enquiry into many of its consequences as a treat when I otherwise felt indisposed to work' (1860). This has bleak implications for a definitive detailed design. 

Tim Robinson’s mining of the Notebooks revealed an entry in which Babbage refers to Plan 13 as the 'most complete ever made' (1849). So we now have a datum set by Babbage himself by which to judge the best expectation of completeness and this promises to give us a first approximation of the size and nature of design gaps we might need to fill in the specification of a meaningfully buildable machine. 

Continuing mining the Notebooks for the searchable cross-referenced database remains the priority for the coming months.

Doron Swade