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