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