Friday, March 22, 2019

March 2019 report to the Computer Conservation Society

This was presented on March 21, 2019 to the Computer Conservation Society by Doron Swade.

The sheet-by sheet inspection of Babbage’s vast technical archive is now in the end game after some three years.  The last progress update reported that Tim Robinson, in the US, working from the digitised images of the manuscripts, was close to completing a review of the known catalogued material in the Science Museum archive and that one of the final tasks was a scrape of a relatively small but potentially critical set of drawings that had not been catalogued or scanned the contents of which are largely unknown.  Tim is currently in London spending a week going through this material.  This material evaded the Science Museum’s scanning operation in 2011 largely because it was not listed in the catalogue prepared by the late Allan Bromley who compiled the first near-comprehensive record, published in 1991, of the Babbage technical archive.

There have already been significant finds.  The Notations for Difference Engine 1, dating from 1834, thought to exist, had never come to light.  These have now been found and represent a crucial piece in the puzzle of the developmental trajectory of the symbolic language Babbage developed as a design aid, to describe and specify his engine, and used extensively in the development of the Analytical Engine.

Equally significant is the discovery of what is thought to be the legendary Plan 28a, part of the most advanced design for the Analytical Engine.  There have been references to Plan 28 and Plan 28a designs peppered through the late manuscripts and some design drawings, but the existence of this plan has never been confirmed.  Bromley told me in the late 1990s that he questioned whether it had existed as a separate entity in the first place in which event ‘Plan 28’ may have been a federation of improvements added to previous designs.

The survey so far has identified mis-titled drawings, single drawings that have two unrelated catalogue entries, and drawings known to exist from earlier scholarly work but not located.  These findings are openly shared with the Science Museum archivists in what has become a model collaboration between content specialists and archivists. We await the completion of this week’s inspection in the hope and expectation of more surprises.

Doron Swade

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Autumn 2018 report to the Computer Conservation Society

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

The end is in sight creating the cross-referenced database for the set of some 20 Scribbling Books, the manuscript notebooks in which Babbage recorded his workings and thoughts on his engine designs. Tim Robinson, who has been compiling the database is up to the last year of Babbage’s life (1871) and is within striking distance of completion. The process has taken coming up for three years.

The motive for this undertaking was that before we could commit to building anything we needed to be sure that we had reviewed everything Babbage had to say on a particular topic. The situation is confounded by Babbage’s practice of returning to the same design issues time and time again over periods of decades as a consequence of which related material is unsystematically scattered through the archive of some 7,000 manuscript sheets.

While Tim Robinson’s emphasis so far has been data capture rather than interpretation there are several general preliminary findings that are already invaluable to the overall enterprise of constructing an Analytical Engine. One such is the confirmation that not only are the designs incomplete with respect to details of control and overall systems integration (this was anticipated) but that there are several critical features for which there are worked viable alternatives the final selection of which Babbage left open (method of multiplication, digit precision, method of carriage, for example). Also, that Babbage remained creatively active till the end with at least one instance of his most sophisticated design being modelled in the period immediately before his death in 1871.

The completion of the database will be a landmark in the developmental trajectory of this project. Next steps are, firstly, a scrape of a relatively small but potentially critical set of ‘mystery’ drawings that have not been catalogued or scanned. This is a manageable clean-up job undertaken for completeness and in the hope that some final gaps might be filled and some remaining blind references traced. Secondly, to model and build a mechanism (the advanced anticipating carriage mechanism) to assess logical and physical feasibility, and to use this to develop generic modelling and evaluation techniques to be extended to each of the core functions. 

Doron Swade