Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spring 2021 report to the Computer Conservation Society

Submitted by Doron Swade to the Computer Conservation Society.

Tim Robinson has started writing up findings following the review of the complete Babbage manuscript archive. The initial work is in the form of an overview centred on each of the ‘Plans’ i.e. the large ‘systems drawings’ that Babbage shed during the evolution of the designs. The intention was to put to one side further detailed work, for the moment at least, to take stock and to document broad-stroke findings and new insights. Excavating further the hardly-known Plan 30 (there is a Plan 28a but seemingly no Plan 29) proved irresistible both for inherent interest and for completeness. Babbage restarted work on the AE designs in June 1857 after a break of almost a decade and referred to the machine as ‘Analytical Engine 30’. Tim reports that the hardware changes introduced for Plan 30 are ‘dramatic’. One remarkable feature is the extension of the Store to 1000 registers, and most intriguingly various methods of mechanically addressing the store contents. The broad-stroke writing has been paused temporarily while this rich seam is explored. It is not expected to take long and we look forward do the resumption of the interpretative account.

Doron Swade 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

January 2021 report to the Computer Conservation Society

Presented by Doron Swade on Monday 21 January 2021 to the Computer Conservation Society.

With the first-pass inspection of the manuscript archive complete, attention has turned to analysis and interpretation, and organising the findings to aid navigation. Babbage shed versions of the design as it developed in the form of ‘Plans’ – large ‘systems drawings’ which serve as developmental staging posts – the main ones of which number Plan 1 through to Plan 28. The overall approach to analysing the accumulated data is that of a timeline that groups all material, from wherever in the archive (drawings, Notebooks, Notations), to each of the landmark Plans.

The significance of the design advances for each Plan is identified as each is reviewed and evaluated, whether, for example, a new Plan involves a major design reset or only incremental change. From this, the first fruits of the extensive study of the sources are now emerging and the overall developmental arc is now easier to identify. A major initial finding is that the designs are less disjointed than thought and there is more continuity in the inventive trajectory than we feared was the case, or that scholarship to date had indicated. As an example of a more specific finding: it is not until Plan 27 that there is the first evidence of user-level conditional operation. While the Analytical Engine is routinely portrayed as incorporating, from the start, defining features of a modern computer conditional operation included, this feature appears fairly late in the day and is barely mentioned again. How significant to Babbage was conditional operation as a defining feature, is now an enticing open question.

This work is being undertaken by Tim Robinson in the US. Progress was slowed in by climate crises in California not to mention political and pandemic disruption. The initial findings are a long-awaited reward after some four years examining primary sources.

Doron Swade