Sunday, September 19, 2021

Autumn 2021 report to the Computer Conservation Society

Submitted by Doron Swade to the Computer Conservation Society.

Winding back to last Spring, with the survey of the Babbage manuscript archive complete, we were faced with the choice of pressing on to define what might be built using our current knowledge, or stepping back to evaluate and analyse what was captured in the review of the archive. We decided to step back and Tim Robinson has made substantial progress extending and integrating our understanding of the AE design and its trajectory from 1834 till Babbage’s death in 1871. Tim has identified and describes six phases in the evolution of the AE designs.

These are framed in an overview of the developmental timeline of the whole AE enterprise. There are also focussed pieces on central topics including the use of punched cards, the user view, methods of carriage of tens, and arithmetical process. This work represents the first comparative overview of each of the major designs ('Plans') and provides a new depth of understanding of the overall AE designs and of the developmental arc. The new findings vindicate the decision to take time out to process the material from the archive survey: the work will inform what can meaningful be built given that none of Babbage’s original designs describe a complete engine; secondly, the scholarly value of capturing and documenting a major advance in understanding since Bruce Collier’s work in the 1960s and Allan Bromley’s work in the 1970s and 80s. The immediate next step is to complete this analysis. The project will then move on to defining what version of the AE should be built.

Doron Swade