In the reading from Campbell-Kelley and Aspray, Leslie John Comrie blames the British government for failing to fund Babbage’s “dream.” Given the views of what Babbage’s machine might be useful for–sketched out in Campbell-Kelly and Aspray’s chapter and in the paragraph from Menabrea–do you think Comrie’s accusation is reasonable?
What do these accounts about the development of the computer say about the changing nature of invention between the 18th and the 20th century?
Menabrea’s description of the potential achievements of Babbage’s engines clearly reveals the myriad of useful tasks. Babbage’s dream was clearly capable of achieving the computational efficiency and accuracy that the current corporate era finds indispensable. As there are obvious benefits of funding and building even Babbage’s first difference engine, the English Government clearly missed a potential opportunity for increased efficiency and progress.
But was building the difference engine actually possible? Campbell-Kelly, despite blaming the English Government, finds evidence to contrary. The Scheutz difference engine, although built for a reasonable price, was both later and less precise than Babbage’s dream. (Campbell-Kelly, 59) The Government’s early investment in Babbage’s machine came at a time when the industrial capabilities and precision were not able to cast and built a Difference Engine that would live up to Babbage’s dream. Additionally, as the Government did make that early investment in Babbage’s invention, they should not be blamed for failing to instigate the era of digital computing in the 19th century.
Blame is a silly word to use in this case- clearly the scientific community of the 1850’s was incapable of providing an competitive inventive environment for digital computation. Neither the photograph or the telegraph was developed in isolation, the inventors were part of a significant community of scientists researching similar problems. If Babbage’s engine and theories failed to be published, discussed, and available for further research and invention, then if any one is to blame it is Babbage. Campbell-Kelly cites his ‘abrasive personality’ and obsession with his dream at the expense of utilizing showman’s ability to sell their invention. (Ibid) Invention and the scientific community were still evolving in the 19th century. The later competitive, capitalist environment of 20th century science might be a better situation for invention after all. -Nicola
Comrie’s accusation that the British government should be blamed for failing to fund Babbage’s dream is unreasonable. The British government had already invested over 17,000 pounds sterling for Babbage to produce a Difference Engine, useful for calculating mathematical tables (p. 55). Babbage unwisely chose to request funding for the new Analytical Engine, before the completion of the Difference Engine. This let the British government know that “Babbage was more interested in building the engine than in making the tables that were the government’s primary interest” (p. 55). The government is not a charity, and does not just give away money. The funding from the government is an investment, and Babbage failed to demonstrate the ability to make that investment worthwhile. Menabrea discusses many potential uses and advantages for the Analytical Engine, but Babbage never seemed to make a strong enough argument to convince the British government that it was worthwhile. The change in philosophy of inventions is demonstrated by IBM when despite “large anticipated costs” they invested in the Harvard Mach I because the “experience of developing… would be invaluable” (p. 70). This is a stark contrast to the 18th century and the British government’s denial to fund Babbage, because the government was only concerned with results. -Zach T.
Comrie’s accusation that the British government’s failure to fund Charles Babbage’s difference engine cost Britain the leading place in the art of mechanical computing is difficult to judge. The development of the Harvard Mark machine outlined in the Campbell-Kelley reading showed that without IBM funding, Howard Aiken would not have had success with the Harvard Mark, “the first fully automatic computer.” The story of the Harvard Mark suggests that despite being limited to mechanical computation, construction of a fully automatic computer was indeed possible with the help of funding.
However, Comrie’s accusation falls short when we consider that mechanical technologies in the 1820s, according to Campbell-Kelley, had not reached a level to make development “relatively straightforward.” We see these same sorts of problems with Lewis Richardson’s numerical meteorology; limits in the power of mechanical computing at the time limited his ability to synthesize it into a system for weather prediction, like Babbage was limited by mechanical technology in making a system for automated mechanical computing.
These accounts about the development of the computer show that the nature of invention in the 20th century became more dependent on outside capital as well as existing technologies. Inventions such as papyrus and the printing press might be more independent of other technologies than a computer or telegraph, which depend on electrical innovation. Furthermore, we’ve seen examples of the need for investment and capital in modern inventions, from Morse’s appeal to Congress to Babbage’s appeal to the British government. -Charlie
Comrie, to a certain extent, accurately gauges the role of the British government in dashing the development of Babbage’s devices–though he does ignore Babbage’s own role in short-circuiting his efforts. Fundamentally, however, the British government made the right decision given the technological environment and infrastructure of the time. There was no need for the kind of device that Babbage proposed.
To a certain extent, it seemed clear at the time that Babbage’s “dream” was a technology that had not yet found a technological era as a home. Menanbrea’s proposed functions are very general, and based on future applications–and indeed, what such an “engine” would make possible, and its role in facilitating further scientific research. The putative resources of the device, as Campbell-Kelley and Aspray note, did not surpass what was already possible using the “human computer” paradigm that remained an integral part of scientific research and development for nearly another hundred years. By all measures, the human computer method provided accuracy. It could be made faster by simply adding more human components to the team. Menanbrea’s claim of conservation of human intelligence seems to have been a factor only for iconoclast “geniuses”; in reality there seemed no shortage of human intelligences ready and willing to provide the processing power.
Ironically, as the late 18th and 19th centuries provided unprecedented foundations for new technologies, they often outpaced the societal need, and didn’t take into account fairly competent non-technological solutions already in place. This miscalculation ensured that Babbage’s engines remained dreams only. -Yi
If viewed from a 20th-century perspective, Comrie’s accusation is indeed reasonable. The importance of Babbage’s “dream” (the Analytical and Difference Engines) is immensely magnified with the understanding that it was a precursor to the Harvard Mark I, and thus, a crucial indirect link to the evolution of the modern programmed device whether it is a simple calculator or a complex computer. However, as Campbell-Kelly and Aspray note, “one must always be careful in judging Babbage by twentieth-century standards” (57). While the original British government acknowledged that the benefits of such an invention would yield advantages such as “rigid accuracy,” “economy of time,” and “economy of intelligence” (Menabrea), one must remember that they were primarily “interested only in reducing the cost of table-making, and it was immaterial whether the work was done by a calculating engine or by a team of human computers” (59). Babbage’s invention was originally estimated to cost around 17,000 pounds, and he later asked for even more financing for the Analytical Engine, which “served no real purpose that the Difference Engine could not have satisfied…” (56). The British government certainly had to be nothing short of upset when they found out the Scheutz difference engine cost just 1,200 pounds to make (59). These accounts about the development of the computer reveal that the changing nature of invention between the 18th and the 20th century heavily depended on the available existing technologies of each respective time period. For example, without the refinements and progress in the fields of engineering and production of the 20th century, many inventions would simply not have been possible in the 18th century. In addition, the demand/need for new inventions due to other developments was also crucial to the changing nature of invention. Without the major wars of the 20th century demanding things such as gunnery tables, ballistics calculations, and code-breaking, such table-making engines would not have received much attention or support. Another example is that of the “rapidly expanding U.S. electrical power system” (61). Had it not been for this drastic change in the American public landscape, the power network models and subsequent inventions would have ceased to come about. -Robert
The politics of funding is a selective process that gages a proposal’s predictive utility in relation to the immediate needs of the state. Subsequently, in the case of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the British government was unconvinced that such an investment could substantially increase the efficiency of computing for several reasons. For instance, Babbage’s weakness in selling the potential of his invention failed to instill faith in his investing audience. It was only with the “poetic” help of Lovelace, that the “image of weaving mathematics was an appealing metaphor” for continued programming research; and it was Lovelace who received the credit for the technological possibility of computer programming. Another reason why Comrie’s accusation is faulty lies in the fact that the market is not as open to gambling with capital like it is during war time, and the use of human computers was both cheap and reasonably efficient in comparison. However, if Babbage were more persuasively able to convince the “bureaucratic mind” of the British government, Comrie would be more justified in making the claim that Babbage’s dream was a worthy funding investment.
Consequently, the very nature of invention between the 18th and 20th century became increasingly linked to a problem-solution scheme, in which “a specific problem required a specific machine.” The shift from analogue to digital computing promoted new markets and willing investors. In terms of progress and to move toward greater efficiency, the automization and development of the computer and replacement of “calculating girls” was a logical investment that would eventually decrease the time of human labor power and cut the cost of wages. Therefore, when time is money and money is limited, speed and the predictability of inventive influence determines the availability of capital. -Erica
In Campbell-Kelley and Aspray’s “Babbage’s Dream Comes True,” Leslie Comrie blames the British government for the failure of Baggage’s dream because the government did not support or help fund the construction of a calculating engine. Comrie’s accusation is reasonable because the British government continued to deny funds to support Baggage after he continued to explain the advantages and extensive powers of the Analytical Engine. In L.F. Menabrea’s “Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” he also explains the advantages of Baggage’s Analytical Engine. Menabrea points out that the Analytical Engine had rigid accuracy, economy of time, and economy of intelligence. Menabrea states, “Thirdly, economy of intelligence: a simple arithmetical computation requires to be performed by a person possessing some capacity” (Menabrea 1). Yet, the British government was only interested in finding new innovations that helped with the reduction of costs. Campbell-Kelley and Aspray explains, “He also failed to understand that the British government cared not an iota about his calculating engine: The government was interested only in reducing the cost of table-making, and it was immaterial whether the work was done by a calculating engine or by a team of human computers” (Aspray 59). In addition, the primary reason for Baggage’s failure was that he introduced his ideas and used a digital approach in the 1820’s and 1830’s, a time period where mechanical technologies were not advanced sufficiently enough to make his innovations relatively straightforward to the government. The development of the computer was significantly influenced by the changing nature of invention between the 18th and 20th century. As people in society gradually advanced, technological developments continued to advance as well. Once people began to understand the connections and how innovations were relatively straightforward, society began to be more open and accepting of new technological developments. However, Baggage’s digital approach was introduced way before society was ready for the new innovation. -Jody
I believe Comrie’s accusation that the British government is somewhat at fault for failing to fund Babbage’s Analytical Engine is valid. By Campbell-Kelley and Aspray’s account, it seems Babbage’s funding problems began when he was still trying to receive government money for his Difference Engine, which was the chief concern for the government to begin with, capable of “making the tables that were the government’s primary interest.” However, in his proposal, Babbage mentions his idea for the Analytical Engine, which causes the government to question two things: the usefulness of the Difference Engine in light of Babbage’s “dream,” and Babbage’s commitment to the government’s desire for tables, as Babbage was “more interested in building the engine” than creating tables. Given the description of the Analytical Engine by Menabrea, which would express “rigid accuracy,” “economy of time” and “economy of intelligence” (Menabrea) in its ability to “weave algebraical patterns” (Campbell-Kelly, Aspray), the government nevertheless still saw this machine as “worthless” (Campbell-Kelly, Aspray), perhaps because their chief concern was still numerical tables. For this reason, it seems the government was at fault for not funding what could have been a slightly slower Harvard Mark I one century earlier. However, we must be aware of differences in research between different time periods.
As Campbell-Kelly and Aspray state, “one must always be careful in judging Babbage by twentieth century standards.” By our more modern standards, “a researcher would expect to demonstrate a measure of success and achievement before asking for further funding,” which Babbage had been in the process of doing but never fully completed his Difference Engine. In this sense, the government’s argument was valid, in that they decided not to waste money on a potentially fruitless invention, leading to the end of Babbage’s invention. This marks a change in the nature of invention from before, where it seems government support/funding played less of a role. In the 18th century, inventors such as Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta created or discovered without much financial assistance. It seems that with the development of more advanced inventions, there is a demonstrated need for government support to sustain these pursuits. In the case of Babbage and Samuel Morse’s telegraph, it does seem that government money has a strong correlation with success or failure. -Elliot
It is difficult to analyze Comrie’s accusation as being reasonable or unreasonable, because it is tricky to refrain from “judging Babbage by twentieth century standards” (Capmbell-Kelly & Aspray 57). On one hand, the British government should have been excited about the prospects of the Analytical Engine. Menabrea identified the uses of Babbage’s invention as providing “rigid accuracy,” “economy of time,” and “economy of intelligence.” The fact that this engine could possibly surpass human capacities and make operations much more effective and efficient should have sparked the British government’s interest. For this reason, Camrie’s accusation is reasonable, and the British government should be blamed for failing to fund Babbage’s invention. On the other hand, it seems that from the story presented in “Babbage’s Dream Come True,” the British government was justified in refusing to fund Babbage’s Analytical Machine. Perhaps Babbage is at fault for failing to appeal to his potential investors. It is understandable that the government would be wary of investing in Babbage’s new invention, since the 17,470 pounds that the government had invested in the Difference Machine produced little in the way of the analytical tables they requested (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray 56). After all, the government was “interested only in reducing the cost of table-making,” (59) and one cannot expect them to know that the Analytical Engine performed “almost all of the important functions of the modern digital computer” (54). Furthermore, even if the government was fully aware of the benefits of Babbage’s ideas, it is understandable that they would want concrete proof that he had a machine that worked before contributing more funds. These accounts show that the nature of invention has changed since the 1800’s. Babbage expected to get funding without already having a functioning machine, but trusted that his ideas, with proper funding, would materialize into a very beneficial invention. However, “Today, a researcher would expect to demonstrate a measure of success and achievement before asking for further funding” (57). Unfortunately, many earth-shattering ideas go unexecuted because people don’t have the financial support to even get their ideas off the ground. It seems much of the success of inventions comes from the combination of well supported ideas, concrete results, persuasive proposals, and perhaps a little bit of luck. -Clara
As advanced as Babbage’s Analytical Engine was in creating a format for abstract digital computing systems, the fact that such an idea was never put into play during Babbage’s time was not the direct fault of the British Government, but rather a result of a lack of need for a machine that was created far before its time. After all, Babbage’s two machines came about at a time when most computing was done either by means of human labor or analog machines, and as such the idea of a completely digital calculator remained an outlier. As Campbell-Kelley and Aspray explain, “When a system could not be readily investigated mathematically, the best way forward was to build a model.” (p.61) According to Menabrea, the advantages of Babbage’s machine were that it was exempt from human error, saved valuable time, and made obsolete the need to train computing professionals. And yet, the lack of technology to create such a machine made it not only costly, but economically inefficient, as the plans were created “some fifty years before mechanical technologies had advanced sufficiently to make this relatively straightforward” (p.59). As a result, it was no wonder the British Government chose not to invest in such an abstract invention, as they could see no profit that could be made from it, nor how it would improve on the current practice of using human computers to create tables. What was needed for such a creation to come to fruition was really a global change in the approach towards technology and computing, from the realm of analog to the realm of digital. It was such an attitude shift that ultimately made a sort of Analytical Machine- the Harvard Mark 1-possible. Even though the machine itself was not inherently practical, its values lied in the ideas of programming it encapsulated, and it took a paradigm shift in the world of computing for such views to be realized. -Isobel
I do not believe that Comrie’s accusation is reasonable and there are a few reasons for this. Comrie believes that had the British Government properly funded Babbage’s Analytical engine, then Britain would have secured the position of leading the world in mechanical computation. It is noted in the reading that a Swedish father-son team developed a difference engine some 30 years after Babbage, yet we do not regard Sweden as being a leader in mechanical computation. There is no way to know whether or not Babbage would have even been able to complete the Analytical Engine had the government funded him. Aside from this idea, one can conceive why the government was averse to funding the Analytical Engine, given their funding for the Difference Engine. The British Government’s main concern was lowering the cost of developing tables, which was only one utility of Babbage’s engines, they were not concerned with any of its other uses. After spending £17,470 with no return on investment, it is reasonable that the British Government decided not to fund Babbage’s Analytical engine.
It appears as though in the 18th century the success of an invention dealt heavily with government funding, whereas in the 20th century an invention could be successful through invesments from private parties. There also lies a difference in the manner in which these inventions needed to be marketed. In the 18th century an invention would be funded solely on its applications in regards to the government, so the inventor must market their design towards government uses. In the 20th century we see an influx of private investors who may fund an invention based on their own personal needs or those of the general public. -Aaron
It is undeniable that the British government did not fund Babbage’s Analytical Engine. According to Aspray, the reason they did this was twofold. First, Babbage developed a sequel before he finished the original. It seemed like a poor idea to fund a man who didn’t finish what he started. Second, the government did not want to throw more money at a project that didn’t advertise concrete results. The Difference Engine had advertised itself as a nautical map-making device. The Analytical engine was not presented as marketable.
However, in certain ways, the Analytical engine did seem marketable on somewhat different terms. Menabrea’s article elucidates the invention’s possibilities, all of which sound very appealing to us today. The engine would minimize error in many scientific calculations; it would save calculation time, it would keep menial tasks menial; and it would give intuitive ideological leaps by presenting theories with more direct access to data. It is unclear whether or not the British government was informed of this, but if they were, they did not appear to think it important, since in the grand scale of things, it seemed a tool to aid future innovation rather than have direct results.
The development of computers doesn’t necessarily buck this trend. Lord Kelvin’s analog machine was funded and used to predict tides, vitally important for trading. In the 1920s, the next generation of computers was created to “help design the rapidly expanding U.S. electrical power system.” It was probably funded by the government expressly because it had an important immediate use. Bush’s invention of the product integraph was a direct result of the success of its predecessor at a single concrete problem. Ultimately, it is not enough to have a good idea. The government seemed to have a responsibility to keep fiscally solvent, and it was not clairvoyant about future developments. Even as the future became clearer, a grounding in monetization was always nearby. As for the development of more complex computers, improvements are much easier once the foundations are confirmed as marketable. -Robert A.
Comrie’s accusation only tells a small portion of the story and doesn’t consider the bureaucratic and technological preconditions needed for Ada Augusta’s listed advantages—“(1) rigid accuracy…(2) economy of time…(3) economy of intelligence” (Menabrea). The first and obvious precondition is demand—the British government needed to desire the Analytical Engine, and what Babbage offered in the Analytical machine did not convey much of a difference to the currently funded and operating Difference Engine (Aspray 56). The second condition is physical technology. The first working model of Babbage’s Analytical Engine was the Mark 1; but its robotic and physical nature was so inefficient that it operated at “pedestrian speeds” (Aspray 73), thus falling substantially short of the second of three advantages proclaimed by Augusta: “economy of time.” In addition, I assume there were a number of electronic pre-conditions stemming from the early 20th century wars, i.e., moving from the robotic to the electronic computer “thousands of times faster” than Babbage dreamed (Aspray 76). Campbell-Kelley and Apsray also mentioned Babbage’s inability to work with or inspire the government, and perhaps Babbage needed Bill Gates to steal his idea or Steve Jobs to brand it with a cute little white apple, i.e., maybe he needed a voice for the people…but he actually did have a voice. Augusta poetically and accurately described three attributes of modern computers—and perhaps she was the ideal CEO for Babbage’s dream…but she was a woman in the wrong place and time. Britain and America’s culture of the mid 19th century was of a different time and place with different social priorities and norms compared to today, i.e., it seems Babbage and Augusta were an ideal [dot]com duo about a century and a half prior to their calling. Yes, Babbage was very close to creating a powerful calculating machine—and maybe if the British government took note then they would have discovered or created demand for the machine. Perhaps the “black mark” isn’t for the lack of creating a Difference Engine; maybe it’s for the 19th century society wasn’t accurate, efficient, and intelligent enough to listen to a woman. -Joel
Although the British government played a part in the failure of Babbage’s “dream,” many other social and technological factors also played into its demise. Babbage gave up on the Difference Engine in the excitement of the Analytical Engine, ignoring the government’s original need and purpose for the computing machine. Babbage was not really concerned with making the tables the government needed and so lost funding. Campbell-Kelley and Aspray also explain that Babbage got carried away in his creativity and his engines “became an end in themselves.” During his time period there was no real demand for digital computing and human computing seemed just as reliable as Babbage’s Engines; “rigid accuracy” was not a proven benefit. The Difference Engines that were built were one-time machines and didn’t provide a profit for the inventors. Although Manabrea’s article claims that Babbage’s engine would provide an “economy of time” Aiken’s Harvard Mark I, inspired by “Babbage’s dream,” worked quite slowly computing only 200 operations per day. Babbage’s Analytical Engine came before the technical capabilities to make and use it existed. Analog computing became more important in the 19th century because it computed the tables needed although each invention only solved one problem. As industrial capabilities and needs for more complicated computing engines grew, the process of digital computing did as well. The U.S. needed models for a growing infrastructure of dams, electric power supplies, and the military and navy during and between the World Wars. Corporations like IBM, and private universities provided much funding for new inventions of digital computing, whereas earlier most funding came form the government. Inventions in analog and early digital involved much more human intervention. The need to rely on human beings to control the process of computing was less and less important. The Harvard Mark I was supposed to be the accomplishment of Babbage’s dream but Campbell-Kelley and Asprey’s articles explain it didn’t do anything very useful in the 15 years it existed. -Alejandra