We were delighted to present a historical document of exceptional relevance to the digital age, an autograph letter signed by Charles Babbage, in which the father of computing is found attempting to salvage the fortunes of his Difference Engine No. 1, the first automatic calculating machine and the foundational precursor of the modern computer.
Written in May 1834 to the sixth Earl of Selkirk, a Scottish peer and landowner with an amateur interest in science, the letter is an invitation to a remarkable gathering of peers of the realm, at which Babbage intends to demonstrate the functioning of his ‘calculating engine’ with the assistance of Irish science writer Dionysius Lardner, who had expounded Babbage’s ideas in a series of lectures and an important article in the Edinburgh Review.
Babbage first conceived of his device in the early 1820s, and on receipt of funding from the government engaged engineer Joseph Clement to construct a working model. The project was beset by difficulties, but by 1832 Clement had completed a specimen which worked impeccably and represented about one seventh of the Babbage’s complete design. The following year a financial dispute resulted in Clement ceasing work on the project, and he received his final payment in August 1834. His plans for Difference Engine No. 1 apparently in ruins, Babbage began drawing up plans for a much more ambitious ‘analytical engine’ intended to perform virtually any mathematical function. By the time of his death in 1871 a trial piece had been completed. During the late 1840s Babbage designed a second difference engine, his plans for which were used by the Science Museum in London to produce a complete working model, finished in 2002 and now on permanent display.
At a time of runaway technological development, with the human race itself by some accounts in mortal danger from the unchecked advance of AI, the troubled origins of the computer, in a mechanical model which only a fraction was ever successfully manufactured, are liable to be overlooked, and may remind us of the fragility and reversibility of scientific progress.
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DOMINIC SOMERVILLE-BROWN | RARE BOOKS & MANUSCRIPTS
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