Ahead of Time and Technology
Babbage, Boole, Faraday & Lovelace: the Victorian computer pioneers
I’m reading Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It’s a fun alternate history, told in comics, of the work of Charles Babbage and Ada, Countess of Lovelace — between them, the precursors of (respectively) automated computing and computer programming (for the unfamiliar, Steven Wolfram’s Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace puts their work and relationship into perspective).
The stories themselves are charming, but the real highlights of the book for me are the extensively researched footnotes and endnotes. In them, I learned that Babbage, at the Great Exhibition of 1862, met and conversed with George Boole, a logician famous for creating what we know today as Boolean logic — the three operations AND, OR and NOT, that power modern digital systems. Why is this meeting so important? As one bystander wrote:
As Boole had discovered that means of reasoning might be conducted by a mathematical process, and Babbage had invented a machine for the performance of mathematical work, the two great men together seemed to have taken steps towards the construction of that great prodigy, a Thinking Machine.
Boole’s ideas led, almost a century later, to the creation of logic gates, critical to digital systems. Logic gates need a way to retain state, and early ones used valves, or vacuum tubes. These were developed from the pioneering work of Michael Faraday, scientist of electromagnetism — and friend of Babbage.
It’s incredible to think that Lovelace, Babbage, Faraday, and Boole were contemporaries; the developers of the engine, programs, power and logic of modern computers were all connected in the mid-18th century, but too far ahead of their time to see their concepts realized. Faraday’s valves could have enabled Boole’s logic gates, which could have made Babbage’s machine simpler and more affordable, which could have seen Lovelace’s programs be more than theoretical. But it would be almost another 100 years before technology caught up to their ideas.
Originally published at Peter Gasston.