Tuesday, April 24, 2012


If you like your computing old school style then you may recognize this picture as the world's first computer - designed by Charles Babbage in the early 1820's. Well over a century ahead of his time.

Although he never completed the full machine in his lifetime he did produce prototypes, full plans and many of the parts. His first machine had 25,000 parts and weighed 15 tons. This, his second, the famous "Difference Engine No. 2" is 11 feet long with 8,000 parts and weighs only 5 tons. It was finally constructed according to his plans in 1991.

I've been reading about Babbage recently in James Gleick's new(ish) book - The information: a history, a theory, a flood - and there are a couple of gems I thought I'd share.

Babbage briefly became an actuary working for the new Protector Life Assurance Company where his job was to compute the statistical tables laying out life expectancies - the 'Life Tables.'

One of the problems of being somewhat ahead of your time is that you are somewhat ahead of any audience. Babbage received this rejection letter from The Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1821. Notice that it not only rejects Babbage's ideas for a series of paper but seems to preemptively reject ANY paper by him. But they put it so nicely...

It is with no inconsiderable degree of reluctance that I decline the offer of any Paper from you. I think, however, you will under reconsideration of the subject be of the opinion that I have no other alternative. The subjects you propose for a series of Mathematical and Metaphysical Essays are so very profound, that there is perhaps not a single subscriber to our Journal who could follow them.

And finally, Babbage would, I think have loved population biology and the mathematical description of populations. Here's part of a letter said to have been written to Tennyson by Babbage after reading his poem 'The Vision of Sin' 

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

"If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next version of your poem should read:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 and 1/16th is born
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16th will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."

This may be apocryphal though since another version of the letter has the same idea but rather different text:

"I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to
keep the sum total of the world's population in a state of perpetual
equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said
sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the
liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent
poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected
as follows:--

Every moment dies a man,

And one and a sixteenth is born.

I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of
course, be conceded to the laws of metre."

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