Did the Difference Engine make a difference?

I have been reading a few steampunk novels lately – I have a great fondness for the genre. Charles Babbage’s planned “Difference Engine” and “Analytical Engine” always play a large part in the fictional universe of such books. However, as Francis Spufford has pointed out, this does rely on some counterfactual history.

Reconstructed “Difference Engine No. 2” in the Science Museum, London (photo: “Geni”)

Babbage never completed any of his major devices, although redesigned working difference engines were built by Per Georg Scheutz (1843), Martin Wiberg (1859), and George B. Grant (1876). With much fanfare, the Science Museum, London reconstructed Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 2” between 1985 and 2002, making only essential fixes to the original design – and it works! However, the pinnacle of this kind of technology was probably the beautiful handheld Curta calculator, produced in Liechtenstein by Curt Herzstark from 1947.

The world’s first programmable digital computer was in fact built four years before the Curta, in 1943, by English electrical engineer Tommy Flowers. The wartime secrecy associated with his work has kept this monumental achievement largely in the dark.

Colossus in action at Bletchley Park in 1943 (photo: National Archives)

The significance of the Colossus has also been obscured by a kind of “personality cult” built up around Alan Turing, much like the one built up around Babbage. Turing was one of a number of people who contributed to the design of the cryptographic “Bombe” at Bletchley Park, and Turing also did important theoretical work – although the fundamental result in Turing’s 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” was not actually new, as is revealed on the second page of Turing’s paper, where Turing admits “In a recent paper Alonzo Church has introduced an idea of ‘effective calculability,’ which is equivalent to my ‘computability,’ but is very differently defined. Church also reaches similar conclusions about the Entscheidungsproblem . The proof of equivalence between ‘computability’ and ‘effective calculability’ is outlined in an appendix to the present paper.

Turing’s life was more colourful than either Church’s or Flowers’s, however, and this may be why he is far more famous. In a similar way, Babage lived a more colourful life than many of his contemporaries, including his collaboration with the forward-thinking Countess of Lovelace.

1: Charles Babbage, 2: Augusta Ada King-Noel (née Byron, Countess of Lovelace), 3: Alonzo Church, 4: Alan Turing, 5: Tommy Flowers

The chart below (click to zoom) puts the work of Babbage and Flowers in a historical context. Various devices are ranked according to their computational power in decimal digits calculated per second (from 1 up to 1,000,000,000,000,000). Because this varies so dramatically, a logarithmic vertical scale is used. The Colossus marks the beginning of a chain of “supercomputers,” often built for government use, with power doubling every 1.84 years (pink line). Starting with the Intel 4004 in 1971, there is also a chain of silicon chips, with power doubling every 1.74 years (blue line). At any given point in time, supercomputers are between 1,000 and 3,000 times more powerful than the chips, but the chips always catch up around 20 years later. The revolutionary PDP-8 of 1965 sits between the two chains.

One of the things that stand out on this chart is the gap between Babbage’s Difference Engine and the later digital computers – even the Colossus was around 280 times more powerful than the Difference Engine (carrying out a simpler task much more quickly). Steampunk fiction often suggests that steam power would have made the Difference Engine faster. However, it turns out that the mechanism jams if it is cranked too quickly. Complex mechanical calculating devices simply cannot operate that fast.

Morse telegraph key (photo: Hp.Baumeler)

In fact, Charles Babbage may actually have distracted people from the way forward. Samuel Morse’s improved telegraph was officially operational in 1844. It used electromechanical principles that were also used in the Colossus a century later. Electricity also has the advantage of travelling at the speed of light, along wires that can be made extremely thin. What might the world have been like had electromechanical computing developed earlier? The chart also shows the 1964 fluidic computer FLODAC. This was a fascinating idea that was abandoned after a successful proof of concept (although a 1975 film portrayed it as the future). What if that idea had been launched in Victorian Britain?

Bletchley revisited

The Register is running a great story about Bletchley Park, the architecturally confused site which housed the British code-breaking effort that helped win World War II.

Bletchley was home to Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic digital computer, and to the machines that broke the Enigma cipher. Proudly restored, much of this equipment is again operating at Bletchley, which is now a museum.

I certainly recommend a visit to this fascinating historic site (a guide, either human or electronic, is probably essential). For those who can’t make it, the next best thing would be to watch the movie Enigma, or of course to read some of the many books that tell parts of this once-secret story.