Skip to main content

Mechanical computation

Digi-Comp I (photo from Wikipedia)
It's of the nature of coincidences (that's another post) that your attention is drawn to something when it comes up several times in a short time span, and recently for me this has happened with the matter of mechanical computers, which have come up four times in the past couple of weeks.

The first example was when I was proof reading my next title for St Martin's Press (not due out until significantly later in the year), called Ten Billion Tomorrows. The book about the relationship between science and science fiction, and I point out that when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema, the only computer I had ever seen before I encountered the remarkable Hal was my Digi-Comp I. This was a mechanical device with three plastic sliders, which could be programmed by adding extensions on the side of the sliders which flipped metal wires, and as a result could provide the action of different gates and reflect the outcome on 3 mechanical binary displays. Sophisticated it was not.

Examples two and three involve good old Charles Babbage. You just can't talk about mechanical computers without mentioning Babbage. He first came up in my review of James Tagg's Are the Androids Dreaming Yet, which confuses an image of the Science Machine's Difference Engine with the Analytical Engine. (The first was a hard-geared mechanical calculator, while the second, never built, was a programmable computer that would have used punched cards. Babbage built a small segment of the Difference Engine, but never got anywhere with the Analytical Engine, which probably would not have been practical given engineering tolerances.)

Then Babbage popped up again in a Guardian article about a graphic novel featuring the Analytical Engine. As Thony Christie points out in a blog post, the article wildly overstated the contribution of Ada King* to the project saying that 'Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage designed a computer' and 'for which Lovelace wrote the programs.' In fact King had nothing to do with the design, she translated a paper on the concept from the Italian and added a series of notes, which included a example of what a program might be like. We have no evidence that she wrote this conceptual program herself, and even if she did it didn't make her the machine's programmer.

The claim that King wrote programs comes up again in Matt Parker's entertaining Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which I'm currently reading for review. But of more interest is his description of building a working computer (admittedly only capable of adding up to 16) with 10,000 dominos by using the interaction of falling dominos to produce gates. This was a wonderful feat for which this tireless maths enthusiast should be congratulated. You can see the 10,000 domino computer in action below.

* I prefer Ada King to the more commonly used Ada Lovelace, though I admit I seem to be about the only one who does. Her full name was Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. While in principle a countess can be referred to by her title in place of surname, the usual reporting standard is to use the surname. So, for instance, when referring to the Duke of Bedford, he is called Andrew Russell, not Andrew Bedford. People sometimes get confused because the royals don't really have surnames, so there's no other choice with them. But I think with Ada it's primarily done because 'Lovelace' sounds more exotic.


  1. She is known as Ada Lovelace because the infamous Memoire that secured her dubious posthumous fame, or perhaps that should be notoriety, was signed A.L.

    1. Thanks - I will still stick to Ada King, partly because I don’t really care what she called herself, but also because to refer to her by an aristocratic label irritates my inclination to republicanism.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Best writing advice

I saw on Twitter the other day (via someone I know answering it), the question 'What's the best writing advice you would give to someone who wants to become a writer?' My knee-jerk response was 'Don't do it, because you aren't one.' What I mean by this is that - at least in my personal experience - you don't become a writer. Either you are one, or you aren't. There's plenty of advice to be had on how to become a better writer, or how to become a published writer... but certainly my case I always was one - certainly as soon as I started reading books.  While I was at school, I made comics. I wrote stories.  My first novel was written in my teens (thankfully now lost). I had a first career that wasn't about being a writer, but I still wrote in my spare time, sending articles off to magazines and writing a handful of novels. And eventually writing took over entirely. If you are a writer, you can't help yourself. You just do it. I'm writ