Charles Babbage was a man with a burning mission: To rid London, if not the world, of street musicians, which he presuambly saw as raucous and unrefined, compared to the entertainments of his teenage home of Teignmouth. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Babbage was an unusual man in many ways. Born during the reign of Mad King Geoorge to a successful banker in London, he was always a bit ahead of his time, starting out by being baptized some 11 months before his birth.

While at Cambridge, he had the substantial foresight to join a club whose members were "dedicated to extracting any of its members from the madhouse", should the need arise.

His education was often self-directed, and pretty much topped out with an honorary degree and teaching job that had him using a hand-me-down chair from Isaac Newton, another brilliant nutter, the inventor of gravity and the rainbow. A later user, Stephen Hawkings may have added wheels and a nifty noisemaker. There may also have been a connection to an ancestor of the Prince of Darkness.

Although the family was well off, he had few political connections, and insufficient funds to buy any, so his plan required him to take advantage of the assets he did have. His hobbies of Cow Tipping, RVing, and Literary Criticism didn't seem quite right, but there was a possibility to monetize his favorite pastime, proofreading mathematical tables with his friend John Herschel, whose father was a boon to sniggering astronomy students.

Charles was fond of hosting Salons, often densely populated by other people named Charles - Darwin, Dickens, Dodgson, Lyal, Wheatstone, etc. Herschel was a John, not a Charles, but was welcome both by virtue of being an old school chum and perhaps because Babbage foresaw Herschel's fame for the discovery of life on Mars.

You can just imagine the excitement that Babbage and Herschel got from discovering an error in the 20th place of the sine of 37.125 degrees. But the excitement wore off as more and more errors appeared and Babbage became as frustrated as a Motown afficionado hearing that If you don't know me by now was by Simply red, in 1989.

At one point, Babbage allegedly rose to his feet and declared "I wish that these could be computed by steam". Sadly, the science of fluidics was in it infancy so he had to settle for cogwheels and levers, but in that moment he had the inspiration that could make him rich and famous enough to clear London of its buskers forever. Or not.

These tables at the time were computed by rooms full of computers, often unemployed French hairdressers. Babbage reasoned that he could thus kill three birds with one stone:

  1. Reduce errors in mathematical tables
  2. Profit and become famous enough to carry on his anti-busking campaign
  3. Flood the market with hairdressers, reducing his outlay for his wife's hairdressing needs.

Babbage called his machine The Difference Engine, perhaps because he dreamed it would improve the London street scene, or perhaps for the Method of Finite Differences which it employed. He had not invented this method (which the hairdressers used), but saw its potential for automation.

As with most such projects, the first step was to secure money. As he was neither very rich nor silly enough to spend his own money, he asked the government for funding, touting the benefits to Navigation, pari-mutuel betting, and the casting of accurate horoscopes. One of his most vocal opponents in this was the Astronomer Royal George Biddle Airy, to whom later computer scientists paid tribute.

The second step was building the infrastructure for his device. At the time, the concept of interchangeable parts was new, and mostly promoted by riffraff from America and France. In Britain, as in most of the world, parts such as bolts and nuts were hand-made in sets, each distinct such that one purchased, and replaced, the sets, not one part. They had not yet discovered the sales technique of packing each set with a nicely printed label cautioning that what appeared to be imperfections were not defects at all, but part of their charm. Babbage was not charmed, and his chief machinist John Clements (aided by Joseph Whitworth) created not just parts, but a system of manufacture that would among other things perplex the owners of British vehicles for a century.

The third step (Profit) never happened, Although "Prophet" may have later accompanied his name.

At times, Babbage's single-mindedness led to friction. At other times, his tendency to change direction like an over-caffeinated Chihuahua led to some delays. Eventually, they ran out of funds, the government ran out of patience, and Clements's petty refusal to move nearer to Babbage's house with tenuous prospects led to the collapse of the project. As Clement (the mechanic) had been leaning on the parts when things went sideways, he got the tooling and most of the parts, which were melted down and thus lost to history.

Of course, Babbage had already moved on to a grander vision, as will not surprise anyone who has worked with a rabid technophile. He had seen what Jacquard's looms could do, buying not one but two of the woven portrait of Jacquard. One copy was kept in his drawing room, to amaze the Charleses. The other he presented to the Queen of Sardinia on the occasion of his visit to Turin to give a talk on his new idea, The Analytical Engine. This may have been the first Turin Award Lecture. Later honorees seem to have included Troy Polamalu

Fortunately for us, a future Prime Minister of Italy (Frederico Luigi, Conte di Menabrea) attended the talk, and took notes, which he published, in French, as Italian (and indeed Italy) did not yet exist. Menabrea's paper was translated (and copiously annotated) by Ada Augusta King, originally Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace.

By whatever name, she was sufficiently a "big deal" to have had TWO programming languages named after her.

Ada was a friend of Babbage's, socially, and had a keen interest in mathematics, encouraged by her mother who engaged Augustus DeMorgan, whose eponymous theorem inspired many circuit designers to slide bubbles along wires.

In the process of annotating Menabrea's work, Ada also may have written what is now considered the first computer program, although she was spared the task of debugging it by the non-existence of an Analytic Engine on which to run it. An alternate story has Babbage writing the first program, but Ada finding and fixing an error in it. This was the first recorded case of a junior programmer correcting a senior's work. It was far from the last.

She also was the first to point out that such a machine could manipulate not just numbers, but arbitrary symbols, such as poetry, although she may not have mentioned that use to her mother. Computer poetry was still over 100 years in the future.

Babbage, though, with his knack for foreseeing the future, may have connected the dots and imagined the worst.

Whatever the reason, he and Ada had a falling out.

Without government support, and without his companion-of-mind, Babbage drifted through many concepts for thr Analytic Engine, but returned in his twilight years to the difference Engine. With the tricks he had invented for the Analytic Engine in mind, and mindful that "Perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Difference Engine #2 used only about a third of the parts needed for the first design. The carry mechanism was particularly elegant, employing part of an earlier failed design for a Pineapple-Slicing machine.

Here, we have an intermission. Babbage failed to get the government's interest or backing, and put away his plans, "For another Age with better judgement" (or something of the sort). And it came to pass. A new Curator at the London Science Museum was surveying the collection of British Computing history, the un-classified bits of which seemed to involve Tea-shops and mind-altering substances such as Mercury and Gin. Pushing on into the dustier recesses, he ran across Babbage's plans. As the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth was in the near future he resolved to actually build the machine, perhaps influenced by proximity to the aforementioned Mercury, or Gin.

There had been some discussion over the years whether the machine could have worked, had it been built. Some held that Babbage was a brilliant and capable designer even if a bit of a nutter. Other held that only the latter bit held true. To make a fair test, it was resolved to use only equivalents to the original materials (barring objections from the RSPCA) and manufacturing to only the sort of tolerances that Clements et al. were known to be able to achieve. It is not recorded if the duplication of working conditions involved pints of lager with lunch. Babbage may have taken the "nothing left to take away" mantra a bit too seriously, as a few pieces had to be "filled in", but in general, the machine performed as expected.

Thus the brilliance of Babbage's design was vindicated. But there are still buskers in London.