The Victorian computer pioneers ahead of their time.

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.


Also pub­lished on Medi­um.