Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005282, Tue, 4 Jul 2000 12:24:21 -0700

A Better Copy of Something to Share (fwd)
**In trying to paste an attachment which refused to "duplicate" itself by
natural means, I messed it up some -- so below is a cleaner copy. My
apologies to Charles Mudede. GD**

From: mudede <mudede@oz.net>

i came across this last night while trying to sleep.

charles mudede

The first man to conceptualize a true computer, one that would be able to
do math and much more, was an irascible 19th century English
mathematician named Charles Babbage. Incensed by the inaccuracies he
found in the mathematical tables of his time, the ingenious Babbage
(father of the speedometer, the cowcatcher for locomotives and the first
reliable life-expectancy tables) turned his fertile brain to creating an
automaton that could rapidly and accurately calculate long lists of
functions like logarithms. The result was an intricate system of gears
and cogs called the Difference Engine.

Babbage managed to build only a simple model because the craftsmen of the
day were unable to machine the precise parts required by the contraption.
But the temperamental genius soon had a bolder concept. He called it the
Analytical Engine. Even more complex than its predecessor, it had all the
essentials of a modern computer: a logic center, or what Babbage called
the "mill," which manipulated data according to certain rules; a memory,
or "store," for holding information; a control unit for carrying out
instructions; structions; and the means for getting data into and out of
the machine. Most important of all, its operating procedures could be
changed at will: the Analytical Engine was programmable.

Babbage worked obsessively on his machine for nearly 40 years. Presumably
he was the world's first computer "nerd." Until his death in 1871, he
ground out more and more sketches. The Analytical Engine became
hopelessly complicated. It required thousands of individual wheels,
levers and belts, all working together in exquisite precision. Few people
understood what he was doing, with the notable exception of Lord Byron's
beautiful and mathematically gifted daughter, Ada, the Countess of
Lovelace, who became Babbage's confidante and public advocate. When the
government cut off funds for the Analyical Engine, she and Babbage tried
devising a betting system for recouping the money at the track. They lost
government cut off funds for the Analyical Engine, she and Babbage tried
devising a betting system for recouping the money at the track. They lost
thousands of pounds.

The Analytical Engine was never built. It would have been as big as a
football field and probably needed half a dozen steam locomotives to
power it. But one of its key ideas was soon adapted. To feed his machine
its instructions, Babbage planned to rely on punched cards, like those
used to control color and designs in the looms developed by the French
weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard. Ada poetically described the scheme this
way: "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the
Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves."