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Babbage, A Look Back 261

A reader writes "System Toolbox just started a new computer history section in an effort to get us geeks in touch with our "roots." The current article in the monthly column focuses on Charles Babbage. The editor and author hope to raise awareness of our past so that scenes like this won't continue to take place. A big hill to climb, but worth the effort."
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Babbage, A Look Back

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  • by dangermouse ( 2242 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @04:01AM (#2440323) Homepage
    The novel is actually titled The Difference Engine.

    And I wouldn't read it for informative purposes (especially the historical sort), but it is a pretty good book.

  • Graduates (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gumshoe ( 191490 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @04:07AM (#2440334) Journal
    The article posted on binaryfreedom is both fascinating and
    disturbing but also, I think, misleading, as it suggests that
    only the educational misfits are ignorant of computer history.
    This is emphatically untrue

    I've recently "graduated" from a University in England and I'm
    ashamed. I would estimate that 90% of my class are ignorant of
    not only computer history but also of trans-Windows computing in
    general. Their goal in life seems to be to make as much money as
    possible and the computer industry is the vehicle for that

    I wish systemtoolbox all the best in their endeavour but I fear
    that the only people who will read these articles will be people
    who are interested (and hence already familiar) with this
    material already.

  • SkR1pT K1dd13Z (Score:5, Insightful)

    by StaticEngine ( 135635 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @04:07AM (#2440336) Homepage
    I can't say I'm surprised that the "hacker youth" is disconnected with the past. Who doesn't know teens like this? In this consumer-oriented society, the focus is on having and bragging about it, not on doing or knowing.

    Hell, when I was that age, I used to read computer magazines in class, and a girl who sat next to me once asked "why I read those things?" Since she was hot and I was shocked that she was actually speaking to me, I answered the not quite accurate "it tells me how to fix them," to which she replied, "why don't you just take it to the shop?" Likewise, several months ago, I was talking with a younger cousin about the video game industry (where I'm currently working), and we were discussing what makes games good. His entire list of quality games was less than a year old, and when I mentioned Pac Man and the Infocom games, he had only the vaguest clue that such things once existed. Furthermore, his interests were more in how to get rich writing games rather than how a programmer actually writes good AI routines, or an artist animates characters realisticaly.

    The point is, there will always be a large element of society, at any age, which is both ignorant and uninterested in the history of anything. Most of these people will remain in the realm of Average Consumer, while the inquisitive will go forth, research the past, and build the future. The danger comes from the past-less few who simply abuse the tools that are available to them, or arguably worse, become the leaders who direct the doers of society, with little grip on why the wheels of progress turn a certain way, and no concern for how they're powered to enable to future. Because when the percieved joy is in reaching the destination, rather than within the journey itself, it tends to be one hell of a bumpy ride that doesn't exactly pave a smooth road for those who follow.

  • by shredds ( 241412 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @04:23AM (#2440361)
    Someone important in British Literature once said, "If I appear so tall, it is because I stand on the shoulders of Giants." (If you can remember who that was, you've got mad skills).
    I always think its important to learn about one's roots, but I don't think its as important as understanding our contemporaries.
    Sure, Babbage was revolutionary and laid a big foundation for where we are today. But so did all of the people who laid foundations for him; and the people who laid foundations for those people. Without Faraday computers wouldn't exist. Without Newton computers wouldn't exist. Without Aristotle, etc. etc.
    Does scrutinizing Aristotle (or Babbage for that matter) propel our computer knowledge farther than if we spent more time studying Kevin Mitnick or Bill Gates [even those who despise him must agree he changed the computing world, for better or worse is not the question]. Does knowing about the history of the punch card help us as much as understanding the status of quantum computing?
    The whole premise of computer science is to abstract layers upon layers so the guy who takes over can do more without having to understand fully the layers below him. Knowing about those layers is good, but do you need to know about how capacitors charge in order to write a solid C code?
    Where does one draw the line between useful information and cool things to talk about at a party?
  • Re:Think about it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dangermouse ( 2242 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @04:33AM (#2440385) Homepage
    Maybe, ti just might be that the hackers and crackers are just not "evil" as they are made out. Instead of opening watches and playing with blocks they toy around with computers.

    This rather doofy rationale has been expounded before. The counterargument, of course, is that if kids tinker with locks it's one thing... when they tinker with the locks on other peoples' buildings and go walking around inside, it's another entirely.

    You don't get to "tinker" with other people's stuff. How anyone could think one should be granted that right because one is "curious", I'll never understand.

  • Re:Graduates (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BluesMoon ( 100100 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @05:53AM (#2440501) Homepage

    Well, we were taught comp sci in school. We started in the 8th grade (in 1988). The first three months were complete history, starting with the ABACUS, to the slide rule, napier's bones, babbage, gottfried von liebnitz, lady ada lovelace, and the rest. We ended up at the ENIAC, EDSAC and the UNIVAC, and then moved on to the binary number system for another two weeks - conversion, addition, subtraction, multiplication, floating points, etc. Finally, after all that, we started programming in GW-Basic.

    All that's changed now. After I left school, they changed the syllabus. CompSci was changed to Computers, and moved down to the primary section. Students started with paint brush.

    Jumping forward many years, in my last year of my Master's, I took part in an inter collegiate computer quiz. The finalists were from the best engineering colleges in Mumbai. They were all stumped on one question - "Who wrote the art of computer programming". Some thought it was a movie!! Suffice it to say, my team of two won that quiz through the sheer ineptness of the competition.

    These were all good students, from good colleges, studying computer engineering. I'd think that they'd have read Knuth sometime during those four years, but most hadn't even heard of him.

    I now teach several courses, and also give lectures for the ACM. I always make it a point to throw in a bit of history into all my lectures. While talking about grep and sed, I mention how they grew out of ed, and why parens have to be escaped in regexes.

    The problem seems to be that the people who set the course don't care about history, and the students who study only care about getting out, so what's past is lost.


  • by driftingwalrus ( 203255 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @05:54AM (#2440503) Homepage
    You should feel dumb. This is your TRADE. You should know at least a little about it's history. If you don't recognize names like Ken Thompson and Charles Babbage, you are in a sorry state indeed.

    Do you want to know how it helps? It helps you to appreciate where it came from, the work involved in creating these machines and the passion others have had for them. It would help you to understand where YOU fit in the grand scheme of things, and it'll help you to have a little pride in your work. It's all about respect. It's about respecting the genius that made your trade possible, respecting the machine they have built and respecting yourself enough to do the best job you can. As a man who works with computers, you have to live up to the promise of your forebears. No one expects you to be another Babbage or Thompson, but you have a duty to yourself to understand the commitment they had and reflect at least some of it.

    You may think of yourself as just someone who fixes computers, but you aren't. You are a steward of the legacy of those that came before, all of us are. All of us have a duty to maintain the tradition and memory of these men. Without there contributions and endless hours of work and passion for the machine, we wouldn't even have computers.

    So, pick up a book. Read. The history of our trade is a glorious thing, full of great men and brilliant engineering. Only through it's study can we hope to go as far as they did.

  • Like any culture, our culture needs to be taught!

    Hear, hear! But a meme [] needs a route to propagate. Who's going to do it?

    Universities aren't interested just in "educating" future academics; they've got a vested interest in crafting a workforce. Their funding derives in large part from donations from business leaders, and those leaders want employees who can program, not employees who have an appreciation for Babbage. An analogy would be to business schools: Graduates are expected to solve "real-world" (as academia sees it) problems, not be able to discourse on the history of efficiency experts. B-Schools aren't so much interested in giving their students a full and complete history of business methods as they are in providing a little bit of context to their graduates, who move on to become employees, who move on to become "leaders", who--they hope--move on to become future corporate alumni donors.

    So who educates the next generation (or the current generation; I'm painfully aware of my own ignorance in these matters)? Well, where did you learn about Babbage? Some of us probably learned about him in an academic setting, but I'm guessing that informal channels played a much more important role for most technophiles--if for no other reason then the aggressively informal culture of high-tech in general. I wasn't attracted to computers because there was such a rich history of thought and intellectual culture behind them. I was jazzed by bells, whistles and blinkenlights. Once I got involved, it was an informal network of peers, books, net sites, and conversations that led to expanding my knowledge into historical considerations.

  • by unitron ( 5733 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @09:42AM (#2441188) Homepage Journal
    "Dumb" means mute, incapable of speech. The word you seek is stupid.

    You should not feel stupid for not knowing who these people are (or were). You should just consider your education in that area incomplete. Your intellectual curiousity should be troubled by that incompleteness. The same intellectual curiosity that led you to learn "how to fix computers" in the first place. And since it was, in part, the pioneering of these people that made possible the very existence of the computers you found interesting and challenging enough to learn how to fix, I'd say that they're due from you some modicum of respect and admiration.

  • by cr0sh ( 43134 ) on Wednesday October 17, 2001 @02:58PM (#2442915) Homepage
    It hurts all of mankind.

    Does it hurt you to be unaware of who first thought of writing numbers as digits? The genius who came up with reliable procedures for adding them? The spectacular genius who generalized expression of fractions by numbers?

    You know, I sit here in my office - knowing that outside my window, thousands of miles away, people are dying: Some by war, some by famine, some by sheer ignorance. Furthermore, I know that in some cases, these deaths and sufferings are occuring because of the ignorance and lack of understanding of others...

    We humans should know at least where these things came from, if not specific identities. For example, I know that the first two things you mentioned, "Numbers as Digits" and "Adding Digits" most likely came from the Middle East, and that our word for Algebra comes from "the Arabic al-jabr" []. As for the last one, it pains me not to know where it came from, I am certain I could find it with a bit of googling, but I wouldn't doubt it came from the same region as well. Much of the math you speak of actually goes further back, but it is to the Middle East we must look to for our number system and for the number zero (0). These contributions are nothing short of amazing.

    In a similar fashion, I tend to wonder how many people in the Middle East are aware of various contributions of Western society's great thinkers, scientists, philosophers, teachers, mathematicians, and medical doctors? How many of them are aware of things they might use every day, without which their standard of living would surely be lower than what it is today (I am thinking of things like automobiles and electricity, basic medicine, and engineering).

    These things should bring us together - to cause us all, on every corner of the planet to think "We are human, we have made these things!". We should rightly be humbled by greater men than ourselves, and should strive to be like them or better. We should be proud that we, as humans, have explored our solar system and beyond! That we have stepped foot on another world, beyond our mere Earth.

    I think of the photos of the Earth-rise captured by cameras that man invented, hand carried to another world in machines and suits built by man to keep him alive in a world utterly inhospitable to himself, daring it to take his life so that he could step down, and take one picture...

    A picture - a world so fragile - and small - holding, as far as we know (though we, as men, dream - yes, we dream - of more...), all the life in the universe...

    You know, as I just wrote this, I cried - I know I can't do anything about what is going on in this world - and I know that none of you can, either - not directly. I know that there are people that just don't care. I guess this is why I cried - because despite all of that mankind has achieved - from everything small to everything great - there are still individuals who exist who seem to be unable to look past their own petty self-interests and dream of the possibilities...

    Maybe I am just a romantic optimist...

The goal of Computer Science is to build something that will last at least until we've finished building it.