What If Babbage..?
Written by Mike James   
Friday, 23 December 2022
Article Index
What If Babbage..?
Gears and the Mill
Victorian Programming
TV and Internet

The Programmer Culture

Sadly, although there is one surviving program that Ada wrote, she makes no mention of errors. Perhaps if the machine had been built she might have coined the term “bug” long before Grace Hopper but I doubt that it would be for the same reason.



The log book complete with bug is now in the National Museum of American History - if it had fallen into the CPU of a Babbage machine it would be nothing but dust. 

A moth flying into the Mark I computer might have stopped it working but a moth flying into Babbage’s machine would have stopped the moth working... Come to think of it a programmer falling into Babbage’s machine would probably not have stopped it working! There was a good reason for calling the mechanical CPU "the Mill". 

Would programming have even been called programming? Perhaps it would have been called “levering” or “gearing”. It certainly would have given a whole new meaning to object-oriented programming.

And what about structured modular programming? Presumably it would have been all about calling lots of “submachines” and not using the “jump” instruction too much because it damages the machine... 

In this case Dijkstra's famous note "The Goto Considered Harmful" might have been much more accurate as programmers occasionally lost parts of their soft tissue to the CPU. 

The fact that computers were essentially in the same category as steam engines might have changed the way programmers were regarded - would they have worn the overalls of an engineer, complete with grease stains, an oil can in hand? 

What about the new jobs created by the new technology? Presumably "computer operator" would be a job with a shovel and a lot of coal to move. Data centers would probably have had to arrange for their waste heat to be dumped into something useful - perhaps a hot house growing exotic fruits.

Information technology as a whole would have had a very different feel to it and could well have appealed to a very different group of nerds. 

Victorian AI

We tend to think that we have invented most of the modern ideas of computing but think on this. Babbage got very close to some of the basic principles of AI without having a working computer to try any of it out on!

You don’t believe that AI nearly bloomed in the days of gas light and horse drawn carriages? Well around 1860 Babbage started to think about what he could do to test out the power of his machine description language. He wrote -

“After much consideration I selected for my test the contrivance of a machine that should be able to play a game of purely intellectual skill successfully: such as tit-tat-to, drafts, chess, etc.”

Trying to write computer programs that play games has been the test bed of much of modern AI and here is Babbage planning to do the same thing - only his programs are rather more solid than ours.

His interest didn’t stop there. Next he started work on “tit-tat-toe” his name for noughts and crosses. He analysed the game and worked out the design of a machine that would play it.

Essentially he seems to have implemented something like a lookup table of responses. He didn’t seem to think of the idea of searching the game tree to find the best move but he did invent the principle of a one move look-ahead -

“... can he win at the next move, if so make that move... if not can his adversary win at the next move, if so prevent him if possible...”

The machine would even partially randomise the moves it used if more than one equally good move was possible!

You may think that building a special purpose machine was missing the point that a computer was a universal machine that could do anything - but Babbage didn’t miss this point at all:

“..Allowing one to one hundred moves on each side for the longest game at chess I found that the combinations involved in the Analytical Engine enormously surpassed any required, even by the game of chess.”

Babbage clearly realised that his Analytical Engine was a universal machine and the only reason he was thinking of building a special purpose machine to play noughts and crosses was that it would be cheaper than the full Engine.

Which brings us to another discovery...

The Victorian Arcade Game

Babbage was so convinced that the noughts and crosses machine could be built and would work that he contemplated charging people to use it as a way of funding the Analytical engine.

“It occurred to me that if half a dozen were made, they might be exhibited in three different places at the same time.”

He also had a clear idea that the machine would be addictive in that children would drag their parents to see and play on the machine.

Eventually he gave up the idea because he realised that the time it would occupy would be better spent working on the Analytical Engine. Had he gone ahead it really does seem that the arcade game culture might have developed long before Pong. And what would Dickens have made of it all...

The Alternative Now

So far most of the ideas and speculations have been reasonably rooted in what we know of the Analytical Engine - but what about the more distant influences of the invention of Victorian computing?

Had Babbage built the Analytical Engine then it might be that we would all be using IBM PCs - but in this case that would stand for International Babbage Machine and Powered Computers! You would also be reading “I-Analytical Engineer”!

There is no doubt that electronics would have been invented but would anyone have bothered building valve based computers so long after reliable mechanical computers had proved their worth? (Although there is an alternative view as you will see below.) We probably would have waited until the transistor and the integrated circuit had been invented before going on to electronic computers.

It also seems reasonable that we would have phased in electronics as replacements for specific sections of the mechanical machine. After all the trouble with electronics is that it is so difficult to do decimal logic with it! Given that the most powerful computers of the time would have been completely decimal trying to introduce a binary machine would have seemed a big step and perhaps a backward one. What all this means is that the machine on your desk would most likely still be a decimal machine with some mechanical parts.

Of course it is also entirely possible that silicon lithography, the technique use to manufacture chips, would have been invented for a very different purpose.

If you know about transistors and electronic logic then presumably you can see how to use the doping of silicon to build integrated circuits but if what you know about is mechanical logic - presumably you start to think about ways of miniaturising mechanical devices.

Today we are just on the point of implementing practical micro-machines - and to be honest we are not entirely sure what to do with them! One of the ironies is perhaps that researchers are seriously suggesting that the steam engine might make a good source of power for a micromachine. This means that the PC on your desk might not have been much bigger than it is now. It might have made rather more noise and perhaps it would keep you warm on a cold day - but it could have packed almost same power into a desk-sized unit.

With a start in mechanical computers micro-engineering would have been developed and the division between the machine that does work and the machine that thinks would have been less obvious.

Our computers would be automata that did things as well as processing the data. Robotics would have seemed much more natural. Presumably hydraulics and fluid logic would have been introduced and extended to the input/output devices.

The typewriter as we know it was in existence by 1870 but it wasn’t well accepted. It is entirely possible that very different input methods would have been invented. The punched card was very definitely the method that Babbage had in mind, not only for programming his machine but for getting results back as well. It seems likely that the punch card would have more or less had its day as it did in the real version of history. The same sort of mechanical card handling devices would have been invented. But instead of surviving into the 1980s they might have made their exit in the 1880s!

No matter how hard you think, it is very difficult to imagine any sort of personal computing that doesn’t make use of a keyboard for an input device - unless of course they went straight for a pointing device or perhaps some sort of touch interface aka "the lever"!






Last Updated ( Friday, 23 December 2022 )