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

Would We Have Arcade Games?

Of course we would have.

Both Babbage and Ada imagined recreational uses for a computer. Ada imagined using it to write music - although in this case I think the sound card might have evolved from the pipe organ.

As already explained Babbage thought in terms of games of strategy like chess and noughts and crosses. But I have no doubt whatsoever that action arcade style games would have still been invented as early as they could be.


Simply because even in the days of teletypes and clunky keyboards programmers invented space wars and Star Trek and so on.. I can well imagine that now Lunar Lander might be a classic but in the Jules Verne style rather than the LEM! The real question is would we know Pong or any of the other really interactive games?

I find this difficult because I can’t think of anyway that you can have true interactivity without a TV system and I can’t think of a pure  mechanical method of generating a TV picture. It’s also difficult to imagine Virtual Reality (VR) based on a Babbage machine - after all what could be more non-virtual than a mechanical computer! 


Note: It has been pointed out by a number of readers, Jim McCracken and Erik Stites in particular, that perhaps the doubts about mechanical TV are too pessimistic. After all, the first TV invented by John Logie Baird was mostly mechanical. It is likely that this particular approach had no real future but as pointed out micro-mechanical devices, in the form of tiny mirrors, as used in DPL projectors work very well. So perhaps creating a mechanical TV with microlevers linked back to a mechanical computer isn't so unthinkable.


On the other hand all of the standard applications would have developed. We would have “steam sheets” and “word pressers” and presumably Steam Assisted Publishing (SAP) would have taken off!

The one thing that the Analytical Engine was planned to do from the word go was create its own printing plates - by stamping the numbers in a soft plaster of paris mixture - for the tables it would calculate. This means that “direct to press” would have come true decades ago.

But the big question I hear you all asking is - what about the Internet?

Well, Babbage couldn’t have used the telephone because it hadn’t been invented but there was the telegraph. It was invented by his friend Wheatstone (yes the man who invented the “bridge” of the same name). Soon after Morse improved on the idea and the sort of key and tapper system that you can see in most Westerns was invented.

What is so wonderful about this it that it was a digital system. We invented computers after the telephone and for this reason we go through a ridiculous process of converting digital to analog and back again

If the computer had been invented before the telephone then I’m not at all sure Bell would have bothered. Using a simple Morse type system one mechanical computer could have communicated with another without the need for a modem. This would simplify communications so much that my guess is that the Internet would have been invented before 1900 - after all the first international cable was laid between the UK and France in 1851. By my guess your PC would be fully connected but I doubt that there would be a telephone to be seen - in fact I doubt you would know the meaning of the word...

Overall, though, you have to conclude that had Babbage succeeded the biggest change would be to the way that we thought about the world. Algorithms applied to food production, transport and so on would have changed the geopolitics of the world such that perhaps wars would have been less inevitable, but who knows. 





Charles Babbage was a man who ambitions were ahead of his time. Had he managed to introduce the computer age in the 19th century we might have arrived at a very different time today.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 23 December 2022 )