Babbage's mechanical notation

Charles Babbage (1791–1871) was Lucasian Professor of mathematics in Cambridge from 1828–1839. He displayed a fertile curiosity that led him to study many contemporary processes and problems in a way which emphasised an analytic, data driven view of life.

In popular culture Babbage has been celebrated as an anachronistic Victorian engineer. In reality, Babbage is best understood as a figure rooted in the enlightenment, who had substantially completed his core investigations into ‘mechanisation of thought’ by the mid 1830s: he is thus an anachronistic Georgian: the construction of his first difference engine design is contemporary with the earliest public railways in Britain.

A fundamental question that must strike anybody who examines Babbage’s precocious designs is: how could one individual working alone have synthesised a workable computer design, designing an object whose complexity of behaviour so far exceeded that of contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over a hundred years?

We shall explore the extent to which the answer lies in the techniques Babbage developed to reason about complex systems. His Notation which shows the geometry, timing, causal chains and the abstract components of his machines, has a direct parallel in the Hardware Description Languages developed since 1975 to aid the design of large scale electronics. In this presentation, we shall provide a basic tutorial on Babbage’s notation showing how his concepts of ‘pieces’ and ‘working points’ effectively build a graph in which both parts and their interactions are represented by nodes, with edges between part-nodes and interaction-nodes denoting ownership, and edges between interaction-nodes denoting the transmission of forces between individual assemblies within a machine. We shall give examples from Babbage’s Difference Engine 2 for which a complete set of notations was drawn in 1849, and compare them to a design of similar complexity specified in 1987 using the Inmos HDL.