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Leverhulme grant on "Babbage's language of thought"

Posted on 09/12/2013

Charles Babbage

Professors Adrian Johnstone and Elizabeth Scott have been awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust for "Notions and notations: Babbage's language of thought".

Charles Babbage (1791–1871) invented a mechanical Difference Engine which could automatically compute tables for navigation and other purposes. He then went on to design Analytical Engines which show all of the major architectural features of a modern computer but implemented using mechanical cogs and rods rather than electronics. Babbage is now celebrated as a remarkable Victorian pioneer of computing.

In the great outpouring of Babbage scholarship one key question has been largely ignored: how is it that one individual working alone could have synthesised a workable computer design over a short period, designing an object whose complexity so far exceeded contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over 100 years?  We believe that the key was Babbage's design Notation which allowed to imagine the machine's behaviour at a high level, independently of the mechanical details. We are going to test this hypothesis by writing software tools which will analyse Babbage's Notation and attempt to directly simulate Babbage's designs.

One of the key investigators in this project is Dr Doron Swade MBE who, as Curator of Computing at the Science Museum in London, oversaw the construction of Babbage's final complete design: Difference Engine II.



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