Skip to main content

Seminar Adrian Johnstone

Seminar by Professor Adrian Johnstone

  • Date 23 Oct 2018
  • Time 3:00pm – 4:00pm
  • Category Seminar

Babbage and the abstraction of mechanism

Abstract:

Charles Babbage has been called the 'great-uncle' of modern computing, a claim that rests simultaneously on his demonstrable understanding of most of the architectural principles underlying the modern computer,
and the almost universal ignorance of Babbage's work before 1970. There has since been an explosion of interest both in Babbage's devices and the impact they might have had in some parallel history, and in Babbage himself as a man of great originality who had essentially no influence at all on subsequent technological development.

In all this, one fundamental 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 of behaviour so far exceeded that of contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over one hundred years?

The key, as is well understood in modern engineering contexts, is to abstract away from the full complexity of a concrete system. The complexity barrier was faced by the electronics industry in the 1970's and 1980's, and triggered a switch from visual descriptions of large scale digital electronic devices to text-based Hardware Description Languages similar in style to that of a software programming language.

Babbage too faced an overwhelming complexity barrier, and his response was indeed to design a system of hardware abstractions which he called his Notation. The ideas allowed him to reason in the abstract about chains of cause and effect in his mechanisms, and he believed the Notation to be his crowning achievement.

His ideas were not taken up: one near contemporary rejected it because there could be many concrete machines that had the same notational description, which of course was precisely the point.

In this talk I will draw parallels between early electronic HDL's and Babbage's notation; display some strengths and weaknesses of Babbage's approach; and speculate on the underlying cause of the 150 year gap between Babbage's notation and the emergence of HDL based engineering design as a standard technique.

Bio:

Adrian is Professor of Computing at Royal Holloway, member of the Centre for Software Language Engineering.

Babbage Notation

Related topics

Explore Royal Holloway

Get help paying for your studies at Royal Holloway through a range of scholarships and bursaries.

There are lots of exciting ways to get involved at Royal Holloway. Discover new interests and enjoy existing ones

Heading to university is exciting. Finding the right place to live will get you off to a good start

Whether you need support with your health or practical advice on budgeting or finding part-time work, we can help

Discover more about our 21 departments and schools

Find out why Royal Holloway is in the top 25% of UK universities for research rated ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’

They say the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why

Discover world-class research at Royal Holloway

Discover more about who we are today, and our vision for the future

Royal Holloway began as two pioneering colleges for the education of women in the 19th century, and their spirit lives on today

We’ve played a role in thousands of careers, some of them particularly remarkable

Find about our decision-making processes and the people who lead and manage Royal Holloway today