Another “close, but no cigar.”

November 10, 2011

The New York Times Science section ran a piece on Tuesday about a project to build a working model of Babbage’s planned analytical engine.  It was a cog and gear driven ‘computer’ that read punch card data and instructions.  The article implies that it was the first such device, and so, the ancestor of all modern digital computers.

Close, but not quite.  Before the Victorian Babbage, there was  the 18th century Jacquard and his loom.

These huge machines read complex instructions on punch cards, made Lyons a dominant force in the silk weaving business, and were recognized by Babbage himself , as well as the future leader of IBM, the firm that put punch cards into the popular mind, as an important precursor and inspiration for the analytical engine.  Not to mention, that the looms actually worked, while the analytical engine never got off the drawing board.

The story is well and comprehensively told in this very fine book:  Jacquard’s Web.

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The Real (Techno) Revolutionary

October 16, 2011

Amid all the media hoopla and weeping over the passing of Steve Jobs, a real revolutionary of the digital age passed quietly from the scene, Dennis Ritchie.  The book he co-authored, known simply as Kernighan and Ritchie brought the C language into the world, and changed computing forever.  As the Times also points out, his development of Unix is at the heart of the current digital world infrastructure and consumer frenzy:

The Unix operating system has similarly had a rich and enduring impact. Its free, open-source variant, Linux, powers many of the world’s data centers, like those at Google and Amazon, and its technology serves as the foundation of operating systems, like Apple’s iOS, in consumer computing devices.

Dennis Ritchie, a true technological and intellectual pioneer.