It’s extraordinarily frustrating to look upon history and speculate what might have been if circumstances were slightly different. After reading Ada’s Algorithm, I couldn’t help but become frustrated.

In the mid 1800s, Charles Babbage had plans for a turing-complete mechanical and programmable computer—the Analytical Engine. It could have been the start of the information age, 100 years ahead of schedule.

What Babbage wrote is how what might have been never was. Had the meeting been successful, the seeds would have been sown for the start of an information technology revolution in Victorian Britain.James Essinger, Ada’s Algorithm, pg. 156

The meeting was with Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, to discuss funding for the Analytical Engine. It didn’t go well.

analytical engine
Babbage’s Analytical Engine (only a part of it was completed).

But that’s not the only thing that prevented the “information technology revolution.” A few things happened in the mid 19th century:

  • Babbage, being a typical scientist, didn’t do so well when he petitioned Sir Robert Peel. Especially after having “wasted” it on a partially complete precursor, the Difference Engine.
  • Babbage, being selfish and stubborn, refuses Ada Lovelace’s offer to help manage the public relations and finances for building the Analytical Engine.
  • Ada, who had the vision for what the Engine could be, beyond a mere mathematical calculator, died at age 38.
  • Victorian England did not equally accept the accomplishments of women to those of men. Ada’s notes on the Analytical Engine were dismissed in scholarly circles.

The analytical engine was never built though portions have been constructed and are on view at various museums.

We still get computers, but it’s 100 years later, in the mid 1900s, when Alan Turing rises to be a preeminent computer scientist. What could have happened if things worked out a little different? Perhaps Steampunk would have been a real thing.

Thus the engine may be considered as a real manufactory of figures, which will lend its aid to those many useful sciences and arts that depend on numbers. Again, who can foresee the consequences of such an invention?Ada Lovelace

I hope that today’s politicians and governments aren’t doing the same thing to a modern-day Babbage and that those in the sciences aren’t doing the same to a modern-day Ada. Unfortunately, I suspect that they are.