Tag Archives: Computing

The pride and passion of Mr Babbage

Cate Watson, Content Developer takes a look at the pride and passion of Charles Babbage.

Designing the Difference and Analytical engines was a monumental task, demanding dedication and extreme attention to detail. Both engines were made up of thousands of parts that required near identical manufacturing – pushing Victorian technology to its limits. And Babbage was determined to make the machines operate without any possibility of errors.

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage was very certain his engines would work. His passion for his machines kept him going despite numerous setbacks such as losing funding and the lack of acclaim or understanding of his inventions. Babbage continued designing engines until he died, absolutely sure that one day his work would be appreciated.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

And he was right. Nearly 150 years after Babbage’s death, our modern technological society can fully appreciate his genius in inventing the Analytical engine – a machine that embodies all the major principles of our computers – and the potential it had to change society.

Babbage passionately believed in his inventions and the importance of science. This uncompromising certainty made him highly critical of those who didn’t live up to his high standards. He published a scornful, sarcastic attack against the unscientific practices of the Royal Society. It was so shocking that Babbage’s friend John Herschel told him he would have given him a ‘good slap in the face’ for writing it if he had been within reach.

Babbage's Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage acted according to his scientific principles and succeeded in alienating the Royal Society – which had previously persuaded the Government to fund the Difference Engine. Babbage tried demanding more money from the Prime Minister, failed and lost all hope of further support.

Babbage’s uncompromising personality contributed to his failure to build his machines. Yet it was his unswerving dedication to science that made him continue to work beyond hope of realisation and produce the engine plans you can see on show in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

Beyond the mouse – the future of computer interfaces

Chloe Vince, volunteer on the Information Age project takes a look at the humble computer mouse, Douglas Englebart’s best-known contribution to modern computing.

Since its invention in 1963, the computer mouse has become an iconic image of personal computing. It was designed and developed by visionary engineer Douglas Engelbart who recently passed away on 4th July 2013 at the age of 88.

This early version of the computer mouse bears very little resemblance to those that we use today – it began as simply a wooden shell encasing a circuit board attached to two wheels which allowed movement across a surface. It was the wire that extended from the wooden shell and connected it to the computer that gave it is resemblance to its namesake – christening it a ‘mouse.’

A replica of the first ever computer mouse designed by Douglas Engelbart invented in 1963 and patented in 1970 (Source: SRI International)

Whilst the function of the mouse has remained the same since this initial model, the design has become much more streamlined. In 1972 computer engineer Bill English replaced the wheels for a ball, allowing the mouse to move in any direction. However this design soon encountered problems when dirt accumulated on the ball and restricted its use and as a result, in 1981 the mouse underwent another redesign.

It was then that engineers at technology company Xerox developed the first optical mouse, which worked by using focused beams of light to detect the movement of the mouse relative the surface it was on. In successive years, the combination of reduced cost in equipment and the progression in optical technology provided us with the optical computer mice that are used widely today.

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

The computer mouse used with the Apple G4 computer. Source: Science Museum / SSPL

While computer mice have retained their popularity with desktop computers and laptops, more intuitive computer interface technologies started becoming favoured on tablet computers and smart phones.

In the early 1990’s, the stylus pen began to be used widely, particularly with smart phones and message pads. Shortly after, the pen was lost and multi-touch screens became the most popular means to interact with these devices. These screens can detect two or more points of contact on an interface so users can rotate, pinch and zoom in on graphics – something you may be used to doing on your mobile phone.

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Apple Newton Message Pad, part of the Science Museum’s collection, used a stylus for the user to interact with the screen. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

This technology is so effortless to use it is difficult to think of how this interaction can become any easier – but what if you didn’t have to do anything at all? What if all you had to do was think about what you wanted your computer to do?

Computer tablets and smart phones used today mostly use a combination of multi-touch screens and voice recognition software. (Source: Flickr user ‘Exacq’ under creative commons license)

This month, scientists at the University of Washington have published findings showing that patients who had a thin layer of electrodes placed in their brain were able to move a cursor on a computer screen by demand by just thinking about it. Although in the early stages, this technology has the potential for users to communicate with computers using only their thoughts to control the commands on the screen.

While the idea of computers interpreting our thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect for most, patients suffering with severe forms of paralysis could find this research to be a life-line, allowing them to communicate with people via computers for the first time.

At the moment it is unknown whether this technology will be taken further commercially. Do you think it has the potential to be used at home or work to improve our lives? Or do you think this could take our relationship with computer technology too far?

A replica of Englebart’s mouse prototype will be on display in the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014.

Remembering computer memory

The British inventor of the magnetic drum store, Andrew D. Booth, recently passed away so its a good time to remember the significance of his work for computing today.

Andrew Booth was a physicist and computer scientist who became interested in the structure of explosives when he was working in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. After WW2 he moved to Birkbeck College, University of London, where he met the physicist J.D. Bernal and began to use X-ray crystallography to look at the structures of crystals. The process of crystallographic research required an enormous amount of numerical work and analysis, so Booth wanted to create a computer that could quickly crunch through the numbers. To do so he realised he needed reliable computer memory, so he set to work looking at the options.

Thanks to a donation from Booth himself in the 1940s, the Science Museum has Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store (1946) on display in the computing gallery.

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

It’s an ad hoc affair, with string and wires sticking out. Few people would have suspected at the time that it was to make such a major contribution to the development of computing. But during the 1950s and 60s magnetic drums were an important memory device for storing data and instructions. Even today, your computer’s hard drive is likely to contain a magnetic disk.

Booth worked tirelessly with his assistant (who later became his wife) Kathleen Britten, in what was often no more than a two person team with a shoestring budget. Together they produced some of the earliest digital computers in Britain, such as the All Purpose Electronic Computer (APEC). The design for the HEC computer was to become one of Britain’s best-selling computers during the late 1950s.

Micro Men

The 1980s race to create an affordable and reliable home computer was the subject of BBC4’s ‘Micro Men’ shown last night (and still on iPlayer). Chris Curry, co-founder of Acorn computers, and Sir Clive Sinclair were competitors but they were also close friends and they both did an enormous amount to bring the creativity of computing into British homes.

Our computing collections represent the incredible diversity of British machines at this time, from familiar computers such as the Dragon 32, ZX81 and the Oric 1, to unique computers such as our gold BBC Micro.

Gold BBC Micro

Gold BBC Micro

In March last year we invited the creators of the BBC Micro computer to the museum for a reunion to celebrate the team’s contribution to computing in Britain today. It was attended by ‘Micro Men’ producer Andrea Cornwall and some of the fantastic stories about Acorn that came out that day inspired the programme and the writer Tony Saint.

The creators of the BBC Micro computer

The creators of the BBC Micro computer

The legacy of the BBC Micro in developing the UK’s games development industry and the adoption of ICT in British schools and colleges is enormous. Technologically the BBC Micro also led to Acorn developing the ARM microprocessor. Benefiting from high performance and low power, ARM microprocessors are likely to be found in your mobile phone or ipod, and have been shipped in over 10 billion devices; more than one for each person on earth.

But we mustn’t forget the contribution of Sir Clive Sinclair, who created the first home computer under £100 and sold millions of machines into British homes.