Hi All! As promised: Babbage’s Analytical Engine, how the heck did it work?
If you’re new to this website, you may be only dimly aware of Charles Babbage’s marvellous yet mysterious Analytical Engine, the first design for a real computer from the 1840s. It had programs, memory, cycles, loops, and all sorts of computery things despite being constructed entirely out of brass gears and powered by a steam engine. When I started this comic I was extremely frustrated by the vagueness of nearly every single description of it. Eventually I had to build my own, meta-fashion, in computer-generated form; where I found out that it’s not only a delightfully beautiful machine jam-packed with ingenious devices, it’s also considerably easier to understand than a modern computer. How the heck do those things work?
The Thrilling Adventures has an appendix with many diagrams and explanations of how the Analytical Engine worked and how it relates to modern computers, but I think despite the pleasures of print the broad operation of the Engine is most clearly explained by animation. I hope this video makes it clearer– I should stress that a) this is a super-simplified, cartoon, stripped-down version, and b) this is the best of my understanding, gleaned from the papers of the late Allan Bromely (lent to me by John Graham-Cumming, thanks John and I’m totally returning them I swear!!) who wrote I think the most complete modern descriptions of the Engine. I could be SO TOTALLY WRONG on a lot of stuff. So that said, here we go (I um and er a lot less after the first couple of minutes I promise…):
Historical note: I had a moment of sisterhood with Ada Lovelace when I was writing out how the Engine worked. In her correspondence with Babbage while writing her famous Notes on the Sketch of the Analytical Engine, there’s a little exchange between them that neatly displays their personalities. Babbage writes:
There is still one triffling misapprehension about the Variable cards—A Variable card may order any number of Variables to receive the same number upon theirs at the same instant of time—But a Variable card never can be directed to order more than one Variable to be given off at once because the mill could not receive it and the mechanism would not permit it. All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.
To which Lovelace replies with the harassed tone familiar to someone buried under piles Analytical Engine diagrams:
I cannot imagine what you mean about the Variable-Cards; since I never either supposed in my own mind that one Variable-card could give off more than one Variable at a time; nor have (as far as I can make out) expressed such an idea in any passage whatsoever.
This is the sort of thing one glances blandly at when reading historical correspondence, until one finds oneself writing: “The Variable Cards then read off the numbers on the addresses into the Mill”.. and then scrupulously adding “ONE AT A TIME” as the ghost of Charles Babbage hovers anxiously over one’s shoulder…
Anyways if you are super keen on this stuff and want to see specifics of some of the thousands of little levers, here is the video on the anticipating carriage for carrying the ones (that still by the way leaves out some bits). Babbage would be beside himself with delight that the first question asked a talk I gave on the comic at Google was how he planned to carry the ones! This part of the Engine was Babbage’s proudest achievement, he called it ‘teaching the Engine to foresee, and to act on that foresight’.
(I have a few more videos on the Engine on YouTube, though they have less explanation, which you may consider a feature.)
ALSO- by popular demand, you can now buy prints of the Analytical Engine visualisation in glorious Technicolor! (a previous post explained why the colours I chose to paint the Engine are so.. festive). I have some new tshirt designs and a couple of more prints on the way, as soon as I have a half a second which I currently don’t.
Many are asking, will there be more Lovelace and Babbage? The answer is YES! But you’ll have to hold on a YET couple of more months. As some of you may know, I am only a fearless comic-drawer by night; by day I battle giant monsters in the glamorous yet terrifying colosseum of visual effects animation. I’m in mega-crunch with the Giant Monsters, here is the forecast for the next several weeks:
In the meantime you can feast your eyes and ears on my flyaway hair and become thoroughly sick of my insufferable squeaky voice on several interviews (not a complete list.. more to come!), legacy of my Book Tour of Doom which I must tell you all about sometime when I have a sec. Also, I’m relieved to report that after being braced for brickbats and jeering if not total baffled silence, there’s a whole bunch of great reviews out for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage– links to a bunch at the bottom of this page.
AND FINALLY.. if you are around London this coming weekend you can catch me at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on the comics panel on Sunday.
Greetings long-suffering readers (and new soon-to-be-sufferers)! If you have been feeling deprived of Lovelace & Babbage news for lo these many months, rejoice! as you are in fact soon to find yourself heartily sick of this
comic Graphic Novel. Over the next couple of weeks I find myself in little short of a Media Blitz quite enough to turn a girls head. And it starts with a BANG!
The Analytical Engine in Glorious Technicolor!
If you open up the Observer Tech Monthly this Sunday your eyes will have been dazzled by no less a sight than The Analytical Engine, its very self, a in full colour hand-tinted plate (with some more extracts as well!)! It’s an except from The Book, specially coloured in for the Observer for added beautousness. Additionally I make myself more than usually incoherent in an appended interview.
The colour one I leave to the Observer, but finally, FINALLY, I can share with you the the production of so many months of labour– my exhaustively (and boy do I mean that literally) researched visualisations of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. I’ve been vexed for years by the invariably vague descriptions of the Engine, even in quite detailed computer history books– frustrated by the brisk summary “it was a modern computer but cogs”. As a
comics slinger graphic novelist all I wanted, and this seemed a modest ask, is an Official Drawing of a huge-ass computer made of cogs, so I could see what it looked like. Imagine my dismay when I found that (to the best of my knowledge) no such drawing existed! Not by Babbage, not by a scholar or an engineer or otherwise Official Person, nothing! There were a scattering of drawings of bits of the Engine; and lengthy examinations of the math and engineering of the Engine, but the whole thing? Nope. This is sort of understandable as Babbage left literally thousands of piecemeal drawings and kept changing the design, so doing a visualisation is actually really hard. And computer history books want to explain computing stuff and not provide me with eye-candy. BUT STILL.
So I had do my own, and it took ages and ages and hair-tearing over diagrams (elevations, Babbage! They are a Thing!), but I’m pretty proud of it, so here you go:
I think this merits a
Over the next couple of weeks I’m doing a series of posts about the Engine, to show you how I got the above drawing from this:
and what this all means:
But today I want to talk about the really important matter of: what colour was it?
We rarely court controversy here at 2dGoggles Amalgamated Comics but I was a bit nervous in the colour scheme I used for the Observer colour version. For one thing, there’s a reason the comic is in black and white, and that is because its drawn by me, a person not very good at colour. More specifically though, in picturing the workings of the mysterious Engine you may have always pictured it in distinguished tones of steel grey and muted brass, as sported by its modern cousin the Difference Engine reconstruction:
I myself however have had a vision before my eyes of Great Building-Sized Mid-Victorian Engineering. That vision is
loud garish glorious! It’s the culmination of the greatest of Victorian Engineering projects, Bazalgette’s Sewer (comic episode ideas: Great Stink, mephitic vapours, mutant eels, trained cormorants, mole people?). Ladies and Gentlemen, if for some reason you are in ignorance of the existence of the Cathedral of Sewage Pumps, I’m privileged to introduce you to the destination of all London effluvium, Crossness Pumping Station:
Crossness was finished in 1867– pretty close to what would have been a realistic completion date for the Analytical Engine if they’d started it in the mid-30s come to think of it! Like all Victorian stuff, it’s a bit Too Much, or Just Right if you are of that temper. In the ’50s and ’60s they loved their bright chemical colours and I’m pretty sure an actual Analytical Engine would not have been left with plain unpainted infrastructure. Especially if Charles Babbage had anything to say about it! Though it would probably have had to be repainted 37 different times so he could check what the best colour scheme was. He was after all the man who printed 21 volumes of test logarithm tables using every combination of 10 different coloured inks and 140 differently coloured papers to see which read best (page not open, unfortunately, to the black-ink-on-black-paper trial*):
Half of Crossness has been left in its found condition of romantic decay, which looks really wonderful in contrast. If you want a magical day out, take your significant other to a sewage pumping station to heck and gone in the marshes east of London- next Steaming Day April 19th!
Next : An overview of the Engine!
(by they way- in terms of realism, my big concern with the visualisation above is in retrospect I don’t think it could have been a free-standing structure. While gigantic it was a very delicate instrument and would grind to a halt if any one of its tens of thousands of parts was even a hair out of alignment; probably you would have to somehow suspend the whole thing is a substantial cage of heavy ironmongery to keep it from shifting. BUT if I drew all that in, you wouldn’t be able to see the Engine!
oh- additional aside– the punchcards (it took 3 sets to run a program) didn’t hang on brackets as I’ve drawn them [I took that from a Jacquard loom]; rather, they are clearly in a box marked BOX on the diagrams. But likewise then you wouldn’t be able to see them! So some concessions have been made to Art in that drawing. ).
Now that’s out of the way, stay tuned for a series on that most mysterious of Mechanisms, the Analytical Engine, which I hope to make a bit less mysterious!
*If you’re wondering which ink and paper combination proved most successful, the winner was…. black ink on white paper.
Come one come all! The UK launch and signing for The Thrilling Adventures, social event of the season, will be at GOSH! Comics, the fabulous chamber of wonders and consumer of wallets conveniently located in the middle of salubrious Soho. It shall be on Thursday April 30! It would be great to meet my loyal and patient readers so do come (also FREE BEER).
You may notice that there’s been some heavy redecoration on the ol’ website— still shifting furniture so let me know if you find any broken crockery or image links lying around. There will be many new offerings coming up, the first of which is the shiny EVENTS PAGE, so if you’re not in London you can check out where I’ll be when I’m not either at work or the pub.
Howdy folks from your highly defatigable Comics-Mine Labourer and Over-Employed Giant-Monster Wrangler! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage launches in EXACTLY ONE MONTH!!??! (how did that happen?) and all kinds of things are going on! The papery thing will finally be holdable for your physical manifestation on the 21st of April, I guess I should arrange a party? (kicks giant monster gnawing on leg under desk) Um, I’ll let you know.. You can preorder by a variety of means over here.
If you live in the UK and are kicking around in two weeks on Friday the 3rd of April (that’s Easter Friday) it’s going to be wall-to-wall ME at the UK National Science Fiction Convention Dysprosium at beautiful Heathrow– I’m on two panels (one on webcomics and one on steampunk) and I’m blathering on solo for an entire hour at 8pm. I’m going to be previewing the book, chatting about drawing comics, AND unveiling to the Admiring Public for the very first time my highly elaborate and extremely sort of accurate diagrams of the Analytical Engine– the first visualisations of the whole machine ever done, believe it or not, so it’s going to be a wild night. Day passes are available here!
THEN it’s on to the Book Tour of DOOM (erm, that’s on a test site right now, I’m fixing it, but that’s where the latest info is, yes I know shut up), encompassing Seattle, San Francisco, Tulsa, Toronto, Boston, and New York, followed, should I survive, by some to-be-announced UK stuff, including the Curious Arts Festival.
I can’t recall why I made this gif of Lovelace and Babbage as penguins a while back but it seems it set some spheniscidaelian vibes into the atmosphere because The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, papery edition, is now being published in the UK by Particular Books Penguin! An imprint which is officially described as: “This list is characterized by the particular, all-consuming passions of its unique authors for a whole range of subjects.” Well, yeah!
This explains the recent phenomenon some of you may have experienced of having your Amazon pre-orders mysteriously cancelled then (possibly) equally mysteriously reinstated. It OUGHT to be sorted out by the power of algorithms deep in the Difference Engines at Amazon but if it’s not the new and correct pre-order page for the UK is here (they might do a different cover, hence, no cover at present). Having a UK publisher is excellent news generally as not only are they lovely people but you’ll be able to pick up the book at your local shop a lot more easily here now.
I’ve also made a nice page for the Book here, please admire my pretty stars from the early reviews from Kirkus (“A prodigious feat of historically based fantasy that engages on a number of levels”) and Publisher’s Weekly (“…a must-have for anyone who enjoys getting lost in a story as brilliant in execution as conception… permeated by delightful illustrations, obsessive foot- and endnotes, and a spirit of genuine inventiveness, it’s an early candidate for the year’s best.”) which I am informed are VERY RARE AND COVETED STARS so yay! I have to say when one has spent years of one life doing a comic which in sober retrospect seems like an extremely weird exercise in idiosyncratic obsession, not having it instantly savaged is to put it mildly a bit of a relief.
In other news, Ye Olde Book Tour for the US is coming together for the beginning of May, currently featuring the computery towns of Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York– Pantheon has the details down way more clearly than I do. There’s a few more places to follow I think. UK talks etc I dunno, I will talk to the Penguins. They will say “awk! awk awk!” and I will come back to you if this means I’m doing any talks.
In other OTHER news, Giant Monster (aka Day Job) intensity is unexpectedly freakishly high, which is why I haven’t dived back into comics now the the book is done and also why I have a slightly hysterical aspect to my person at the moment. It should clear soonish. Hectic times hectic times!
That’s right folks! If Ada Lovelace owes you money that’s just too bad because she was born 200 years ago on December 10th, 1815! There are lots and lots of THRILLING celebrations and events in the planning, many of which feature (naturally) ME, so stay tuned for dates and announcements and Lovelacey goodness this year.
*Ada Lovelace famously died with several thousands pounds in gambling debts; all no doubt incurred in attempting to fund the Analytical Engine! Decades later the sum of Ada’s debts had been gleefully inflated by rumour; Nathaniel Hawthorne (of the Scarlet Letter) was told they amounted to 40,000 pounds, about 20 times the actual amount.
Happy (ever so slightly belated in the UK as I post this) Babbage’s Birthday everyone! I know everyone’s favourite part of the annual celebrations is the Numbers Banquet and the Parade of Algorithms, but for the TRUE MEANING of Babbage’s Birthday you ought to rejoice in the Mechanism Sermon, herein…
Sorry about the rambling, total lack of pedagogic structure, and my irritating squeaky voice! I did this for a thing but recalled I promised to explain how this thing worked like, a year ago.. anyways now you know what the lovely rippling arms on the back of the Engine do:
By the way the ‘chack!’ sound that it makes is the locks that click down to stop the wheels, that’s the long grey wedge thing on screen right.
So I have approximately 47 items on my todo list marked URGENT!! and my inbox zero status is at inbox +63 so naturally it’s time to mess around with tshirt designs!
This year I’m doing something a bit different, I’ve always wanted to do a screenprint which is nicer but that takes, like, work and planning and stuff. Well wonders of the tech age, Teespring will apparently take care of the faff– IF and ONLY IF enough shirts are reserved. (EDITED TO ADD: We’ve already cleared the bar for printing so there WILL be tshirts!), Here they are:
If you rejoice in living in Europe, it might be cheaper to go the ol’ reliable zazzle route for the shirts on account of the shipping costs, depends on what options you pick.. you might want to compare. Zazzle version (it looks a bit duller than it would when printed:
Though I am not swift, never say I am indifferent to the plaintive cries of my loyal long-suffering remaining shreds of readers! With GREAT SUFFERING and much against my inclinations, I drew you a Brunel paper doll- clicky for printable size.
To go with your paper dolls, you will of course be wanting some primary documents. Do you have the eyes of a very young eagle in peak condition? If you have, you can read heaps of Brunel in the proceedings at the tempestuous meeting of railway men in 1839, regarding whether or not to adopt broad gauge tracks– “giant gauge for giant engines!” Debate rages over whether the rails for the kingdom’s infant railway network should be standardised to a puny 4 ft 8 1?2 inches apart, or a magnificent, monumental 7 ft 1?4 inches apart, for trains bigger, faster, and smoother for the comfortable consumption of coffee. Which one do you think Brunel favoured? Go on, guess!
If it’s too tiny for you you can at least enjoy the marvellous title bar:
And who else was at this historic meeting? Why Charles Babbage! Speaking at great length in support of Brunel and on all sorts of subjects (hear! hear!); if you have excellent eyesight, some patience, and an obsessive interest in Charles Babbage, you can catch a real sense of his speaking style in the transcript. Here he feelingly remarks on how much easier it is to come up with an invention, that it is to raise the money for it:
And here is something quite wonderful, turned up in A Random Walk In Science, a miscellany of mild amusements from various periods in science. It includes a rather ponderously sarcastic little drama (with a musical number!) from Herapath’s Railway Journal from 1845. The comedy revolves around (unfortunately justified) mockery of the practicability of Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway, a plan to literally suck train cars along rails via giant pumps and hollow tubes. We join the scene after some non-Brunel jocularity; stick around at least for the killer last line.