Escaping from the
footnotes of history
Felix Grant and
is always pleasant to meet kindred spirits, and Babbage recalls his
introduction in 1840 to fellow Devonian Mr Thomas Fowler. A bank manager
from Great Torrington, Fowler was visiting London to demonstrate his
wooden calculating engine. Babbage thought that the device, of
sliding-rod construction and using the ternary number system, showed
remarkable promise. Its inventor, alas, died three years later, leaving
it in pieces. Soured by the experience of competitors copying his
Thermosiphon central heating system, Mr Fowler left no drawings for
the calculator’s reconstruction. The only record is a commemorative
window in St Michael’s Church, Great Torrington.
Unfortunately this is all too common a story. In our
electronic age, mechanical computers seem destined to be mere quaint
footnotes to history. In reality, their significance was considerable.
Notably, the Turing ‘Bombe’, crucial to Britain's decoding of German
Enigma messages in World War II, was a programmable mechanical computer,
albeit not “absolutely general” machine like the Analytical Engine.
James Redin’s “X-number World of Calculators” at
hand-cranked comptometers, slide-adders, and other descendants of early
devices such as the Pascaline and Leibniz Stepped Drum calculators.
Mechanical calculators were the mainstay of businesses until only a few
decades ago. One of the earliest such devices, the abacus, is still in
Recent developments, however, may yet revive mechanical
calculation in mainstream science. At the web site of Sandia National
Laboratories, USA (http://www.mdl.sandia.gov/micromachine/)
Babbage recently learned of some delightful ‘micromachines’ no larger
than a pollen grain. Formed as an integral part of a CMOS microchip,
these devices include locks, shutters, sensors, encoders, and even a
Moving down to atomic scales takes us into the realm of Dr K
Eric Drexler’s ‘nanotechnology’. Atomic-scale gears and bearings are
theoretically possible, and from these, nanocomputers could be built.
Babbage finds most amusing the thought of a nano-sized Analytical Engine
driven by a steam motor little larger. A more likely component, however,
is the sliding ‘molecular abacus’ reported in the February/March 1999
issue of Scientific Computing World. It seems that Mr Fowler’s
sliding-rod concept, albeit on a far different scale from his prototype,
could at last find application.
A footnote from
Babbage: I was delighted to read in the Western Morning News, August
30th 2000, an item about two reconstructions of Mr Fowler's Engine by
Roy Foster, an engineer from Torrington, and Mark Glusker, a product
designer from California. The construction was made possible through the
work of historian Pamela Vass, also of Torrington, whose research led to
the rediscovery of Fowler's notes on his Engine's design, given as a
deathbed dictation to his daughter. A short biography of Fowler may be
www.thomasfowler.org.uk; Mark Glusker's model may be seen at