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A long time ago, I read a fascinating book called Complete and Utter Failure, by Neil Steinberg. In it, the author raised the intriguing proposition that stories of massive failure were far more interesting than tales of success.
He has a point.
Success almost always involves good ideas done well; failures, on the other hand, are either good ideas that got colossally derailed along the way, or bad ideas that someone, somehow, had to love enough to risk everything on it.
Or, in the case of Charles Babbage, you have both.
The Difference Engine is about two struggles: The first half of the book deals with the struggles that Charles Babbage — an engineering genius with an astonishing gift for alienating precisely the wrong people at the wrong time — encountered as he tried to build the first mechanical calculating engine. The second half is about the travails of Doron Swade, the author of the book and a curator at the Science Museum of London, as he tries to build a working copy of the never-realized Difference Engine No. 2 from Babbage's plans.
Swade shines when it comes to explaining what the world was like in Babbage's time and the challenges that Babbage faced in creating the Engines. You see, back in the mid-nineteenth century, before electric calculators, engineers and sea captains had to rely on large, bulky books crammed full of logarithmic and astronomic tables in type so small you could pop a retina trying to read the type. These texts were calculated manually by large groups of people — and in between typesetting errors and plain old human error, they were riddled with mistakes.
Needless to say, winding up in the Antarctic because some typesetter accidentally transposed two digits was a concern to all back then.
Babbage's dream was to create an engine out of cogs and gears that would do the calculations and set the type automatically! Freed from human error, his engines would revolutionize the way tables were calculated...but he had to design the engine first. And deal with the limits of engineering, where a hundredth of an inch difference in gear length could stall the entire machine. And get funding. And get people to work with him.
Swade excels when he's setting up the problems behind the engine's creation, making them both understandable and riveting. Where he fails, however, is in explaining the personalities and politics behind the engine. Babbage is vividly portrayed as a hotheaded raconteur with a tinge of obsession — but other major figures are barely given notice. Babbage's wife dies early on, but we're never told what sort of relationship they had...just that he's upset. Likewise, Clement — the man who actually cast the parts for the unfinished engine — eventually stops production thanks to money problems, thus nailing the coffin shut. But we're never sure whether he was a greedy swindler or an ethical entrepreneur who had had enough.
What becomes clear is that the engine was ridiculously expensive, may or may not have worked, and that Babbage's propensity for shooting himself in the foot with public outbursts eventually buried the machine six feet under. Even accounting for the lack of effective characterization, the decline of the Difference and Analytical Engines is clearly laid out in fascinating detail, leading to interesting "what would have been?" scenarios.
However, the second part of the book, where Swade takes over, becomes an excruciating slog of a read. Babbage fought on three or four fronts at once to produce his engine, which gave him several ways to fail; Swade, on the other hand, only really has to worry about funding. Most of his quest to produce the Engine in time is a long string of, "Well, I tried this company and they collapsed, then I begged here, then I begged here...." which is only interesting to telemarketers.
The story only picks up again in the last twenty pages or so, when the machine is completed in a rush — and is breaking down continually as the exhibition date looms closer....
Babbage's engine was a bad idea that sounded good, and was further hampered by poor planning and awful politics. Neil Steinberg was right; the failure of the Babbage Engine and its ultimate collapse is far more harrowing and absorbing than the ultimate success of its re-creation in 1991. It's the kind of book where you'll find yourself talking about just how badly everything went with your friends over dinner and drinks.
And your friends will want to know. Trust me.
As for the book itself, well...one part is excellent, the other part mundane. Depending on your viewpoint, The Difference Engine is buying a great book with a boring afterward, or buying two books when only one of them is good. But for what it's worth, the first book is really good.
William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America. He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for Amazon.com and editing various websites. He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.