Introduction

This website is intended to support the book "Electronic Brains" by providing additional information, pictures, technical specifications, historical footnotes and anything else of relevance in response to reader queries. The book is deliberately not too technical and without footnotes, but I'm happy to provide that information here by request.
         
Mike Hally

Prologue

Synopsis: setting the scene for the main story with a quick romp through the pre-computer age, from the abacus through the remarkable Charles Babbage's Difference and Analytical Engines, Herman Hollerith's tabulating machine, and Vannevar Bush's Differential Analyzer to Konrad Zuse's Z-series mechanical computers.
Those who are already know something of computer history may not find much new in the Prologue -- the meat of the book is in the main chapters -- but it does include the latest viewpoint on Charles Babbage, by kind permission of Doron Swade who continues to do detailed original research on the subject.
Swade was for some years curator of the Computing collection at the Science Museum in London and while he was there ran a project to build a working Difference Engine -- for the first time, given that Babbage himself never completed any of his engines. That exercise however proved it could be built using the manufacturing standards of the time, contradicting a popular and enduring assumption that Babbage's Engines demanded engineering tolerances that could not be achieved in mid-19th century workshops.
That much was explained a few years ago by Swade in his book “The Cogwheel Brain: Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer” (US title: “The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer”).

What Doron Swade has further revealed recently is that Babbage had much more in mind than simply building a machine to calculate error-free mathematical tables. That was an easy way to explain his project to the Victorian public, popularised by the lectures of his magnificently-named friend Dionysius Lardner. Instead argues Swade, what Babbage saw in the designs of his Engines was “a new technology of mathematics” able to systematically solve complex equations and “compute functions for which there was no analytical law”, even predicting a new branch of mathematics, what we now know as “computational analysis”. Swade's research has been written up in "Resurrection", the journal of the Computer Conservation Society, but it isn't currently available on-line as far as I know.

The few paragraphs on Konrad Zuse are necessarily brief, but the Z-series computers are fascinating and his son Horst Zuse's website at www.epemag.com/zuse contains much more detail including his remarkable mechanical binary memory that used row and column addressing just like its electronic successor.

A note on "Americanisms": apologies to UK readers who bristle at the "-ize" ending used throughout this book, but (a) the book is on worldwide sale and (b) the "-ize" ending is a perfectly respectable standard English alternative (and in fact the Granta house style).
last update 14 Dec 04