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Charles Babbage assesses Bill Gates’ contribution to computing


Who’s the daddy?

Everyone knows that my Analytical Engine was the first machine computer, don't they? Before me (Before Babbage, BB, I like the ring of it), a computer was a living person who did difficult sums and more than occasionally got them wrong.  

If I am 'the father of computing', a title often granted me, then I suppose I have to acknowledge Bill Gates as one of my sons. I cavil at doing so partly because I find him boring and also because there's a small if in my last sentence. The iffiness is about me not about Gates. I am not too proud that I won't admit to it. In spite of plans being drawn up in 1835, they didn't finish building my Analytical Engine until 1991, sixteen years after  a tiresomely young and unhealthily thin Bill Gates set up a company called Micro-Soft with Paul Allen. That probably gives Bill every right to ask. 'Who's the daddy then?'.

Modern ego:

Bill Gates


Prima ego:

Charles Babbage


Charles Babbage Bill Gates Babbage's Analytical Engine Bill Gates with early IBM PC

So, even though it is undisputed that I am far more interesting,  it would be ungentlemanly of me to argue that I am also much the more important. Can I propose a compromise? I'm happy to stand as the father of the idea of machine computing, accepting that Pascal and Leibniz might have a word or two to say about that, while allowing Gates some claim to paternity of the PC, (though 'in loco parentis', after the likes of Stibitz, Shannon and Zuse stepped aside, might be a better description). It makes it easier for me to be objective. I would be uncomfortable criticising anybody whom I might have actually sired, even in an analogous way.

I can't deny there are connections between us, some of them bizarre. A couple amuse me.

  1. We are both relaxed about the value of a university education. Gates went to Harvard but never bothered to complete his studies. I was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge but never found the time to give any lectures.
  2. One of my numerous inventions  was an arcade version of tic-tac-toe. Gates' first computer program was an implementation of tic-tac-toe that allowed users to play games against their computer.

I like the child in him but I wish I could find more joy in the man.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

I lived in a mechanical world when numbers were mystical , long before Shannon made them digital. We weren't in control of numbers, we were under their spell and wanted to understand their magic. My steam-driven Analytical Engine was designed to have more than fifty thousand moving parts so that it could remove human error from mathematical calculations. I wanted to make numbers perfect because I knew of nothing more beautiful.

And, for a poignantly short number of years,  I had Lord Byron's daughter, Ada King, Countess of  Lovelace, to make them even more enchanting (why can't all programmers look like her?). She has every claim to be 'the mother of computer programming', and I don't think she'd be any more keen than I to acknowledge Gates as her son.

Gates deals in codes not numbers because his world is electronic. He skipped maths classes to experiment with programming, a sure sign that he has no affection for numbers. He has worked towards his goals with a passion I can only marvel at. I thought I was fixated on my Analytical engine but I could sidetrack sufficiently to:

If I say it myself, that puts me about as far away from what you now call a nerd as the abacus is from the Apple. Bill didn't have anything to do with the Apple, did he? That might have made him interesting.

All he's done is make himself rich and the world a lot drearier. Has anyone ever been enchanted by what a Microsoft program does for them?  Has anyone ever counted the minutes in their lives lost to Microsoft load times or Microsoft crashes? Add them all together and you'll probably find a sum equivalent to the annual output of China.

Who's the daddy now, Bill?


Charles Babbage’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, May 2011

Feel free to comment on this article.

Ada Lovelace - how programmers should look

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He would not have been welcome at my soirées, to which the most farsighted and influential thinkers in Europe would come in their droves. Too one dimensional. Ben Franklin reincarnated  he is not. I see him more as the Genghis Khan of the computer kingdom, aggressively seeding his rather barbaric approach to the beautiful world of code across all nations. Yes, he conquered the globe at an incredibly early age through the single minded viciousness that is excused as 'hard-nosed business'. Now the Khan has retired to his earthen palace beside Lake Washington, yet the Microsoft hordes continue to ravage far and wide. There are signs of retreat, though,  aren't there? Computing in the cloud, that could bring some of the romance back. I would love that.

Image attribution

Photo:  Bill Gates, thesun.co.uk

Photo: Charles Babbage, Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Analytical Engine, science-museum.org.uk

Photo: Bill Gates, windows8italia.com

Photo: Ada Lovelace, chronicle.com

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Gates - the slouch of computing?

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