Charles Babbage (1792-1871) is a good place to start in our quest for the fabled Arti. Babbage was an English astronomy student who embarked on a career as a computer engineer when hardly anyone had even thought of the computer concept and engineer referred to someone who ran a steam locomotive. Between 1827 and 1833, Babbage attempted to build his “Difference Engine” which basically was a rather sophisticated mechanical calculator of around 25,000 parts. The Difference Engine actually worked in a limited way (about 10% of the device was made with 2,000 hand-made brass parts and it could do some calculations). Babbage was a perfectionist though, and this had dire consequences for him. He suffered a nervous breakdown from his obsessions with his work and finances.

After 1833, Charles Babbage started concentrating on his follow-up concept to the Difference Engine. The “Analytical Engine” would be a full-blown programmable machine with memory (the “store”) and a processing unit (the “mill”). The Analytical Engine would use punched cards for storage, input, and output. The technical papers on the Analytical Engine and its potential programmed use read like the manuals of computers from a hundred years later. The biggest problem facing the building and completion of the Analytical Engine was the state of metal parts manufacturing and precision during the mid-1800’s. Of course, obtaining the finances was a major hurdle to overcome as well. But, if Babbage had been able to produce more of his Difference Engine economically and rapidly, then we would have had the computer revolution a hundred years earlier

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For you conspiracists, we postulate that there were those who knew and followed Babbage’s trail as the materials science and parts manufacturing capabilties increased during the 1800’s. Perhaps some succeeded in developing the steam-powered Analytical Engine almost a century before modern day computers. Imagine if you had that kind of computing power before the turn of the 20-th century. How eager would you be to reveal what was behind your success in business or science? Does the Babbage Society really exist and what have these well-hidden members accomplished in over a hundred years? Maybe Arti was born in the mid-1800’s and has been our silent partner for a long time? We can’t answer these questions, but the thought that any of this might have happened is compelling. For fun and potential enlightenment, we suggest you check out the following speculative books and stories:

“The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Stirling. This is a period novel with much interesting commentary about the Babbage ideas and potential consequences.

“In the Country of the Blind” by Michael Flynn. This is a current times sci-fi novel with its roots firmly set in the Babbage continuum. It’s extrapolation of the Babbage memes is great. Don’t miss this one!

“Georgia On My Mind” by Charles Sheffield. This Hugo Award novelette is just plain fun. Babbage enthusiasts should find everything they need here to follow the Babbage trail from the past to the future.