Zach Horton, “Charles Babbage, the Absent Father”

This paper examines 19th century English inventor Charles Babbage’s paradoxical standing among historians of technology and computing. In the 1830s he designed a purely mechanical, general purpose, programmable calculating device he dubbed the Analytical Engine. In its logical design and general capabilities it is nearly identical to the modern computer. Thus Babbage is described by journalists, historians, and 20th century computer pioneers as the inventor, or Father, of the computer. Yet historians and computer engineers have also maintained that Babbage had no effect on modern computer design. Horton argues that this paradox can only be (partially) resolved if we consider Babbage less as a mechanical inventor or mathematical tinkerer and more as a philosopher of the digital—a progenitor of contemporary digital culture.

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