What if Babbage..?
Written by Mike James   
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The alternative now

Had Babbage built the Analytical Engine then it might be that we would all be using IBM PCs - but in this case that would stand for International Babbage Machine and Powered Computers! You would also be reading “I-Analytical Engineer”!

There is no doubt that electronics would have been invented but would anyone have bothered building valve based computers so long after reliable mechanical computers had proved their worth? (Although there is an alternative view as you will see below.) We probably would have waited until the transistor and the integrated circuit had been invented before going on to electronic computers.

It also seems reasonable that we would have phased in electronics as replacements for specific sections of the mechanical machine. After all the trouble with electronics is that it is so difficult to do decimal logic with it! Given that the most powerful computers of the time would have been completely decimal trying to introduce a binary machine would have seemed a big step and perhaps a backward one. What all this means is that the machine on your desk would most likely still be a decimal machine with some mechanical parts.

Of course it is also entirely possible that silicon lithography, the technique use to manufacture chips, would have been invented for a very different purpose.

If you know about transistors and electronic logic then presumably you can see how to use the doping of silicon to build integrated circuits but if what you know about is mechanical logic - presumably you start to think about ways of miniaturising mechanical devices.

Today we are just on the point of implementing practical micro-machines - and to be honest we are not entirely sure what to do with them! One of the ironies is perhaps that researchers are seriously suggesting that the steam engine might make a good source of power for a micromachine. This means that the PC on your desk might not have been much bigger than it is now. It might have made rather more noise and perhaps it would keep you warm on a cold day - but it could have packed almost same power into a desk-sized unit.

With a start in mechanical computers micro-engineering would have been developed and the division between the machine that does work and the machine that thinks would have been less obvious.

Our computers would be automata that did things as well as processing the data. Robotics would have seemed much more natural. Presumably hydraulics and fluid logic would have been introduced and extended to the input/output devices.

The typewriter as we know it was in existence by 1870 but it wasn’t well accepted. It is entirely possible that very different input methods would have been invented. The punched card was very definitely the method that Babbage had in mind, not only for programming his machine but for getting results back as well. It seems likely that the punch card would have more or less had its day as it did in the real version of history. The same sort of mechanical card handling devices would have been invented. But instead of surviving into the 1980s they might have made their exit in the 1880s!

No matter how hard you think it is very difficult to imagine any sort of personal computing that doesn’t make use of a keyboard for an input device - unless of course they went straight for a pointing device or perhaps some sort of touch interface aka "the lever"!

Would we have computer games?

Of course we would have.

Both Babbage and Ada imagined recreational uses for a computer. Ada imagined using it to write music - although in this case I think the sound card might have evolved from the pipe organ.

Babbage thought in terms of games of strategy like chess and noughts and crosses. But I have no doubt what so ever that action arcade style games would have still been invented as early as they could be.


Simply because even in the days of teletypes and clunky keyboards programmers invented space wars and Star Trek and so on.. I can well imagine that now Lunar Lander might be a classic but in the Jules Vern style rather than the LEM!

The real question is would we know Pong or any of the other really interactive games?

I find this difficult because I can’t think of anyway that you can have true interactivity without a TV system and I can’t think of a pure  mechanical method of generating a TV picture. It’s also difficult to imagine Virtual Reality (VR) based on a Babbage machine - after all what could be more non-virtual than a mechanical computer!



Note: It has been pointed out by a number of readers, Jim McCracken and Erik Stites in particular, that perhaps the doubts about mechanical TV are too pessimistic. After all the first TV invented by John Logie Baird was mostly mechanical. It is likely that this particular approach had no real future but as pointed out micro-mechanical devices, in the form of tiny mirrors, as used in DPL projectors work very well. So perhaps creating a mechanical TV with microlevers linked back to a mechanical computer isn't so unthinkable.


On the other hand all of the standard applications would have developed. We would have “steam sheets” and “word pressers” and presumably Steam Assisted Publishing (SAP) would have taken off!

The one thing that the Analytical Engine was planned to do from the word go was create its own printing plates - by stamping the numbers in a soft plaster of paris mixture - for the tables it would calculate. This means that “direct to press” would have come true decades ago.

But the big question I hear you all asking is - what about the Internet?

Well Babbage couldn’t have used the telephone because it hadn’t been invented but there was the telegraph. It was invented by his friend Wheatstone (yes the man who invented the “bridge” of the same name). Soon after Morse improved on the idea and the sort of key and tapper system that you can see in most Westerns was invented.

What is so wonderful about this it that it was a digital system. We invented computers after the telephone and for this reason we go through a ridiculous process of converting digital to analog and back again

If the computer had been invented before the telephone then I’m not at all sure Bell would have bothered. Using a simple Morse type system one mechanical computer could have communicated with another without the need for a modem. This would simplify communications so much that my guess is that the Internet would have been invented before 1900 - after all the first international cable was laid between the UK and France in 1851. By my guess your PC would be fully connected but I doubt that there would be a telephone to be seen - in fact I doubt you would know the meaning of the word...

Further reading:

Charles Babbage

Plans to build Babbage's Analytical  Engine

Babbage archive digitized

Ada Lovelace, the first programmer


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