The Difference Engine


by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 1990

A quick re-read, inspired by a recent visit to the Science Museum, where we were enthralled by our meanderings around various astonishing artifacts:

  • The rickety-looking Apollo 10 capsule, charred from re-entry, having journeyed to within 9 miles of the moon and back again.

  • Stevenson's Rocket, not, as I had previously understood, the first steam-powered railway locomotive, just a revolutionary improvement in design, capable of the unheard-of speed of 29 miles an hour.

  • Watson and Crick's original 6-foot mechano model of the double-helix structure of a DNA molecule (or at least the original bits of it, re-assembled at Kings around 1990), constructed between LSD fuelled revelry and Sunday afternoons' quiet boozing pondering the meaning of life. Not a bad lifestyle, it has to be said.

  • Charles Babbage's Difference Engine number 1, or at least remnants of it. This is the arithmetic precursor to his subsequent, and more ambitious, analytical engine, the conception of which was a precient stroke of genius, the world's first programmable computer. Lacking electronics, it was implemented in a purely mechanical manner, a 40 year labour of which he pursued until his death.

I was surprised to learn that the failing of the device was not, as I had previously heard, due to the inadequate manufacturing tolerances of the time. Recent examinations have demonstrated these to be more than adequate. Instead, the lengthy and costly extensions to the project, leading to its eventual failure in an ocean of debts and soured relationships is nowadays blamed on the project suffering from 'inappropriate management'. Interesting to see the nascent software industry starting out as it was destined to continue.

It was, of course, this last item at the museum which inspired me to pick up The Difference Engine paperback again, an alternate history novel in which the authors indulge the fantasy that Babbage's project had been a success, and the British Empire, in the upheaval of a steam-powered information processing era, underwent a series of meritocratous social revolutions, and as a result was better equipped to continue its expansion across the globe.

Rating 7.5/10 - a splendid ripping yarn.