What’s the difference?

31 March, 2008

Fully Functional Babbage Difference Machine

The following was posted to the Squeak-Dev Mailing list by Markus Denker. The quote speaks for itself and it does give one pause to consider the implications to our community. It also strikes me as relevant to a lot of other development communities too. Great ideas are still very powerful and inspiring, but the idea alone is still seen as only half the process. We all know that there is a lot of very interesting problems that arise while we transform our ideas into working code. We also know that it is much easier to build onto a working system, or take what we learned from the process of building a working system to the next generation. While the idea itself can be seen as a great accomplishment, the realization of the idea by itself confers even greater benefits to the community. What projects have you left undone? What’s the difference?

“One of the sad memories of my life is a visit to the celebrated mathematician and inventor, Mr Babbage. He was far advanced in age, but his mind was still as vigorous as ever. He took me through his work-rooms. In the first room I saw parts of the original Calculating Machine, which had been shown in an incomplete state many years before and had even been put to some use. I asked him about its present form.
‘I have not finished it because in working at it I came on the idea of my Analytical Machine, which would do all that it was capable of doing and much more. Indeed, the idea was so much simpler that it would have taken more work to complete the Calculating Machine than to design and construct the other in its entirety, so I turned my attention to the Analytical Machine.'”

“After a few minutes’ talk, we went into the next work-room, where he showed and explained to me the working of the elements of the Analytical Machine. I asked if I could see it. ‘I have never completed it,’ he said, ‘because I hit upon an idea of doing the same thing by a different and far more effective method, and this rendered it useless to proceed on the old lines.’ Then we went into the third room. There lay scattered bits of mechanism, but I saw no trace of any working machine. Very cautiously I approached the subject, and received the dreaded answer, ‘It is not constructed yet, but I am working on it, and it will take less time to construct it altogether than it would have token to complete the Analytical Machine from the stage in which I left it.’ I took leave of the old man with a heavy heart.”

— Lord Moulton

Marcus Denker http://www.iam.unibe.ch/~denker

4 Responses to “What’s the difference?”


  1. […] post on the weekly squeak got me looking and besides the old man quote there is the CADT model. […]

  2. Alleagra Says:

    We can understand why Lord Moulton had a heavy heart but from our vantage point and in this case we now see that Babbage’s failure to actually complete a machine and get it working hardly mattered. It was the idea that survived and counted.

  3. Dick Davies Says:

    I have exactly the same disease 🙂

    @Alleagra : that’s great for us, not so much for Babbages patrons and sponsors. Sometimes, you just have to ship it.

  4. Alleagra Says:

    I wouldn’t attempt to disagree!


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