Saturday, 13 November 2010

Three heroes

What do the locomotive cow-catcher, Lord Byron's daughter, and the standardised screw thread all have in common?

Answer, the first computer.

And all three involved heroes of mine.

Firstly, the easy connection. The locomotive cow-catcher was one of the less well-known inventions of a certain Charles Babbage. Anyone who knows about the history of computing (or has been to London's Science Museum) will recognise the name. Charles Babbage designed the first computer, the mechanical Analytical Engine.

The connection with Lord Byron's daughter? Her name was Ada Lovelace, and she wrote a mathematical description of the Analytical Engine, in the process becoming the first ever computer programmer. Her fame is entrenched in the fact that Ada, a computer language used by the military and others, was named after her.

Then the third connection? What does the standardised screw thread have to do with Babbage and Ada Lovelace? At first sight, nothing. The standardised screw thread is something that we take for granted nowadays; we expect a nut and bolt to fit together well enough. Yet nothing was further from the truth in the early nineteenth century. You could go to a local blacksmith and get a 1/2" nut and bolt, but the pitch and depth of the thread could be very different from those made in the next town. This was of little relevance until the start of the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution required precise engineering.

One man, Joseph Whitworth, saw this problem, and in 1841 came up with a very simple idea: a standardised screw thread, which became known as the 'Whitworth' standard. He not only had the idea, but also designed and manufactured machines capable of making them and other high-tolerance parts. In the process he made a personal fortune and started an engineering colossus - the Whitworth company.

The Whitworth standard was later replaced by metric threads, but you can still find Whitworth nuts and bolts in the strangest places - for instance the thread that attaches a camera to a tripod.

So what is the connection with Babbage and Lovelace? Whitworth spent some time working for engineer Joseph ClementWhile at Clement's workshop he helped with the abortive manufacture of the Difference Engine. The parts of the Difference Engine required unheard-of tolerances, and the failure to mass-produce the parts was one reason it failed. It is utterly conceivable that Whitworth's work was a response to all that he had learnt working for Clement.

Two replica Difference Engines have been made; one is visible in the Science Museum. John Graham-Cummings has launched Plan 28, a project to actually build Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. It is an ambitious, some say impossible project; but I have pledged my £10.

If you want to see Babbage and Lovelace in cartoon form, then the Sydney Padua's excellent 2D Goggles is a muse-see. I am just waiting for her to include Whitworth in cartoon form.

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