Computing creativity: A historical analysis of Charles Babbage’s and Ada Lovelace’s views on the Analytical Engine
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In this paper I argue against the persistent view that Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was the ‘‘pre-anticipation’’ or the ‘‘birth’’ of the modern-day computer. Instead, I argue that the Analytical Engine is only a precursor of the modern-day computer in hindsight. I do so by examining the views of its inventor Charles Babbage and its most important commentator Ada Lovelace, and relating these to the scientific context of 1830s and 1840s Britain. Although Babbage and Lovelace described the same machine, their views substantially differed. Whereas Babbage cherished a more ‘‘optimistic’’ view on its mathematical capacities, Lovelace believed that the machine would structurally lack creativity, a capacity essential for mathematical exertion. Nonetheless, Babbage and Lovelace did agree in their view that, ultimately, the Analytical Engine was meant for mathematical calculation. To say that Babbage and Lovelace ‘‘pre-anticipated’’ the modern-day computer, in some way or the other, would be to claim that they had this modern machine in mind. But this would merely be a projection of the developments of our own age upon Babbage’s and Lovelace’s day, thereby leaving us blind for what they actually had in mind. For them, the Analytical Engine was not akin to modern-day computers, but primarily meant for the purpose of mathematical calculation. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Babbage’s and Lovelace’s views are too much removed from ours, and therefore of no interest to modern debates on the capacities and limitations of modern-day computers. Indeed, their views at least teach us something about the need to critically reflect on the bearing of our historically situated presuppositions concerning the answers we tend to give on questions about the capacities of machinery.