Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

The Birth of the PC from the Spirit    
of Steam

Back then, the steam machine has been considered the solution to almost all problems, and its emissions were even praised for improving the beauty of sunsets. With the rise of the machines, the mills, global trade and navigation; growing numbers of workers in factories, inhabitants of cities, consumers and depositors; another aspect became increasingly crucial for the thriving 19th century British Empire: Computability, to calculate the course of a vessel, the mortality rates of workers and office clerks, or the probability of insured events.

All those tasks were executed with the help of mathematical tables, and they were often wrong. Errors appeared at every stage of production: from the process of computing (executed by a person from blood and flesh) to copying the results, from composing at the printer's workshop to the actually event of printing, hundreds of little mistakes occurred and falsified the results.

As an inventor, Babbage saw the solution in a machine facilitating the entire process from calculation to print, faultlessly and without human intervention, in a single coherent process. His quest for an apparatus of inanimate reason was ambitious, visionary and after all a failure. Pushing the limits of engineering and fine mechanics, he failed to get along with his excellent engineer, and failed to generate the necessary appreciation of potential funders and supporters. However, his concepts of the difference engine, the machine that was supposed to calculate, tabulate and print polynomial functions, and the analytical engine hold a glance of the computer age to come. Babbage's assistant, Ada Lovelace, who was also quite convinced of her genius qualities, could not have pointed it out more clearly than when she said: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” She formulated a concept of universality that seems naturally inherent to our personal computers. A computer serves as a mere environment for all kinds of software, and software is nothing else than a way to order a machine to perfom acertain task.

The question what might have happened if the British Empire had had access to such machines and made them pervasively useful to their economic and political power has been outlined in the retro science fiction novel The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. While the look backwards to what-might-have-been bears speculative thoughts of alternative history, modifying the design of contemporary electronic gadgets to make them look as if they were 19th century devices reveals an retro-futurist nostalgia for a glorious past, that never actually happened.

The audacious ventures of Babbage, Lovelace and the many other inventors of the steam age evoke a long ago futurist world, similar to Jules Verne novels or the retro futurism of popular movies such as Steamboy. The Gothic style of the Victoria era, as well as the solid craftsmanship of brass-laden mechanical timepieces, and scientific instruments, the majestic appearance of iron works in architecture and machinery, lends a fashionable touch of forgotten class to the industrial past.

Today's mass-produced electronic technology, bearing no signs of individual craftsmanship, but uniform design with a limited range of customizing opportunities, are cheap and affordable for large consumer groups. Massively reproducible design, manufactured in Far East for embarrassingly low wages at unacceptable working conditions stands in stark contrast with the individually manufactured instruments of the steam era (although one should not forget that the coal which gave the steam age its name, was mined through exploitive child labour).

Modifications of contemporary electronic consumer goods resembling industrial craftsmanship opens possibilities for nostalgic and romantic appreciation of the mechanical age. Changing screens, keyboards, watches, hand-held game consoles, and mp3 players etc. into affectionately modified unique items re-introduces the craft into the process of mass production, constituting distinctive design that stands out from the stands out from the standard form. The meticulous effort to cover the mass-produced item of the digital age with a unique Victorian-style surface unmasks a romantic and nostalgic perception of technology, refusing the corporate standard design conceived in supposedly out-of-the-box-thinking brainstorming sessions of marketing departments.

Most users are unaware of the cultural roots of the computer age reaching as far back as to the dawn of the industrial age. The actual Personal Computer bears the principle of universality formulated already in the mathematical concepts (and machines) of Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and as mentioned above in Ada Lovelace's notes on the Analytical Engine. However, the Victorian-style case modding of contemporary devices seems to be a rather romantic attempt to cover mass-produced with a nostalgic veil adding an auratic moment to the conveyor-belt produced clone. It also bears the nostalgia for the vanishing mechanical age. But we do not have to go as far as to minor niche subculture produced arts and crafts to recognize the appreciation of mechanics in digital technology. Any consumer photo camera comes with a digital audio file imitating the noise of a mechanical shutter, a mere “steam punk feature”. The “steam age” roots of our computer culture live on implicitly in the very logic of the machines we use, and explicitly in programming languages dedicated to the memory of pioneers, such as Ada Lovelace, or Blaise Pascal. The romantic and nostalgic steam-punk case mods, however, remind in us of the incredible attempts of genius inventors to consequently push the limits of mechanical engineering in order to build devices that could not only calculate accurately, but that were imagined as machines for processing logic as inanimate reason. They tell of an imagined future, that looks now, as it is unfolding, less stylish, but which is by no means less fascinating.

Further Reading/Viewing:

Doron Swade: The Cogwheel Brain. Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer. 2000.
See Doron Swade on Charles Babbage and the Victorian age (YouTube)

Chales Babbage: Passages from the life of a philosopher (Google Books)

Ada Lovelace's notes on the Analytical Engine (Fourmilab)

William Gibson; Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine. 1991. (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia has an informative article on Steam Punk. (Wikipedia)

Cory Gross: A History of Steampunk (Voyages Extraordinaires)

See also The Steampunk Workshop

Date November 2009 Category News

Rumour has it that Charles Babbage, a very self confident inventor, exclaimed in 1821 when recognizing many calculation errors in a set of mathematical tables: “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!”

2000 - 2019 Mirko Tobias Schäfer

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