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The Cogwheel Brain: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  265 ratings  ·  40 reviews
In 1821, 30-year-old inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage was poring over a set of printed mathematical tables with his friend, the astronomer John Herschel. Finding error after error in the manually evaluated results, Babbage made an exclamation, the consequences of which would not only dominate the remaining 50 years of his life, but also lay the foundations for th ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 13th 2000 by Little, Brown & Company
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Start your review of The Cogwheel Brain: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer
The Difference Engine as designed and partially built in the 1830’s was a mechanical device of some 4000 moving parts that could perform automated mathematical functions (logarithmic, trigonometric and polynomial). The brain child of mathematician/inventor Charles Babbage, the machine was never completed during his lifetime. However in the late 1980’s a working model was produced to celebrate Babbage’s work—remaining largely loyal to the original design and production abilities of the 19th centu ...more
Mar 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Charles Babbage was a wealthy 19th century English scientist who almost did (but did not) create the first mechanical calculator. This book tells his story, and the story of the author's effort as a curator of computing at the British Science Museum to complete the work Babbage was unable to finish. Swade takes us back to the early to middle 19th century world when science as a field of intellectual endeavor distinct from philosophy was just emerging, and was the province of wealthy polymaths. B ...more
Sep 26, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: computers
Hounded to death by organ grinders? Failed to build the engines that may have changed the world? Bunch of weird British engineer=historians try to build a maybe impossible machine from antique plans to prove you right by your 200th birthday? Awesome. Stole my title though...
Catherine Siemann
A history of Babbage's proto-computers from the perspective of someone with a real technical interest -- part of the team that actually built a working Difference Engine in the 1990s. Lots of interesting details. Dismissive of Ada Lovelace, alas. ...more
Brian Page
Jun 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is joy in reading beautiful prose. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer by Doron Swade is beautifully well-written. Swade masterminded the construction of Babbage’s engine for the Science Museum (London) and he skillfully blends the story of Babbage, his life & times, and the technology into an unparalleled account. This work is indispensable for understanding Babbage and, in the larger picture, the birth of computer science. Swade also lays to r ...more
Mark White
Sep 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
I fished this old favourite off the shelf to re-read and was not disappointed. It is an excellent entry in the historical technology genre. It can easily hold its own alongside best sellers such as Longitude. This book will be fascinating to anyone interested in maths or computing but also has a lot to offer in its picture of flawed genius. It tells the story of the 19th century polymath Charles Babbage - the book is half a condensed biography - and his quest to construct the world's first mecha ...more
Jun 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This took a while to read. The book is made of three parts. The first two are about Babbage's journey on trying to build his engines. These were a bit difficult to read, since at some times it was a bit boring. However there were a number of hidden gems in there. For example I became aware of the real contributions of Ada about the engine, which were not what I expected.

The third part of the book is about the efforts of the author and a team of people, to build the Difference Engine 2, before th
May 16, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. It is broken up into 3 sections with each section covering both a time period and a specific project/goal. The first section is about Babbage's early work on the Difference Engine and the difficulties involved in building it (given the limits of "high" quality machining of the day). The second section focuses on Babbage's later work on the Analytical Engine and much of the genius behind the unbuilt device (including many of the same architectural ideas that Von Nueman ...more
Chris Turner
Nov 06, 2018 rated it liked it
This is a strange book. The first half is a history of Babbage which is quite balanced. It's clear the author admires him, but tries to acknowledge his flaws too. The second half is about the author's attempts to complete Babbage's Difference Engine. The problem I had was that I never thought any of it was validated and justified. The reconstruction is an interesting project as a hobbyist, but how it relates to the history of computing is left unclear. Although the book was engaging and Babbage ...more
Christopher Wakefield
Fascinating story. He reminded me of John Harrison and his clock to some degree.
Emmanuel Garcia
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An interesting look into the technical, logistical, and intellectual hurdles Charles Babbage ran up against in his attempt to build the first mechanical difference and analytical machines.
Dec 27, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: retro-computing
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was most famous for designing a mechanical calculator outputting the values of a polynomial at regular intervals, the Difference Engine. By 1834 he had spent £17,000 of government money on the project and didn't finish it. Back then a new locomotive cost less than £800 and a gentleman could support his family in comfort for £300 a year; according to, a textile factory worker in 1833 had weekly wages of 33 shillings 8 pence, or £90 a year, and a handl ...more
Ron Arden
Charles Babbage was one interesting character. He was irascible, friendly, combative and a great inventor. He was simultaneously the toast of London in the early 1800s and a royal pain in the butt. His life's goal was to build a machine that could calculate tables used in business, the military and government.

Before we had spreadsheets and calculators, logarithmic and other tables were calculated by hand and published in huge volumes. Sea navigation, engineering, science, bridge building, farmi
Vincent Manapat
Nov 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was not the story I was expecting to read. The vague notion that I had of Babbage was that of a misunderstood genius who, if he had been recognized in his time, would have brought about the invention of the computer far sooner. But despite the Swade’s obvious admiration for Babbage (he did set out to rebuild Babbage’s difference engine just to make a point), he is honest throughout about Babbage’s (and the difference Engine’s) shortcomings, which were many. By the end of the book I was pret ...more
Jan 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A compelling read that provides more insight into the state of mechanics in the 19th century then it does into the history of computers. That is not a disappointment. The lessons on science, funding, diplomacy, and business are all applicable today.

A few things of particular interest to me were:

- Although it is disappointing from a "our-hero-failed" perspective, the British government rightly (in my judgment) saw Babbage's designs as money sink-hole. While Babbage's ideas were fascinating and fe
Mar 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quite a fascinating book on Charles Babbage. Not quite as hardware oriented as I had hoped but I'll find that elsewhere. What a geek Mr. Babbage was! Nowadays we would have recognized him as such and dealt with him appropriately. Some venture capitalist would have funded his work, he would have built a successful machine, they would have kicked him out when he started redesigning everything, and he probably would have ended up in exactly the same place. So I guess it wouldn't have made much diff ...more
Octavia Cade
Feb 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biography
Interesting and very readable account of the life and work of Charles Babbage. In a lot of ways it's painful to read, as it's the story of a deeply imaginative thinker and scientist who fails to achieve his goals. Swade doesn't shy away from the times when this failure is a result of Babbage's own efforts - he could be a grumpy, impolitic individual with a penchant for shooting himself in the foot, but that at least makes him a very human subject for a biography.

What I found most interesting was
So Hakim
Jan 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The life and time of the man who wanted to build analog computer during Victorian Era. Charles Babbage comes alive as ambitious, but flawed and ill-equipped dealing with bureaucracy.

The last section of the book covers modern effort of British Science Museum to build one of his machines. Indeed they succeeeded -- which leads one to wonder, what if Babbage had his way two centuries ago.

All in all a nicely done biography. Characters came alive, including even minor figures like Babbage's best frien
Rory Armstrong
Jan 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting history of Babbage's machines and an attempt to actually build his Analytical Engine in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
The author gives a clear and balanced viewpoint on Babbage's success and influence (and also that of Ada's) which can be basically summed that they had little and even potentially had a negative impact on computing by putting Goverments and Inventors off the ideas for decades.
However, what the author does do is a portray a driven (sometimes to the point of fanantical)
Dec 20, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is very thorough and complete. If you are looking for more generalized information about Babbage's engines do not read this book. This book covers the politics, relationships, and monetary fiascos related to Babbage's engines. This is probably the most complete work of Babbage today. Since the book is very complete, it can become quite boring to read. If you are not interested in computers or engineering this book can be quite bland. Some of the information becomes repetitive throughou ...more
Mar 03, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting non-fictional account of the life of Charles Babbage. The title is a little misleading as it's arguable that he was attempting to build a computer... more like a calculator... but the fact remains that he used many of the principals that we now take for granted in computing. Also covers the eerily similar attempt by the British Science Museum to complete the never-constructed machine from Babbage's old plans.

If you're a techno-geek, you should probably put this on your to-read lis
Mark Harding
Jul 02, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How computers screw things up. Appropriately for a book about computer tech, Goodreads computer has screwed up here. My library shelf of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling has been replaced by the a book by Doran Swade. The little review below refers to the SF novel....

I love the elegance. The way deep texture of the world is described, mixed with Victorian dialogue and a narrative prose that never jars with the milieu. And all so easy on the ear and eye. Terrifically en
Jul 06, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The difference engine gives what looks like a fair and well informed presentation of the life, ideas and, unfortunately, failures of Charles Babbage. It always feels good when it busts some myths. For instance Ada Lovelace was not that important in the development of the engine or considering Babbage as the grandfather of computer is a big exaggeration.

As it is often the case in such biographies, the book suffers from some lengths and less interesting chapters.

All in all, this is a nice bit of
Jan 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A fascinating read, as engaging as any novel. Towering intellect, clashes of character, personal drama, and a race against the clock. The author draws his subjects with care and integrity; each antagonist, each minor character is treated with equal honesty. The best non-fiction since The Right Stuff.

I really want to go to London's Science Museum now.
May 04, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I quite enjoyed this book, especially since Babbage is widely recognized in the software world, but hardly anyone seems to know much about him. But more than the details of Babbage's life, the portion of the book about the modern efforts to build a Difference Engine was very well written and quite compelling. ...more
Jan 28, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Interesting, educational, and dry. The academic biography without embellishment of Babbage's life and his difference and analytical engines was an okay read but very slow going. Surprisingly the faster read was the final 1/3 which detailed the auhtor's quest to have his museum build Difference Engine #2 in time for 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. ...more
Kathy  Petersen
An admirable effort, The Difference Engine was in many places hard to get through. I admit to being a bit too dense to follow all the discussion and description of Babbage's inventions and a bit too restless during the details of Swade's struggle to at last build a model. But it's a fascinating story, and I'm happy to be acquainted with it. ...more
Duncan Jones
May 31, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting read that covers Charles Babbage's quest to build an analytical engine. The second half of the book covers the building of a partial analytical engine by the Science Museum in London and the challenges they faced working with Babbage's drawings. It provides a balanced view of Babbage, Ada Lovelace and the impact (if any) that Babbage's work had on modern computing. ...more
Douglas Summers-Stay
The material about Babbage and Ada was mostly the same I had found in other places, especially Babbage's autobiography. But the section about how the engine was actually built by the author and coworkers in the 1990s was very interesting. ...more
Jan 27, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
After renewing it twice at the library, I realized I wasn't going to finish it. The parts I enjoyed were the technical bits, the parts that stopped me in my tracks were the endless harangues about money. ...more
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