Notions and Notation – Babbage’s Language of Thought

By the aid of the Mechanical Notation, the Analytical Engine became a reality: for it became susceptible of demonstration.

Babbage has been called the ‘great-uncle’ of modern computing, a claim that rests simultaneously on his demonstrable understanding of most of the architectural principles underlying the modern computer, and the almost universal ignorance of Babbage’s work before 1970. There has since been an explosion of interest both in Babbage’s devices and the impact they might have had in some parallel history, and in Babbage himself as a man of great originality who had essentially no influence at all on subsequent technological development.

In all this, one fundamental question has been largely ignored: how is it that one individual working alone could have synthesised a workable computer design over quite a short period, designing an object whose complexity of behaviour so far exceeded that of contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over one hundred years?

We believe that the answer lies in the techniques Babbage developed to reason about complex systems. His Notation, or more correctly his parallel notations showing the geometry, the timing, the causal chains and the abstract components of his machines, have a direct parallel in the Hardware Description Languages developed since 1970 to aid the design of large scale integrated circuits. These languages typically have a geometry facet in which the arrangement of components in space is specified; a register transfer facet which emphasises the interconnection of functional units via registers and memory buses; and a behavioural facet which describes sequences as state machines or in software-like notations. In modern digital electronics, these techniques are now ubiquitous although they met with some resistance when first introduced. There is a 150 year delay between Babbage’s first attempts at an engineering notation and the application of hardware description languages to electronic computer design yet Babbage’s notations also include a geometry facet (corresponding to the fabrication drawings used to specify the individual parts and their position in space), an enumeration of functional parts, a functional transfer facet in which large flow diagrams show the cause-and-effect relationships between those parts, and most strikingly of all a behavioural facet in which the timing relationships and state machine transitions are directly displayed. For those with a background in modern digital hardware design techniques, the similarities are striking.

The artefacts that Babbage designed are wondrous, but the system of thought he developed in which those artefacts’ complex state spaces could be designed and checked before any metal was cut is a much more significant achievement. Every modern engineer knows the value of speculative design backed up by simulation and prototyping. The integrated circuit industry led the way with design notations simply because the cost of prototyping, and the financial loss for an erroneous design, was economically unsustainable. By the same token, Babbage was forced to develop paper methods to exercise his designs because the cost of implementation, and the length of time needed to manufacture his designs rendered physical prototyping and experimentation largely infeasible.

Babbage himself was very aware of the relative importance of the objects and the meta-object; the design and the design discipline. He believed that the notation would become the standard design method taught in the engineering schools. In that he was quite wrong. Nearly all mechanical systems, from steam engines to internal combustion engines, pumps and jet engines are sufficiently simple that their state space may be deduced by inspection of the engineering drawings which show their geometry. This is because they do not have memory: an engine rotates, and each rotation is as the last. Understanding one cycle is sufficient to understand all cycles. It is only the introduction of memory that generates complex time-dependent behaviour, and that is exactly the point at which the geometry diagrams become inadequate to the task of capturing the function of the machine.

Even a contemporary programmable machine, the Jacquard loom, does not have a time dependent state space. The programmability of the loom is limited to reading from punched cards an analogue of the pattern to be woven – the loom is more akin to a vinyl record player which transfers information in an unmediated form from physical undulations to an electronic and then acoustic form: each hole in the card simply raises and lowers a warp thread; there is no computation or state in a Jacquard loom, and an engineering drawing is sufficient to understand its action.

Previous Babbage scholarship, including the modern construction of Difference Engine II, has focussed almost exclusively on the surviving engineering drawings and informal textual descriptions, and most commentators have dismissed the notation as a curiosity. Collier (1970), the first in modern times to study the drawings said An accomplishment of which Babbage was particularly proud, but which did not prove to be influential, was his invention of a special mechanical notation, by means of which the character, function and motion of the different pieces of a machines could be symbolically represented on a drawing or schematic diagram. Babbage used this mechanical notation extensively while working on his own calculating machines, and he thought it would be most valuable if used generally by engineers and mechanics, even serving as an aid to invention itself. Although he tried to get publicity and acceptance for it, this notation was generally ignored, perhaps because it was too complex and arbitrary to be learned easily, and so geared to his own peculiar modes of thought that its personal value could not become a general one.

However, we all know that the workings of a computer programme will not easily be gleaned from an examination of its transistors and their interconnections: that is the wrong level of abstraction. Babbage was the first individual to work with systems where the function transcends the components, and this project aims to elucidate, formalise and test the techniques he developed. We shall do this by treating his system of notations as a formal language, adopting techniques from software language engineering. We shall develop abstract simulators which make specification written in the notation executable (and as a byproduct generate graphical visualisations of the system described by a specification) and use these simulations to verify our understanding against Babbages’s descriptions and actual artefacts. In this we are greatly aided by the existence of a complete draft and finished notations for Difference Engine II, along with instances of the physical machine built by the Science Museum in London which were built according only to the drawings, without reference to the notations.

The goals of this project are to research the development of the notations over time; to formalise the notation in a way that can be parsed and processed by modern computers; to implement a simulator for the notation; to test the simulator by reference to Difference Engine II and to apply the notation to new designs of Difference Engine and other systems.