Friday, June 1, 2012

A Magical Adventure in London

Researchers at the Science Museum in London are embarking on a magical journey to try to build Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, the computational machine he invented in 1831.  The Analytical Engine is a mechanical device designed to handle mathematical computation.

The researchers are planning a 10 year, multi-million dollar (pounds really) adventure to take the blueprints of the various iterations of Mr. Babbage's invention and try to figure out how to actually build it.  The effort will include some crowd-sourced review of scanned copies of his drawings to seek suggestions from the public on the effort.

What is exciting about a project like this is the ability to see how the inventor's thinking about his invention evolved.  I have always been fascinated about the deep thinking of inventors and the convergence of how inventors invent and serendipitous discovery, serendipitous discovery being the ah ha moment or the discovery of something you didn't know you were looking for in the first place.  How did his ideas evolve, how did he change the way he described them - to himself.  How did Mr. Babbage translate his thinking onto paper?  Did his notes provide a road map to his discovery?  In today's digital age with a tendency to just keep modifying the same digital artifacts, do we lose that path to envision another's thought process?

One of the best narratives on Charles Babbage and his analytical inventions and his collaboration with Augusta Ada Kind, Countess of Lovelace can be found in James Gleick's, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." 

For the patent cognoscenti out there, it's interesting to consider how this clearly physical mechanical device, designed to handle algorithmic math complete with its physical input media, might be considered in light of business methods patents, patentability of algorithms, and the "it's not patentable if you can do it with a piece of paper and a pencil" argument in today's electrical computational discipline arena.