Before Thomas Edison was even born the British mathematician Babbage had released a paper detailing the schematics for a machine that could have dramatically changed the world — the computer. But Babbage’s machine — powered by steam and programmed by punch cards — was never completed.
The Analytical Engine incorporated an arithmetic logic unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory, making it the first design for a general-purpose computer that could be described in modern terms as Turing-complete.
Babbage designed the Analytical Engine to be made from brass and iron and had a central processing unit, which he named the ‘mill’. It also came with 1.7 kilobytes of expandable memory which he called the ‘store’. It could be programmed using punched cards and would have been capable of calculating addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The huge cost of producing it, and Babbage’s inability to impress its importance upon the politicians of the time, meant that in the Western world it never went beyond his original blueprint.
But in the high of the Himalayas is a lamasery that has made it its mission to collect and store all human knowledge and when one of their agents, a man called Ashaver, stumbled upon a blueprint of the Analytical Engine, he diligently joined it to the parcel he sent yearly to the monks in their mountainous retreat.
As soon the monks received the parcel, they went at work with the blueprints and after 20 years of puzzle work, they had a first working prototype. But then a second problem manifested; they didn’t know how to write instructions for the machine. So they requested their man in in London for more information. Sadly for them, the only one who had written a workable algorithm that their machine could be fed with, was the deceased Ada Lovelace, and it were instructions for the calculation of Bernoulli numbers.
So Ashaver went looking for more information and stumbled upon the self educated mathematician George Boole, who was trying to devise ways to merge the laws of logic with algebraic equations. The two men went at work together, and after Ashaver explained him some of the finesses of Indian thought and logic, Boole brought Ada’s work to a higher level of sophistication with his method of putting the universal laws of reasoning into a mathematical form that could be used to give instructions to the Analytical Engine.
Soon afterwards, the monks in the lamasery had a working program that revolves around eight macro topics that organize information, all related to humans, but that reveal consequences that oftentimes affect us and other species simultaneously. The program is able to depict the evolution over time of one single story of change. The algorithm was fed with a number of global data sets (world population, average temperatures, disease rates, energy consumption, etc..) to frame large-scale phenomena with broad strokes as well as single and specific stories that will directly or indirectly represent the micro consequences of the large-scale phenomena.
This last bit in cursive print isn’t a true story, but the residue of historical research mixed with some of the fictional elements for my writing project The Maharajagar.
Other writers have preceded me in using Babbage’s Analytical Machine in their fiction. The cyberpunk novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-authored a steampunk novel of alternative history titled The Difference Engine in which Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines became available to Victorian society. The novel explores the consequences and implications of the early introduction of computational technology.
In the Michael Flynn novel In the Country of the Blind, a secret society calling itself the Babbage Society secretly financed the building of Babbage Engines in the mid-19th century. In the novel, the Society uses the Babbage engines along with a statistical science called Cliology to predict and manipulate the future. In the process, they predict the rise of the Nazis and accidentally start the US Civil War.