Struck with similar reflections, Mr. Babbage has devoted some years to the realization of a gigantic idea. He proposed to himself nothing less than the construction of a machine capable of executing not merely arithmetical calculations, but even all those of analysis, if their laws are known. The imagination is at first astounded at the idea of such an undertaking; but the more calm reflection we bestow on it, the less impossible does success appear, and it is felt that it may depend on the discovery of some principle so general, that if applied to machinery, the latter may be capable of mechanically translating the operations which may be indicated to it by algebraical notation. The illustrious inventor having been kind enough to communicate to me
of such calculations or for abridging them; and thence have arisen several inventions having this object in view, but which have in general but partially attained it. For instance, the much-admired machine of Pascal is now simply an object of curiosity, which, whilst it displays the powerful intellect of its inventor, is yet of little utility in itself. Its powers extended no further than the execution of the four first operations of arithmetic, and indeed were in reality confined to that of the two first, since multiplication and division were the result of a series of additions and subtractions. The chief drawback hitherto on most of such machines is, that they require the continual intervention of a human agent to regulate their movements, and thence arises a source of errors; so that, if their use has not become general for large numerical calculations, it is because they have not in fact resolved the double problem which the question presents, that of correctness in the results, united with œconomy of time.
- This remark seems to require further comment, since it is in some degree calculated to strike the mind as being at variance with the subsequent passage (page 675), where it is explained that an engine which can effect these four operations can in fact effect every species of calculation. The apparent discrepancy is stronger too in the translation than in the original, owing to its being impossible to render precisely into the English tongue all the niceties of distinction which the French idiom happens to admit of in the phrases used for the two passages we refer to. The explanation lies in this: that in the one case the execution of these four operations is the fundamental starting-point, and the object proposed for attainment by the machine is the subsequent combination of these in every possible variety; whereas in the other case the execution of some one of these four operations, selected at pleasure, is the ultimatum, the sole and utmost result that can be proposed for attainment by the machine referred to, and which result it cannot any further combine or work upon. The one begins where the other ends. Should this distinction not now appear perfectly clear, it will become so on perusing the rest of the Memoir, and the Notes that are appended to it.—Note by Translator.