Session 2
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Discussion Questions

Hold these questions in mind as you do the reading. While I do not currently plan to collect the answers, you should make notes as you read. This will focus your attention and help prepare you for class discussion. In addition, questions of this kind will appear on the mid-term – so having answers on file will help you to revise.

1) Why is the computer called the computer? Is this a good name? What could it be called instead? (there is no single right answer)

2) Was Babbage a failure? How did Babbage’s social position influence his approach to his work? In what ways did his approach differ from Hollerith’s?

3) Four groundbreaking projects are described in particular detail – Babbage’s engines, Hollerith’s census machines, the Harvard Mark I and the ENIAC.

a) On what older technologies were each of these based?
b) How much of the technology in each was specially developed? How do you think this might compare with the development of a modern computer?
c) Why was each finally produced (or not) when it was? What groups sponsored the development of each?

4) The ENIAC is generally accepted as the first electronic computer.

a) How does it differ from the machine you read this email on? What are the similarities that make this claim possible?
b) What important changes did the EDVAC (and the first Manchester computer) introduce?
c) How does the presentation of the ENIAC in the original press release differ from that given in the book?

Key Points to Revise

bulletDifference between digital and analog computers
bulletKey technological differences between Babbage's engines, Hollerith machines, Harvard Mark I and ENIAC. How were they programmed? What were they used for? What technology was used for their logic units (vacuum tubes, relays, etc).
bulletFunding and motivation of each project.

Resources and Further Reading


Checkout the Charles Babbage Institute – the main center for the history of computing. They have a little exhibit on Babbage at -- this includes pictures and a large bibliography.


A replica Difference Engine has been reconstructed at the Science Museum in England. While engineering limitations and budget problems hampered Babbage, his basic design was proven sound. Their exhibit is on-line at


Science fiction authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (the main figures in the “cuberpunk” movement of the 1980s) used Babbage’s work as the underpinning for a alternate history of Victorian Britain, in which steam-driven computers had spread widely and been networked.


Hollerith’s firm became IBM, so its development is discussed in many of the dozens of books on the company. More on this next week.


Martin Campbell-Kelly, the main author of the book, has published a large number of articles on Babbage, Victorian “data processing” organizations such as the Railway Clearing House and the other topics dealt with here. See his homepage


You may also be interested in the Amazon page for the book


Much has been written about the ENIAC. Penn produced a web-site to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Discussion of ENIAC appears in most books on the history of computing (see my resource list) and in the recent book Scott McCartney. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer. New York: Walker & Company, 1999.


If you are curious about other early machines, checkout the pioneering efforts in Manchester (the Mark I) at and in Cambridge at Several EDSAC emulators are now available.

Page copyright Thomas Haigh -- email    Home: Updated 01/18/2002.