Queen Victoria’s Computer

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    Try to imagine what our world would look like if the stored-program digital computer had been invented and put into service a century early. How would History have gone different if, instead of an electronic device created in mid-Twentieth Century America, the computer had come into being as a mechanical device in Victorian England? It almost happened.

    Beginning in 1822 Charles Babbage (1791 Dec 26 - 1871 Oct 18) began work on a calculating machine that he called a difference engine. In 1831 a dispute with the mechanic who was building the machine brought the project to failure. Suppose the dispute had been resolved and the machine had been completed. We know that it would have worked as Babbage intended, because between 1989 and 1991 a group of researchers built a section of the machine to Nineteenth Century tolerances and it did what it was supposed to do.

    What it was supposed to do was to calculate error-free navigation tables for the navy and merchant shipping of a maritime empire. It accomplished that feat through serial addition of numbers: it could even calculate the powers of numbers efficiently through an obscure theorem in arithmetic. It could also have been used to calculate artillery tables. Astronomers would have found it useful as a labor-saving device, certainly.

    The success of the Difference Engine would have enabled Babbage to obtain support for the construction of his Analytical Engine, which would have been the world’s first stored-program digital computer. Using punched cards, like those used in the Jacquard loom, it would have been fast and efficient. Already, between 1842 and 1843, Ada Lovelace (1815 Dec 10 - 1852 Nov 27) had drawn up the first program and had seen uses for the machine that Babbage missed. The machine’s use would have flabbergasted people.

    It could have worked out train schedules, making the railroads more efficient. Inland Revenue (the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service) would certainly have had one. It would have processed data from the census faster than human clerks could do, making the information available in good time to be useful. In that latter case parts of the machine could be scattered across the country and interconnected via the electric telegraph, creating a simple precursor to the Internet.

    In 1854 George Boole (1815 Nov 02 - 1864 Dec 08) published "The Laws of Thought", in which he described an algebra of logic that computer engineers use today. Using Boole’s logical algebra, Babbage and his team could have upgraded the Analytical Engine into an Inference Engine. Every agency controlled by the flow of information would become much more nimble in its operations. That would become even more true after the invention of the linotype in 1884. Instead of displaying their results mechanically or tapping them out on a telegraph, Inference Engines would print out their results. On the railroads train orders would come directly from the machine, making movements of freight and passengers even more efficient.

    But the military use would change history radically. Using Inference Engines, armies and navies could move men and material as briskly and efficiently as if the men were drilling on a parade ground. Able to mobilize, demobilize, and remobilize their armies with little risk, the nations of Europe might have avoided the Terrible Mistake of World War I. That non-event would have had significant consequences for the shape of history and the evolution of civilization.

    The crisis of August 1914 might still have occurred, but the war would have been avoided. Instead of war, the governments of Europe might have created the League of Nations a few years early and made it work. They would be able to do so because, with the notable exceptions of France and Switzerland, the nations of Europe would still be monarchies. The Kaiser would still run Germany, Austria-Hungary would still have its emperor, kings would still rein in Italy, Spain, and the other countries. Without the humiliation of defeat to drive it, the Russian Revolution might not have occurred and the Tsar would remain in charge in St. Petersburg.

    The Middle East would be unrecognizable to us. Without being defeated in the Great War, the Ottoman Empire would have continued its slow crumble into complete ruin. Various ethnoi would set up their own independent states in the rubble. On our maps we would see Kurdistan and Armenia (without the cover of war, there likely would have been no Armenian genocide (and one less inspiration for a certain lunatic Bavarian corporal)) as members of the League of Nations. Except for a small Alawite state on the Mediterranean coast, Syria would be part of Iraq. Kuwait might be a province of Iran. There would be no State of Israel. Whether an independent state on its own or part of the Kingdom of Jordan, Palestine would live at peace with itself: unpoisoned by the pustulent doctrine of Naziism (which taints Arab nationalism to this day), the Arabs would get along well with their Jewish neighbors and prosper with them. The Arabian Peninsula would look much as it does on our timeline.

    Without the misery caused by the Great War and its aftermath (especially the Spanish flu, preying on a war-weakened populace) to feed upon, the militarism of the 1930's would have starved. Mussolini would have remained a minor and impotent figure in Italy. In Germany, not staggered by onerous reparations demands, the Nazi Party would have remained a small cabal of anti-Semitic nutjobs and the lunatic Bavarian corporal who took them over would have gotten nowhere with his race-baiting doctrine. The mass inferiority complex that turned Germany into a criminal state on our timeline would not have occurred. Without Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to support him, Francisco Franco would not have been able to overthrow the king of Spain: he might not have tried. There would have been no World War II in Europe.

    There still would have been a Great Depression: after all, it was engineered by the money hoarders for their personal profit. But Inference Engines would have mitigated its effects by making businesses more nimble and quick to respond to changes in the economy.

    Without the disillusionment that followed the Great War the 1920's would not have roared as loudly as they did on our timeline. Culture would have been more conservative, though other factors would still have driven a desire for novelty (e.g. the invention of the movies). In a more sedate world Prohibition might have been successful (it almost was on our timeline and it works reasonably well in Muslim countries).

    There would have been no Shoah (Holocaust). Jewish communities in Europe would have thriven, especially in Poland. The flowers of such thriving would have decorated European culture. Klezmer, for example, might have become a major musical phenomenon (Polish jazz). Scholars would have loaded the Talmud into Inference Engines, thereby making Hebrew wisdom instantly available to anyone and well-acquainting the world with the Jewish way of doing philosophy.

    Without the demoralization of the Great War oppressing people, an obscure German physicist might not have become the celebrity that his doppelganger became on our timeline. But Karl Schwarzschild, the astrophysicist who first solved that physicist’s field equation of General Relativity, would not have died in 1916 and would have gone on to make other important discoveries in astrophysics. Other people who didn’t die in the war would also have done significant things. Science and engineering would have benefitted more directly as well: Inference Engines would certainly make an early appearance in the science and engineering departments of universities and colleges. It’s there that people would discover, upon the advent of radio in the 1920's (evolving from the cruder, virtually tubeless wireless telegraph) that electronic circuits, based on electronic valves such as the one invented by Lee de Forest, could replace the mechanical linkages in an Inference Engine and thereby make the machine even faster. The invention of the transistor in 1948 (or perhaps even earlier on this timeline) would then have given this world the modern electronic computer.


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