From the Archives: First Mention of Computer Programs?

Today in 1836, Charles Babbage wrote in his notebook: “This day I had for the first time a general but very indistinct conception of the possibility of making an engine work out algebraic developments. I mean without any reference to the value of the letters. My notion is that cards (Jacquards) of the Calc. engine direct a series of operations and then recommence with the first so it might perhaps be possible to cause the same cards to punch others equivalent to any given number of repetitions. But their hole [their holes?] might perhaps be small pieces of formulae previously made by the first cards.” 

This passage, says Brian Randell in The Origins of Digital Computers, “puts beyond doubt the fact that Babbage had thought of using the Analytical Engine to what would today be described as ‘computing its own programs.’”

In The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood,  James Gleick quotes Edgar Allan  Poe on Babbage’s machine: “What shall we think of an engine of wood and metal which can… render the exactitude of its operations mathematically certain through its power of correcting its possible errors?” and Oliver Wendell Holmes: “What a satire is that machine on the mere mathematician! A Frankenstein-monster, a thing without brains and without heart, too stupid to make a blunder; which turns out results like a corn-sheller, and never grows any wiser or better, though it grind a thousand bushels of them!”

Says Gleick: “They all spoke as though the engine were real, but it never was. It remained poised before its own future.”

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