National Library highlights the letters of the first computing pioneer

... as Bill Gates visits Scotland

In the week that Bill Gates comes to Scotland to address the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum at the Scottish Parliament, the National Library of Scotland (NLS) highlights the work and correspondence of the first computing pioneer, Charles Babbage.

The work of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the early 19th century mathematician and scientist, is arguably the most important forerunner to that of Bill Gates. Amongst his many achievements, the most noted was his invention of a mechanical calculating engine known as a difference engine, the remarkable precursor to the modern computer.

Babbage was one of the many eminent and innovative thinkers published by John Murray, and his letters are part of the John Murray Archive (JMA), which arrived at NLS in March 2006. The John Murray Archive contains not only important information regarding the writing, publication and reaction to Babbage's work, but his insightful and engaging personal letters.

In one such letter Babbage complained to John Murray that such was the interest in viewing his calculating engine that he had been swamped by curious visitors, and had to restrict visits to only those with a good understanding of mathematics and mechanics. Computer illiteracy would not to be tolerated by Babbage!

On 6 June 1834, Babbage writes: 'My Dear Sir, I find myself obliged daily to restrict myself more closely in allowing the Calculating Engine to be seen you have hardly any idea of the time consumed even in refusals. I shall probably be obliged to give up entirely most permissions. At present I have restricted myself to persons who are really well acquainted with mathematics and mechanics and I am so at present so occupied that I cannot fix a time even for one of these. Yours faithfully, C Babbage'.

NLS holds a number of Babbage's letters and other related documents. These have been viewed by only a handful of people since 1979 and should provide researchers with a wealth of insights to this remarkable man, his work, character, and influences. Appropriately, the Library is planning to digitise all of these documents and make them available on its website and for use in educational workshops.

As well as Bill Gates, HRH The Duke of York, Prime Ministers, Ministers, EU Commissioners and policy advisers from across Europe gather at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday January 30 and Wednesday January 31, it is fitting to note that the ideas and correspondence of a great pioneer of the computer age are housed in the National Library of Scotland just further along Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

The John Murray Archive can be accessed at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. The Library plans to launch a public fundraising campaign in April 2007 to raise the final £6.5 million of this £33.2 million project.


National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge

Tel: 0131 623 3700

29 January 2007

Speak me