1873 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

August 2017

Foreseeing the Computer

The June 7 issue of Harper’s Weekly contained a writer’s recollections of his interview with the recently deceased Charles Babbage, a British mathematician who had invented a calculating machine in the 1820s. Although Babbage never actually built his “analytical engine,” which would have run on punch cards, he was not averse to making predictions: “Mr. Babbage believe[d] that calculating machines could not merely work out sums, but even that they might be so constructed as to perform the most complex processes of mathematics.” Babbage had also asserted that “machines might be made to find out perfect play at chess, though the united labors of so many generations of players have as yet failed to discover it.”

Shaken by the prophecy of machines’ supremacy over man, the interviewer wondered: “If the ingenuity of machines can so far surpass the ingenuity of miserable mortals in one department, why not in others? On this supposition, do not future generations seem likely to realize, in a new and almost literal sense, the old saying, Deus ex machinâ ? Or at any rate, is the author of ‘Erewhon’ far wrong when he says that at length men and machines will have to change places, and that, instead of men employing machinery, machines will end by employing ‘mannery?’”