The Analytical Society: Leave the World Wiser

Its all too often accepted that one person could never profoundly change the world.

Not long into one of thousands of history books and scholarly publications would one find a common trend: references to the ideas of people who thought differently; people that did profoundly change the historical, political or intellectual landscapes of human society. Newton, Galileo, Gutenberg, Chappe, Darwin, Einstein–I would argue that the one thing all notable figures have in common is their ability to articulate their ideas.

Probably the most effective way of doing this is to write. Pick up a pencil and explain yourself. Describe what you’re thinking. It’s amazing how much better I understand my own ideas and the ideas of others when I can articulate them myself, in coherent writing or through sketching.

It is very fitting that the phrase above was spoken by the voices of some of the greatest minds of the 19th century. Those minds were Cambridge mathematicians Charles Babbage, John Herschel and George Peacock. They founded an advocacy group with a mission “to create a more rational, predictable and mechanical language of mathematics” free of the English language’s contradictions and errors. They called themselves the Analytical Society and in all seriousness, resolved to “Leave the world a wiser place than they found it.”

The instigator of this research, Charles Babbage, was one of the first to think of numbers as information that could be manufactured as a commodity. He figured out that numbers could be input into a complex mechanical machine, “automatically” processed by means of thousands of gears and cogs and pins, and output as new numbers. Nothing physical actually being created, only a translation of virtual “information”. This idea was very unique in contrast to existing tools for arithmetic–pebbles in bags, knotted strings, and tally sticks made of wood or bone.

Predating modern electronics, and only partially built, Babbage’s machine, if competed, would have filled an entire room and weighed several tons. He named his machine the Difference Engine. Today we would call it a calculator.

At the time, many didn’t see the implications this idea would have in the future of technology, communication and quantum computing. But coupled with the innovative ideas of others, and articulated more eloquently and on a broader spectrum, Babbage’s ideas have helped change human society on every level from complex global economies to rocket science, and down to the minute details of everyday life–cell-phone communication, the internet, and even the processor allowing me to input the very words I am writing right now.

Babbage and the Analytical Society are just a few in the long line of innovators from the past, and more importantly, from those still to come.

For more information about Babbage and the archeology of modern information technology, check out James Gleick’s incredibly researched and intriguing book, The Information.

Buy it here.