Or the Paradox of Innovation
My last (pre-Covid lockdown) trip to London, I conducted a series of masterclasses on Digital Innovation. With a few free hours it was inevitable I would end up in a museum, and so that’s how I staring open-mouthed at Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine #2’ at the Science museum near Hyde Park.
But before I tell you how I came to be standing, in full nerd-wonder before an assemblage of cogs and wheels , a bit about Mr Babbage. For those of you who have never heard of him, he was a man for whom the word “polymath’ was invented. To call him a brilliant scientist, engineer, mathematician, inventor and thinker is an understatement. Here was a man whose interests spanned cryptography, economics, science, industry, religion, politics and sociology – he was also one of those uniquely English eccentrics that could be found lurking in the Victorian establishment (Babbage was a member of the “Extractors Club”, a group of gentlemen whose sole dedication was to liberating its members from a lunatic asylum, should they be committed).
This was a man who, in the interests of scientific research, stood within a circle of blood, and chanted the Lord’s Prayer, backwards, seven times to test whether his actions would cause the devil or vampires materialise (luckily he was mistaken), but he is probably best known for his work on designing machines capable of performing mathematical calculations. He is said to have started thinking about a mechanical machine when, after finding numerous errors in a set of astronomical tables, he had painstakingly put together, he is said to have remarked “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam’, which makes him, if not the father of modern computing, then at least an uncle or step-father.
In short, this was a man worth knowing.
However it was his Difference Engine that really caught my attention.
The result was the plans for a machine For every 4 turns of the handle, it could perform calculations – a few minutes it could work out a series of figures to 31 places. Sadly, his machine never saw the light of day. Cost overruns and his fractious relations with his backers, supporters and colleagues, meant the work on his machine was called off. It took an Australian engineer, who in 1990, using an exact copy of the plans drawn up by Babbage, and drawing on the engineering skills available that were available in Babbages day, that his team built a working model, the one that stands on the third floor of the Science museum near Hyde Park today. This elaborate assemblage of wheels, cogs and levers could, at the turn (or several turns) of a handle, produce polynomial calculations to 31 places in around 4 minutes, without any errors, a task that could take a human hours or days to figure out, with the chance of mistakes.
So the reason why I was open-mouthed was not the realisation at what could have been, had people the foresight to complete the machine. Or how its computational power, could have put science, engineering, mathematics and innovation, forward by a century (had it seen the light of day). How, essentially a super-computer 150 years before its time, could possibly presaged the age of computing by 80 years.
It was none of those. It was the realisation that innovation and brilliance alone is not enough. In fact its not worth a row of beans unless others
….So for those struggling within large organisations, who feel that they are wasted, and their brilliance and ideas are not recognised, the truth is awful – that unless you can get others to recognise the value of your ideas, you are just wasting your time.