“Victorian” Computer Science

Click above to download the magazines ..Issue 28 and Issue 20

The computer revolution almost started in the Victorian age…

We think of the Victorians as iron, bridge, rail and ship builders – of a time when great civil and mechanical engineering projects came to fruition. It was an age of coal, of steam power, of cogs and girders. It was also an age where the foundations of the computer revolution were laid. Ideas and innovations flowed that would ultimately lead to the computer age. In the 19th century, the time wasn’t quite ripe for that yet, but computer science ideas were certainly flowing at the soirees, in fiction and in the labs. Here we look at just some of the people who laid that foundation and the interconnections of the ideas and the people.

Of course, those we look at are not all actually “Victorians” in the sense of not all British or even Empire. Apologies for the anglo-centric label covering stories of 19th century world-wide computing.

Download the magazines above or read the articles below

Dickens knitting in code

Ball of wool close up

Charles Dickens is famous for his novels highlighting Victorian social injustice. Despite what people say, art and science really do mix, and Dickens certainly knew some computer science. In his classic novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, one of his characters relies on computer science based knitting. … (read on)

Letters from the Victorian Smog: Braille

Fingers on braille book

We take for granted that computers use binary: to represent numbers, letters, music and pictures…any kind of information.That was something Ada Lovelace realised very early on. Binary wasn’t invented for computers though. Its first modern use as a way to represent letters was actually invented in the early 19th century. It is still used today: Braille. … (read on)

Babbage’s adders

smoke on black background

Babbage’s Victorian computer was made of Victorian tech – metal, wheels and levers. It had a cunning contraption at its core that allowed it to store and add numbers. how did it work? … (read on)

Babbage’s triumph over brutal reality

Red rose on a gravestone

Charles Babbage is famous for his amazing technical skills in designing a computer, but also infamous for his apparent spiky and obsessive personality, but his life was full of sorrow … (read on)

Ada Lovelace in her own words

A mass of colourful letters

Charles Babbage invented wonderful computing machines. But he was not very good at explaining things. That’s where Ada Lovelace came in. She is famous for writing a paper in 1843 explaining how Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked – including a big table of formulas which is often described as “the first computer program”… (read on)

Nikola Tesla: the invisible genius

Tesla thinking in front of a magnetic coil

Nikola Tesla is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Not bad going for an electronic engineer. Born, so the stories go, in the middle of a thunderstorm in Serbia, Tesla has left a fascinating legacy to the world today … (read on)

The taming of the screw

Pile of screws

Babbage was obsessed with precision because if his machines were to work, they needed it. His demands for precision helped change the humble screw, becoming a standard that powered British industry. … (read on)

Ada and the music machine

Man playing a barrel organ

Charles Babbage found barrel organs so incredibly irritating that he waged a campaign to clear them from the streets, even trying to organise an act of parliament to have them banned. He hated the irritating noise preventing him from concentrating. His hatred, however, may have led to Ada Lovelace’s greatest idea … (read on)

Babbage’s barrels

Inner workings of a music box with metal strips catching on pins

COMING SOON Despite his hatred of Barrel organs, Babbage used barrels with relocatable pins in his machines. They gave a way to program the instructions available to control the machine, something we would now call microcode… (read on)

Pass the screwdriver, Igor: Mary Shelley

The head of Frankenstein's monster (classic style)

Shortly after Ada Lovelace was born, and long before she made predictions about future “creative machines”, Mary Shelley, a friend of her father (Lord Byron), was writing a novel. In her book, Frankenstein, inanimate flesh is brought to life. Perhaps Shelley foresaw what is actually to come, what computer scientists might one day create: artificial life… (read on)

A storm in a bell jar: Andrew Crosse

Ada Lovelace was close friends with John Crosse, and knew his father Andrew: the ‘real Frankenstein’. Andrew Crosse apparently created insect life from electricity, stone and water…leading to an early example of a social media-style storm, trolls and all… (read on)

The Wood Computer

A wooden footbridge with trees in the background

Punch cards inspired Babbage as he invented the first Victorian computer, and were a way the first computers stored data a century later. Variations, called edge-notched cards, were used before the first working computers, providing an efficient way to find information. Oxford’s human-operated ‘wood computer’ was used in forests world-wide…. (read on)

Edge-notched cards and relational databases

An edge notched card

Edge-notched cards implement a physical, but still powerful, version of a database: an organised way of storing data from cards with holes and notches in them … (read on)

Rebel with a cause: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is known for her nursing, in the Crimean War. She rebelled against convention to become a nurse when nursing was seen as a lowly job, not suitable for ‘ladies’. She broke convention in another less well-known, but much more significant way too. She was a mathematician and pioneered the use of pictures to present her statistical data about causes of war deaths and issues of sanitation and health: a Victorian version of the Big Data revolution … (read on)


This page was funded by UKRI, through grant EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin and forms part of a broader project on the development and impact of computing, as well as grant EP/W033615/1.