Enter the maze

Battle by binary

All at sea with Charles Babbage

Rough, Empty Sea

From the earliest days of maritime travel, sailors have had a hard time keeping track of their movement and location (one vast expanse of blue ocean looks much like the next after all). Monitoring naval longitude was a particular problem, as it involves calculating a series of complex logarithms. One small mistake has a knock-on effect that is amplified throughout subsequent calculations. As the noted 19th Century mathematician John Herschel remarked in a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1842:

"An undetected error in a logarithmic table is like a sunken rock at sea yet undiscovered, upon which it is impossible to say what wrecks may have taken place".

This was a particular issue for Britain, whose military strength had traditionally been in her Navy. In the 1830's Charles Babbage, another British mathematician, set about creating a programmable steam–powered machine that could work out these complex calculations automatically. His Difference Engine, and subsequent project the Analytical Engine were never completed during his lifetime. However, the ideas are recognised as the dawn of the computer age. The London Science Museum eventually produced a fully working version of the Difference Engine in 1991.

War is never good, but have any good things come from it? This article is part of a series by James Snee, Marc Trepanier, Daniel Valverde and Yi Ming Woo, students at Queen Mary, University of London, investigating how military and security concerns are linked with the advancement of technology.