After the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s and the integrated circuit a few years later, the seeds were lain for the computing age to take off. In the following fifty years, developments in electronics and circuitry would lead to a world economic boom and revolution unprecedented in mankind’s history. The idea for a purely mechanical computer was conceived more than a 100 years before the invention of the computer however – by British inventor Charles Babbage. It begs the question then – what would’ve happened if the computing revolution happened a century earlier with the creation of Babbage’s analytic engine?
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, takes place in a world where the above takes place. In this alternative history, Babbage completes his analytic engine – the sequel to the difference engine – and ushers the computer age in Great Britain in the mid 1800s.
The novel limits itself to a mechanical revolution – the transistor does not exist yet in this universe, and instead of having machines built around the integrated circuit, mechanical steam powered machines become commonplace. The technology that comes to Great Britain is steampunk in design. For example, there are steam powered carriages and televisions called Kinotropes. While a little suspension of disbelief is required to believe that steam is an adequate power source and that these technologies are actually possible, the world they create is very interesting to me. I’m personally very biased towards scientific research and development. If I could rule the world I would move entire economies to produce technologies in every field full time. I’ve always wondered what would happen if humanities focus shifted purely to the pursuit and development of knowledge, and I believe that great wonders would be produced in no time. This novel explores some lines of my fantasy in that Britain begins to turn towards science and hold scientific figures like Charles Darwin in high light. Other studies are pushed aside and science and technology are put at the forefront. As a result, technological progress proceeds at a breakneck speed as “modern” devices appear and globalization looms.