Sunday, October 28, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "The Steam-powered Word Processor": A spin on the life & works of Charles Babbage

This story describes the life of Reverand Charles Cabbage (1815-188?), one time vicar at St Simian's in the Parish of Far Tottering, Sussex, England. Note the trivial change of surname. According to Wikipedia, Babbage lived 1791-1871.

I am not sure if Babbage would have found the humor in good taste, though.

Story summary.

Priest Cabbage is from a family that got rich by trading in slaves. He himself got rich by killing off his siblings - so he inherits family fortune.

He is bored having to write basically the same sermons twice a week, week after week. What if he could build a machine ("Word Loom") that, when given a copy of Bible & "the whole of Cruden's Concordance", will automatically produce the sermons! Laborious entry of religious texts will be outsourced.

That is how the quest for a programmable mechanical computer begins.

"The machine's 'memory' was based ... on the punched cards of a modified Jacquard Loom: Cabbage was fond of saying that he would weave thoughts as Jacquard wove tapestries."

Machine even had a COS - Card Operating System! Note this story was published a couple of years after first IBM PCs powered by DOS appeared.

First run of the "software" will require a lot of steam power & will result in much breakage. Basically great effort, but sorry - no useful output.

Fact sheet.

"The Steam-powered Word Processor", short story, review
First published: Analog, January 1986.
Rating: B

This story appears in the following collections.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"