Saturday, September 13, 2008

Babbage on economics and innovation

Hmm... might be worth a look sometime, if I can find it in the library. From this talk.

Google books link.

Babbage, who, like Isaac Newton, was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, attempted to construct the first computer in the early nineteenth century, more than a century before the first working computer was produced. Of course, Babbage's computer was based on mechanical power rather than electronics, but it still required parts with very precise specifications. In carrying out this project, Babbage had to work with many workshops. In the process Babbage learnt a great deal about modern manufacturing.

Based on his experience, Babbage published an extraordinary book, The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which went well beyond any contemporary work of political economy in creating a realistic analysis of modern production. The significance of rapid technical change struck Babbage, who claimed, "... the improvements succeeded each other so rapidly that machines which had never been finished were abandoned in the hands of their makers, because new improvements had superseded their utility" (Babbage 1835, p. 286). Babbage's rule of thumb was that the cost of an original machine was roughly five times the cost of a duplicate (Babbage 1835, p. 266).

More from Wikipedia, on comparative advantage:

In On the Economy of Machine and Manufacture, Babbage described what is now called the Babbage principle, which describes certain advantages with division of labour. Babbage noted that highly skilled - and thus generally highly paid - workers spend parts of their job performing tasks that are 'below' their skill level. If the labour process can be divided among several workers, it is possible to assign only high-skill tasks to high-skill and -cost workers and leave other working tasks to less-skilled and paid workers, thereby cutting labour costs. This principle was criticised by Karl Marx who argued that it caused labour segregation and contributed to alienation. The Babbage principle is an inherent assumption in Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management.

My favorite Babbage quote:

On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

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