Tragedy of man who invented computer 150 years too soon

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CHARLES BABBAGE, who more than 150 years ago invented a computer made from cogwheels, is to be rescued from relative obscurity with the publication of a book about his life.

The Cogwheel Brain is expected to be a huge bestseller, continuing the project of popularising advanced science and mathematics in much the same way as Simon Singh's literary sensation Fermat's Last Theorem and Dava Sobel's Longitude.

Babbage never completed his machine, called the Difference Engine, and was derided for his failure until 1991, when Doron Swade, curator of computing at the Science Museum and one of the book's authors, constructed the computer, using the inventor's original plans.

Swade's book, written with James Essinger, will revive Babbage's reputation, establishing him as a visionary thwarted by the inability of his contemporaries to understand his genius. Conveniently for Swade and Essinger, Babbage also seems to have had a rather juicy personal life, ensuring the book's popular appeal.

"It is a racy Victorian soap- opera history about the circumstances of Babbage's life and his work," said Swade. "It will be founded on a major piece of historical research, but it has to be a good read as well."

Babbage, who was born in 1791, secured government money to build his computer in 1821 but when, after 20 years, the machine was still not finished, funding was withdrawn and the project collapsed.

The practical difficulties Babbage encountered while trying to make his machine are not surprising. The version constructed by Swade is 11ft long and 7ft high, an immense project during the Victorian age.

Babbage spent the rest of his life filled with bitterness at the authorities for failing to back him. Swade said: "He lost credibility and the cost was massive. People were discouraged from computers - they were associated with failure. We didn't discover computers again until recently."

The Cogwheel Brain is to be published by Little, Brown in autumn 1999 - not long before computers world-wide may crash because of the so-called Millennium bug.