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From the LabLit short story series

Daen de Leon 14 January 2012

www.lablit.com/article/703

My belief that my young apprentice is deranged has been further reinforced with his occult utterances about “self-modification” and “feedback”

This fragment of a journal was recently discovered in the archives of the Royal Society of London

Wednesday, May 19th 1841

The name of John Parkinson, FRS, shall resonate through history, and that fraudulent designer of the unbuildable, Charles Babbage, shall be consigned to oblivion. I have, as of today, proven my design workable, and have shown its calculational abilities to be as superior to the clockwork toys of the irascible Babbage as a human being is to an animalcule. Any remaining morning dew of self-doubt has evaporated under the blazing ascendant sun of my genius! With luck Babbage will return to his hounding of hoop-rollers and players of tip-cat, and leave me to reap my just rewards.

“The Core” truly is a thing of beauty. I marvel at its compactness: the hundreds of thousands of tiny dynamically adjustable gears and linkages all housed within a space no larger than a portmanteau; the card reader receiving the encoded problem via stacks of punched cards; and the output punch passing its own cards to the automatic printing press. It was with some trepidation that I checked the output of the machine’s first simple printed calculations, and verified, to my great relief, that they were correct. Since then, more and more complex tests have revealed not a single error.

I have arranged a demonstration for Sir Andrew Jenkins of The Admiralty, three weeks hence, which will pay good coin for the production of accurate tide tables and suchlike.

However, Albert Smith is acting most peculiarly. Today, he pondered as to how to divert cards from the output punch back in to the card reader – an entirely pointless exercise! My belief that my young apprentice is deranged has been further reinforced with his occult utterances about “self-modification” and “feedback”.

Tuesday, May 25th

To my dismay, I discover that Smith has added his “output-feeding-input” folly on to the Core. He described to me certain classes of algorithmic problem which can be addressed with such an approach. This may well be so, but it is irrelevant, and I have instructed him to remove his unseemly modifications, and to remember his station lest I am forced to dismiss him. In little over a fortnight, the Core is to be presented to the Admiralty – in its original and superior form – before which he has much work to do. And, equally, to undo.

Thursday, May 27th

After but a day’s absence, I find that Smith has strewn my path to glory with the Devil’s night soil. He had not only failed to restore the Core to my original perfect design, choosing instead to busy himself with the crafting of a set of cards whose purpose is to repeatedly readjust the delicate mechanisms of the Core, and had allowed this process to continue for twenty four consecutive hours, during which period, it seems, he had neither slept nor eaten. Nor had he, judging by the close fug in the workshop, bathed. This was not, however, the end of the good news. The incessant abuse has caused the Core to enter a state from which it cannot be reset, requiring complete disassembly and rebuilding.

At the mention of rebuilding, Smith spoke insubordinately, and with some passion, holding forth on some notion of the Core (and pronouncing it with some strange Continental affectation as “Cor-a”) becoming “afraid”, and that “she” looked to him as “her” friend and protector, his manner growing more and more agitated. I have released him from his indentures and had him escorted from the premises before any fresh harm can be visited upon the Core. Or indeed, upon my person. He did not go quietly, I am ashamed to record. I am almost driven to take lodgings at Bedlam with the other unfortunates. In a room next to Smith, in all likelihood.

I am now compelled to disassemble and reassemble mechanisms which took months of effort to originally construct, and, without being able to afford the time for the indenturing of a replacement apprentice, must achieve this Olympian work alone, within the span of two weeks. The day’s events have been far too trying to embark upon this task tonight. With luck, my state of mind will be sufficiently steady upon the morrow.

I can only pray that something of value for the Admiralty, and my reputation as an engineer, may be salvaged from this. Oh, that Babbage does not learn of this day’s humiliations!

Friday, May 28th

I was awoken at five o’clock this morning by a frantic Mrs White and hurried downstairs to the hall, as smartly as decorum would permit, to be met by two constables of the Yard, who proceeded to inform me that the workshop had been burglarized during the course of the night, and would I please go with them in order to inventory the stolen items.

My worst fears were confirmed upon arrival. Nothing of value had been taken – save for the Core itself. There was little damage, apart from an upturned box of punched cards, and a broken window, through which the burglar had gained ingress and egress.

One of the cards drew my attention. I hold it here between my trembling fingers. It is punched with a fine pattern of hearts, intertwined with the words “Albert” and “Cora” repeating over and over in a flowing script, in what very closely resembles a woman’s hand.

It is pretty thing to behold...most pretty indeed. A small token of order in a sea of chaos.

Perhaps the Admiralty might like it...