Wednesday, March 2, 2016

OK was the answer

History speaks fondly of Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) and his creation, the Difference Engine. He’s often referred to as a pioneer and the father of computing.   A piece of graffiti found behind some wallpaper in the family home of Edwin Thripp (1788 – 1850) speaks of his rival Babbage in altogether less polite terms.


  History has discarded Thripp, but if his copious journals are to be believed, it was he who invented the Difference Engine a good decade before Babbage, and unlike Charles, had procured the funds and means to actually build the bloody thing.
  The aforementioned journals cover the construction and initial testing of the device in some detail.  This was long before the days of terminals and keyboards, and instructions were programmed into the device using an array of levers and toggle switches, any results spooled out via a series of punched holes on paper ribbon.
  "The device is finally built", Thripp proudly announces on an entry for March the 1st 1843, "and looks far more impressive than anything that cocksucker Babbage could have invented." (The tone of much of the journal is in a similar vein, Thripp was nothing if not a bitter and petty man)
  "A series of mathematical queries have been compiled by some of the professors at Trinity College and the last eleven hours have been spent carefully feeding them into the device.  Now we only need wait a short week for the calculations to be complete."
  Several pages follow, unrelated to Thripps’ Difference Engine and primarily concerned with what he’d had had for dinner. 
  The entry for March the 8th is despondent.
  "There must be a fault in the device," bemoans Thripp, "for the results, regardless of the mathematical query being asked, are all very similar in theme.  A series of punched cards now litter the floor with responses such as 'Meh',  'Maybe', 'Whatever' and 'Dunno'."
  Thripp had, inadvertently, created an Indifference Machine.  In that matrix of pipes, cogs and valves, he had – unbeknownst to him – accidentally created the first ever artificial intelligence. Albeit one with the surly nature of a moody fifteen year old.
  Thripp spent the remainder of his years attempting to fix the device, but to no avail. Unable to recognise his creation as the breakthrough that it was, he died penniless, destitute and miserable.  His last recorded words were spent insulting Babbage. The air turned blue as Thripp's skin did the same.
  The Indifference engine, despite its cumbersome bulk, moved from owner to owner.  None seemed capable of getting any decent results out of it until, quite tenuously, a comedian in the nineteen-seventies inherited it as payment for a gig and one drunken night fed in the feed-line for a joke and, after a wait of several days, the device responded with a perfect punchline.
  The particular joke in question has been lost to history, but whispers from the Monkhouse estate indicated that it had something to do with the difference between a constipated owl and a bad archer.
  Something had been found that had stirred the contraption from its malaise.  This was something that it enjoyed doing and was really rather good at. Until finally breaking down for good in the early nineties, rumours are that it frequently changed hands between a secret cabal of comedians working the circuits (no pun intended).
  As a lasting epitaph for this device, to this day it bears the dubious honour of being the creator of one of only twelve jokes in existence that chemists find funny.

  "How did the date go when Oxygen went out with Potassium?"

(The above was an assignment for the Coventry Writers Group, a story which had to be themed around the phrase "The Answer is OK")

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