Tag Archives: Credo

Computer Pioneers: The Westminster Connection

Spurred on by spotting Charles Babbage’s (1791–1871) Green Plaque on a building at 1a Dorset Street, Marylebone, I began to investigate the life of this computing pioneer, who began working on the idea of inventing automatic calculating machines at this address from the 1830s. This work followed his invention of a ‘difference engine’, a fixed-function calculator which used existing mathematical formulae to calculate an answer.

Charles Babbage & his calculating engines, by Doron Swade In contrast, the analytical engine was designed to calculate virtually any mathematical function using programmable numerical data, in any sequence, to find the answer. It would have been programmed by using punched cards, a technique used by loom operators at that time to control the patterns of the woven thread.

Punched holes on cards remained as the means for programming computers in many of the IBM and other early 20th century computers. In fact, immediately before the rise of the personal computer, I remember using hole punched cards denoting chosen subject terms as a means of searching for article references.

Babbage’s use of punched cards is important as it would enabled the operator to repeat the same sequence of operations and also choose alternative actions depending on the value of a result. A landmark in Babbage’s continuous development of his design came with a significant change of the machine’s internal organisation. He separated the stored numbers (data) from the section which processed it, thus laying the foundation for modern computers’ storing data together with a processor to manipulate this data.

Unfortunately Babbage never persuaded the British government or private investors to finance the construction of his machines. Luckily his notes and plans together with his correspondence with Westminster’s next computer pioneer have meant that physical reconstructions are possible. You can see examples of reconstructions at London’s Science Museum.

A female genius : how Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, started the computer age, by James EssingerBabbage’s great supporter and an important contributor to his work was Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852), the daughter of Lord Byron. Her residence, 12 St James’s Square SW1, displays an English Heritage Blue Plaque celebrating this contribution to computing history.

Lovelace is credited with understanding Babbage’s machine perhaps even better than he did himself, and with devising the first complex computer programme. In a letter to Babbage dated 10 July 1843, she suggests

“I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first”.

She is posthumously celebrated for this achievement with a modern programming language named after her: Ada. Without the contribution of both parties the design of the analytical machine would not evolved as one of the first programmable computers. In this partnership Babbage was the engineer and Lovelace the programmer and visionary who saw its potential.

The final pioneer, Alan Turing had a much more tenuous link with the borough, being born in Westminster at Warrington Lodge, 2 Warrington Avenue, Maida Vale before being ‘shipped out’ aged one to the to the care of relations when his parents left for several years in India. However fleeting this connection he is also recognised with an English Heritage Blue Plaque on this house.

Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, by Dermot TuringPosthumously famous for his WW2 code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, about which we have written before, Alan Turing is also widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computing with his design of the Turing machine in the 1930s and his postwar research.

Alan Turing’s work and life is also the subject of the recent feature film ‘The Imitation Game‘.

With pleasing symmetry there is a link between Turing and Lovelace. In the 1930s, whilst working on artificial intelligence and computing, Alan Turing rediscovered her notes on programming and this had a significant influence on his research.

Further biographical details for all three pioneers can also be found using the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in to all of these subscription sites for free with your library membership card). It’s worth looking to the newspaper archives for further insight too – I found several further references to Charles Babbage in The Times Digital Archive as the newspaper published several of his letters relating to various scientific topics. He also wrote to the Illustrated London News describing, with illustrations, a devise which is similar to an early example of a periscope. This was designed for artillery troops to safely line up guns from beneath a parapet. (ILN Saturday, August 18, 1855; pg. 210; Issue 757).

More information about these pioneers and the wider history of computing can be obtained from two further 24/7 reference resources. Credo Reference and Oxford Digital Reference Shelf are both searchable resources which use a number of dictionaries, textbooks and encyclopedias as source material. Just type in the relevant search term, eg: Ada Lovelace, to display a number of links to original text relating to this search.

A brief history of computing by Gerard O'ReganReturning to print, on the shelves of Marylebone Information Service is an useful guide to computing history: A Brief History of Computing by Gerard O’Regan.
The book begins with early civilizations such as the Babylonians and Egyptians, who developed mathematics, geometry and astronomy using methods such as a counting board (an early form of abacus) and algebra to make theoretical calculations, and leads right through to modern computer programming and the internet revolution.

And the computer revolution goes on. Will the next pioneer come from one of our Code Clubs for kids? There are currently regular clubs meeting at Charing CrossChurch Street, Maida Vale and St John’s Wood libraries, but more are planned – ask in your library for details.


Take part in an online training session!

Books!Credo Reference has been a staple of Westminster’s 24/7 Library since the very beginning – before it even bore that name. Known in the past as ‘Xrefer’, it was originally a very limited collection of English reference books, all searchable online, and freely available on the web. It developed – slowly at first, gathering more titles and covering more ground, and was rechristened ‘Xrefer Plus’.

It began to charge a subscription to cover the cost of licensing content, and it was one of the first six of our ‘exclusive resources‘ – subscription sites which are available only to our registered members. From the start it was innovative and offered useful tools such as its Mind Map, which allows you to see and explore the interconnectedness of subjects, and its diverse array of tools, including an incredible crossword solver and a pronunciation guide. It boasted a Google-like search engine which made search results more precisely matched than its competitors, no matter how large the database became.

Years passed, it was taken over by an American company who continued to develop and expand the offering, and changed its name to Credo Reference Online. It is now international in scope, and features 1,120 books on subjects from Agriculture to Technology – all of them full text versions of published books, searchable through a common interface, and each one browse-able entry by entry.

Credo Reference

The sheer breadth and range of content makes the resource valuable to just about anybody, and its search capabilities continue to give it a competitive edge, but recently they have diversified again, adding content that appeals more to a younger demographic – particularly by adding a substantial package of lavishly illustrated Eyewitness titles from children’s information publisher Dorling Kindersley. Other appealing series for younger readers include the Handy Answers series, covering such curriculum topics as Art, Geography, History, Weather, Science, etc; the Teach Yourself collection (40 titles from Algebra to Understanding the Middle East); Visual Guides (5 titles presenting information in short video clips to impart an understanding of the Human Body, the Earth, the Universe, the Environment, and Plants); and Facts at Your Fingertips (16 titles on mainly scientific and technical topics)

In many ways, Credo is so much more than a collection of online reference books: it includes the huge collection of art images that is the Bridgeman Art Library; the Marquis Who’s Who in the World, and the Marquis Who’s Who in America from 1604 to date (complementing the OUP’s Who’s Who and Who Was Who in Britain); and the enormous Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide – an encyclopedia so big that it has never been printed!

Credo has become so complex and so multi-faceted over the years, that presenting it in its true colours has become something of a challenge to those of us who seek to make it appreciated by its target audience.

In an experimental move, the providers of this extraordinary resource will be offering an online presentation to students and parents in an effort to raise its profile and make it more familiar to them, as a resource that can help with school and homework. You can sign up for this session, which will take place tomorrow, Wednesday 20 January, at a family friendly 7.00pm, by emailing Credo at training@credoreference.com with the subject line “Register for 20/1/2016”.

As a reminder, Credo Reference, as with all of the exclusive resources in our 24/7 Library, can be accessed anywhere you have an Internet connection: there’s no password – all you need to enter is the barcode number from your library card.


Great Zimbabwe and Black History Month

Copy of Zimbabwe Bird sculptureOne of my great regrets from childhood was that whilst on holiday in Zimbabwe I was too grumpy to go on a journey to visit Great Zimbabwe. Reading through an article from the Encyclopedia of Archaeology on our online resource Credo Reference (log in with your library card number), we learn just how amazing and historically important it is; it describes the site as “possibly the largest settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

  • There are stone towers, steps and many buildings covering a wide area
  • It survived for over 500 years between 900 and 1450 AD
  • It gained its wealth from gathering local gold and other resources, and traded with other distant civilizations as far away as China

When the area was discovered by Europeans, there was a misapprehension that something so complex must have come from another outside ancient civilization (maybe China, India… some even suggesting it was King Solomon’s Mines). For a great many years the site suffered from looting and damage from those who did not place any value on the history of the site. Both these issues the article describes as attempts to strip the indigenous population of their history and archeological heritage. Indeed, acknowledgement of its origin and importance is seen as growing only in 1929/30 with the visit of Gertrude Caton-Thompson, when ideas of its creation by “a vigorous native civilization” were given some credence. It was almost as though many could not believe that the indigenous people could have been “a national organization of a high kind of originality and industry” (as quoted from the Times Digital Archive from 1929).

Fifty years ago, in November 1965, Rhodesia broke away from the UK. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence brought to the fore racial inequality and minority rule in the country. After many years of war, independence was internationally and legally recognized and elections took place involving the whole population. The new country of Zimbabwe took its very name from the houses of stone and the culture which surrounded them. The new currency displayed images of Great Zimbabwe (I loved the image of the stone tower on the Zimbabwean dollar) and the unique artifact known as the Zimbabwe Bird is displayed prominently on the flag. Indeed, the importance of this bird can be seen through the return of several examples of them by the South African government after independence was recognized (perhaps read an article from the time such as this one from the Guardian: Rock of ages, Zimbabwe (4 February 1981).

Flag of Zimbabwe

Sadly there are still a great many problems in the country, but perhaps the history of this ancient civilization can help inspire the creation of a community which can live together for several hundred years, trading with the outside world as did those who lived there all that time ago.

Other lessons must be learnt from what has happened with Great Zimbabwe: the importance of history, seeing past any prejudices/preconceptions and aiming to learn more (including trying to learn from our past), the evils of destroying or stealing archaeological artifacts for short-term gain, there is more to history including black and African History than we hear about on a day-to-day basis… and finally, if you are young and tend to get grumpy don’t let it spoil your chances of seeing/doing something special which you will remember forever!


Holocaust Memorial Day – read and remember

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip GourevitchHolocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau (the largest Nazi death camp) on 27 January 1945.

The purpose of the day is to reflect on and remember those victims or survivors of the Holocaust or subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. We have compiled a list of books which may help in this remembrance, and inform us through both fiction and non-fiction.

Books for Holocaust Memorial Day

To read around the subject, including links to both historical and current newspaper articles, take a look at Credo Reference’s Holocaust Topic Page. Credo is part of the library service’s subscription resources (you can log in for full access with your library card), as are many of the other sites linked, eg: the Times Digital Archive. And to find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day itself, the HMD Trust’s website includes a huge number of resources, with information on both the Nazi Holocaust and genocides elsewhere and more recent.

There have been events and exhibitions across the Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham library services, and The Wiener Library for the Study of Holocaust and Genocide will visit Westminster Reference Library tomorrow afternoon, 28 January, to talk about the library’s mission and resources.



You spent *how much* on a book?

This much?

  • Loads of free books... if you join the libraryThe Cambridge Guide to the Theatre – £39.90 on Amazon
  • A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists – £175 on Amazon
  • Encyclopedia of World Trade from Ancient Times to the Present – £354.71 on Amazon
  • Debrett’s People of Today 2012 – not available on Amazon (2008 edition £76.50)
  • Reader’s Guide to British History – £285 on Amazon
  • Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography – £133 on Amazon
  • Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary – £29.91 on Amazon
  • Encyclopedia of Postmodernism – £155 on Amazon
  • Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science – £1330 on Amazon
  • The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women – 1 penny on Amazon (secondhand, plus £2.80 delivery charge)

I put the last one in for balance (honest!). These are ten reference books, chosen “blind” (I had no prior knowledge of the prices), and the Amazon-quoted prices as of today, 30 July. They are all rather specialised, but that’s the point.

When you want a book with in-depth coverage of a subject, where will you turn? I use Amazon a lot. But at these prices, for these kinds of titles, I think I might turn back to where I found them in the first place – Credo Reference, one of Westminster Libraries’ exclusive ‘Online Resources’, which are free to use for library members.

By the way, there are 600 reference books on Credo Reference, 200+ on Oxford Reference Online, and 120+ on Gale Virtual Reference Library, all available free for members via our 24/7 Library. Not having to venture out into the melée that is the first weekday of the Olympics might be another big plus!

For other ways to max out your library service, see our previous posts on the subject. And if you do happen to have £2579.03 rattling around, my holiday fund is a bit low at the moment!


Holocaust Memorial Day

Anne Frank's diaryI was looking at some statistics on the population of Westminster in order to answer an enquiry the other day, and I discovered that of all those who claimed to follow a religion, Jews were the third most numerous group, which does not closely reflect the national picture. Their identity as a cultural group is particularly important at this time as we commemorate one of the most horrific disasters of war, the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, in which it is estimated that 6 million Jews were systematically murdered.

It must have been a truly terrifying time, to be in constant danger of extermination because of your race or religion. Other statistics tells us that the Jews were not the only victims of Adolf Hitler and his tyrannical regime’s genocidal policies: 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish Christians, 700,000 Serbs, 250,000 gipsies, 70,000 handicapped Germans, 12,000 homosexuals and 2,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses also died (numbers from The Holocaust Chronicle, p699). The Holocaust was not just a disaster for Jews but for the entire human race, and it is right that we should maintain a memory of it, and vigilance against it ever happening again.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on 27 January each year. You can read more about it at the official website, or by searching our library catalogue for books on the subject of the Holocaust. Why not take a look at the Holocaust topic article by Credo Reference Online, which will guide you to more information available to you on Westminster’s 24/7 Library – if you’re not using a Westminster Libraries computer to read this, just type in your library card number. There’s a lot more information to be found by visiting the newly-opened Anne Frank Library in Kentish Town.