Computer pioneer Percy Ludgate is not a household name like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs — but a team of researchers based at Trinity College Dublin has set about changing that, writes Kevin O'Neill.
Rather than sitting with those contemporary names, Ludgate is more at home alongside Charles Babbage, the mathematician and inventor who originated the concept of a digital programmable computer.
Ludgate is notable as being responsible for the second-ever comprehensive design for a general-purpose computer, publishing a five-page document on his own design in 1909. He worked in isolation on his ideas, apparently unaware of Babbage’s designs until after he had finished.
Unlike Babbage, though, Ludgate’s name has not gone down in the annals of history. In fact, little is known about the man himself and other than the short paper on his design, much of his ideas are lost too.
Born in Skibbereen, just 100m from the digital hub in the town which is named in his honour, Ludgate decamped to Dublin to work as a corn merchant clerk before becoming an accountant later in life.
This is just one of the elements of the Ludgate story that make his achievements so impressive: he was not a scientist, nor did he devote all of his time to his research. He worked on it in his spare time from 1903 to 1909. He was not aware of Babbage’s work on an analytical engine until long after he had finished his own.
He wrote a single paper which was published in the Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society in April 1909. Ludgate and Babbage’s designs are quite different, too.
Ludgate’s analytical engine was based on multiplication using rods in shuttles and slides, with an input on a perforated paper sheet or roll. Babbage’s, meanwhile, was based on addition using cogs and wheels, with input on punched cards. His method is the basis for most modern computing.
It is the simplicity of Ludgate’s design in comparison to Babbage’s that astounded many computer scientists. Babbage’s paper was based on precision engineering. Using gears and cogs, it would have been the size of a cathedral.
Ludgate’s design, on the other hand, would have been a portable device. It used a far more simple system of rods and shuttles, possibly inspired by slide rules.
Ludgate’s machine was capable of multiplying in 10 seconds and taking logarithms in 120 seconds. It could input and store data and programmes, had a printer, and could be stopped at any stage to add new variable, and was designed to be motor driven. Sadly, Ludgate was never able to complete his pioneering computer as, in 1922, he died of pneumonia at the age of just 39.
His legacy lives on, though, not least in the form of a team of researchers based at Trinity College Dublin. Led by Brian Coghlan of TCD’s Computer Science department, they have set about spreading the word about Ludgate’s innovations and, hopefully, uncovering papers, photographs, drawings and documents connected to the man and, potentially, draw some of his long lost family members out of the woodwork too.
A lecture at the forthcoming West Cork History Festival is part of their campaign and they are actively looking for more information on Ludgate and his work. For many, Ludgate’s name is most associated with the high tech co-working space in Skibbereen, which opened in 2016.
Despite his groundbreaking work, Ludgate remains a mystery due to the absence of primary documentation of his work or his life. While the Ludgate Hub has helped to spread the word about what he achieved, Dr Coghlan and his team believe that there is more to do. They have spent about four years working on the project.
“There is lots, lots more to uncover,” Dr Coghlan said. “In reality, we know very little about him.”
The reason why is simple: there are next to no primary sources of information available. There is just a single photograph, no drawings, no documentation, and it has proven impossible to track down his family.
Dr Coghlan is hoping that the publicity of the event in Skibbereen will draw out extended members of the Ludgate family. While he had no direct descendants, he had ten aunts and uncles and at least seven cousins. Two of these were journalists in Cork city.
“They have disappeared,” Dr Coghlan said. “We can’t find anything as a result of privacy laws. Phone books are out of fashion, so we can’t call anyone up, so it is hard to locate people like that now.”
He is hoping to discover photographs, letters, and other documents, including drawings Ludgate would have done during his research.
“He did a tremendous amount of drawings. If somehow they still exist, it would be amazing to uncover them.”
Ludgate’s will is in the National Archive in Dublin but, beyond that, there is basically nothing.
“We also know very little about his machine,” said Dr Coghlan. “He wrote one paper, restricted to the most important, novel points. It was about five or six pages and the majority of the machine’s design is not in it. There are huge design gaps.”
Dr Coghlan and his team are hoping to uncover additional information available about Ludgate. Even the smallest snippet could make a huge difference. If you have any information that may be useful, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Coghlan will present the findings of the work to date, and appeal again for more information, during ‘An exploration of the life of Percy Ludgate’ at 10am next Saturday in Skibbereen as part of the West Cork History Festival.
Named after Percy Ludgate, the Ludgate Hub is Ireland’s first rural digital hub. Located in Skibbereen, it promised to bring a slice of Silicon Valley to West Cork.
It offers the type of services that were previously the preserve of towns and cities, including ultra-fast, 1GB broadband. The initiative aims to utilise the digital age for job creation, facilitating up to 75 people in a creative co-working environment.
It has long-term aims of facilitating the creation of 500 direct jobs and 1,000 indirect jobs in the wider West Cork area. Citing Percy Ludgate as “Skibbereen’s answer to Bill Gates”, the Hub is named after the computer pioneer who was born in the town in 1883, just 100m from where Ludgate himself was born.
The building itself was previously a cinema, operating from 1941 to 1981. It also operated as a bakery until the mid-00s before being left unoccupied until the Hub opened in 2016. Adrienne Harrington, CEO of the Ludgate Hub, said they have lofty aims and that it is a fitting way to mark Ludgate’s legacy.
“Percy was the forefather of the modern analytical engines,” she said. “He was a technological innovator and as such, is an inspiration to a new generation of innovators that Ludgate is nurturing. It is therefore fitting that our building is named after him.”
The West Cork History Festival and the Ludgate Hub are partnering this year to bring a new event to the festival.
In conjunction with the focus on Percy Ludgate’s life and work, as well as the appeal for his missing papers, this year will see the festival’s first workshop for children.
‘Searching for Percy’ will be a digital history quest for 8-year-olds and up (and their grown-ups), discovering the everyday lives of West Cork’s most famous residents, past and present. Throughout history, West Cork people have had a worldwide influence from sport to astronomy, politics to industry.
While we are all familiar with the role that Michael Collins played in shaping Irish history, did you know that there is a crater on the moon named after Agnes Mary Clerke, one of the world’s first female astronomers, who was born in Skibbereen in 1842? This workshop will be a fun interactive experience and will be run by Danielle O’Donovan, programme manager at the Nano Nagle Centre, Cork.
It will take place at the Ludgate Hub on Townshend St, Skibbereen, at 10am, Saturday, August 10. The workshop will run for the morning and costs €5 per child, with their adult going free. Please bring your own device to the workshop.
Tickets available at https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/west-cork-history-festival-tickets-61964987947.