Building the Analytical Engine

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Building the Analytical Engine

First described in 1837, Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, if it had been built may have launched the computer revolution 100 ago. Now a group, Plan 28, wants to finally build the machine as a symbol of being ahead of your time.  

As everyone knows, computer science began in the '30s ... the 1830s.

Charles Babbage designed, but never built the analytical engine almost 200 years ago.  It was conceived, as were the mechanical standards of the time, that it would be built out of brass and iron.

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Although other mechanical machines may predate the Analytical Engine, it is regarded as the first design for a "general purpose computer" that could be reprogrammed to carry out different tasks.

It was the successor to his Difference Engine, a huge brass number-cruncher.

Although elements of the engine have been built over the last 173 years, a complete working model of the steam-powered machine has never been made.

Study of the designs shows that the system would have worked, and would have been comparable to mechanical computers built 100 years later at the end of the WWII. The Harvard Mark IV, built in the early 1940s, has many features borrowed from the Analytical Engine's design.
Plan 28 is an organization that aims to actually build Babbage's Analytical Engine. Babbage left behind extensive documentation of the Analytical Engine, the most complete of which can be seen in his Plan 28 (and 28a), which are preserved in a mahogany case that Babbage had constructed especially for the purpose.

Babbage Analytical Engine
Partial model of the Analytical Engine
Image Source: PlyoJump
According to John Graham-Cumming, founder of Plan 28,
It might seem a folly to want to build a gigantic, relatively puny computer at great expense 170 years after its invention. But the message of a completed Analytical Engine is very clear: it’s possible to be 100 years ahead of your own time. With support, this type of “blue skies” thinking can result in fantastic changes to the lives of everyone. Just think of the impact of the computer and ask yourself how different the Victorian world would have been with Babbage Engines at its disposal. 
What seemed like costly research that was unlikely to have any short-term value turned out to be the seed of one of the greatest revolutions mankind has seen. I hope that future generations of scientists will stand before the completed Analytical Engine, think of Babbage, and be inspired to work on their own 100-year leaps.
"A hundred years ago, before computers were available, [Babbage] had envisaged this machine."
In the TED video below, Graham-Cumming, tells the story of Babbage's mechanical, steam-powered "analytical engine" and how Ada Lovelace, mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron, saw beyond its simple computational abilities to imagine the future of computers.

Graham-Cumming is a British programmer and writer of The Geek Atlas is best known for having originated a successful petition to the British Government asking for an apology for its persecution of Alan Turing.


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