Charles Babbage was the quintessential "man ahead of his time". In the mid 19th century the English mathematician and inventor developed the concept of a programmable computer and designed complex, steam-powered calculating engines that were never completed during his lifetime. One of these machines – the Difference Engine – was successfully constructed using Babbage's original plans in 1991 and now programmer John Graham-Cumming is on a mission to build a working replica of a second, more complex computing machine known as the Analytical Engine.
Babbage invented the first Difference Engine in 1821. Designed to perform mathematical calculations, the machine would have been made up of 25,000 parts, weighed 15 tons and stretched to 8 ft in height – so portable isn't a word that would apply. Babbage worked on a prototype which was never completed, but some parts of his early attempts to construct the machine survived and are on display at the Museum of Science in London.
Swedish printer George Scheutz did manage to successfully construct a machine based on the Difference Engine in 1854. It was used used by the British and American governments to print mathematical and astronomical tables.
If the Difference Engine is a calculator, the Analytical Engine is a computer, so the challenge of building the machine is a truly formidable one. Babbage envisioned it as being constructed from brass and iron and it would be monstrous – the mill section would be 15 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter and the 100 digit store would stretch to 25 feet long.
Five hundred design drawings and thousands of notes were produced by Babbage and his assistants and although he spent a fortune trying to build it, the machine was never realized.
An interesting footnote here – Ada Lovelace, who is considered to be the world's first computer programmer, collaborated with Babbage on creating execution tables for these early computing machines.
Graham-Cunning reports on his blog that in under two weeks the Analytical Engine PledgeBank has received over 2,700 signatories with pledges of up to $1000. Promises of design and manufacturing support have also been received and the project has the support of the descendants of Charles Babbage.
Fascinating stuff! We wish the project every success. If you would like to contribute, visit the Analytical Engine PledgeBank.
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