Could there have been a steam-powered computer age?
UK charity Plan 28 has launched the first stage of its fundraising efforts, hoping the money will help it build Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine – the Victorian mathematician’s unfinished project that could have become the world’s first general purpose computer.
The organisation needs to get £250,000 to complete its research and create a fully functioning 3D model, before it can physically build the computer, which the group hopes to power using steam, as Babbage would have done.
Cogs and levers
Babbage, born in 1791, was a Victorian mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who pioneered the concept of a programmable computer. He was working closely with Ada Lovelace, who is credited with writing the world’s first computer programme, designed for Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Last year, the Science Museum began digitising Babbage’s notes, so that the engineers can easily access them when they start construction. The project is the brainchild of John Graham-Cumming, a vice president of engineering at CRM intelligence software maker Causata.
In July, 2011, the Computer Conservation Society, responsible for providing advice and assistance for many historical computer reconstructions, accepted the Analytical Engine into its project portfolio. The charity aims to raise its initial funding from public subscription, and accepts donations online and via mobile.
The Analytical Engine, likely to be the size of a small locomotive and programmed through punch cards, was first envisioned by Babbage in 1837, about a century before Alan Turing described his Turing machine. A few experimental assemblies were attempted in the 19th century, but no one has ever built a working Engine.
The first two stages of the project will result in a complete 3D simulation of the machine, necessary to determine if the Engine would have worked. They are expected to take two to three years. The project is somewhat similar to the construction of the Difference Engine No.2, an earlier Babbage design, exhibited at the Science Museum since 1991.
“Babbage’s reputation as a designer of astonishing vision was vindicated by building Difference Engine No. 2. But the Difference Engine isn’t a computer, as we would now understand it. The Analytical Engine is. And it is the first design to embody just about every logical principle of the modern digital computer, but using cogs and levers. We can’t wait to see if it works,” explained Dr Doron Swade, Plan 28’s technical director and the man who led the team that constructed the Difference Engine.
“The machine is historically important and building it will provide a fascinating insight into the capabilities of Victorian engineering and the very earliest ideas on computing by machine. I do not see how the scale and pioneering ingenuity of this machine can fail to inspire today’s young engineers,” said Graham-Cumming.
And indeed, Babbage’s ideas are still able to inspire. In 2010, researchers at the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio created an electromechanical switch based on the mathematician’s designs, which could operate at extremely high temperatures. It is thought that this development could help build virtually indestructible computers that will work in space, or deep below the surface of the earth.
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