1837 steam powered computer could finally enter production

When a man says he wants half a million dollars to build a steam powered computer, it’s not exactly the most conventional of funding pitches.

When that same man says he wants to build the world’s first digital, programmable computer, the pitch begins to look stranger.

But for John Graham-Cumming, the author of science history travel guide The Geek Atlas, the pitch makes perfect sense. That’s because he’s trying to take an 1837 design by Charles Babbage and make it a reality.

Babbage, sometimes called the father of computing, came up with two main ideas for computers. The first, a difference engine, was effectively a particularly powerful calculator that performed dedicated functions.

The second, the analytical engine, was designed to be programmable through punchcards, meaning the computing power could be used for any purpose. There were three types of cards covering arithmetical operations, numerical constants and load & store (ie mechanical) operations: between them, the three types effectively made a complete programming language.

Unfortunately for Babbage, he was unable to get public funding for the machine and he never made a working model. (That makes the current appeal’s timing particularly ironic given reports that the British government plans to cut university research by around US$1.5 billion from next week.) While the Science Museum in London later built the differential engine, to date only a section of the analytical model (pictured above) has ever been created.

To show how ahead of his time Babbage was, it wasn’t until the 1940s that computers matching the characteristics of the analytical engine were first manufactured.

Now Graham-Cumming — the man who organized last year’s campaign for an official government apology for its treatment of Alan Turing — has vowed to start a non-profit organization dedicated to building the analytical engine if he can get 50,000 people to pledge to donate a small fee (US$10, £10 or 10 euros) to fund the work.

If and when the machine is built, it will be donated to a public museum in Britain.

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