Steam-powered computer gets digital boost

A year ago we reported on a plan to build the world’s first computer (which isn’t quite as odd as it sounds.) Now that plan has taken a step forward.

The computer in question is Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, which he designed in 1837 but was unable to manufacture thanks to a lack of funding.

Babbage in fact designed two mechanical computers, the first of which was the difference engine. This was effectively a (comparatively) powerful calculator. In the late 20th century the Science Museum in London built a working model based on the design.

The analytical engine, however, was programmable using punchcards meaning that, although it was powered by steam, the device was arguably the first design of what we now know as a computer. It wasn’t until more than a century later that real models meeting the same criteria were produced. Had Babbage’s design become reality, it would have had the equivalent of 675 bytes memory and run at 7Hz. (That’s bytes and hertz, with no megas or kilos in sight!) A section of the machine has been reproduced (pictured) but never the entire device.

Last October, science writer John Graham-Cumming began a campaign to fund the manufacture of a full-size working model from Babbage’s original design. Although attempts to sign up 10,000 donors fell short (3,996 came on board), Graham-Cumming is continuing with the project and hopes to set up a charity to administer the funding.

In the meantime, he has partnered with the Computer Conservation Society to get advice on running the project. He’s also persuaded the Science Museum to assist with the first step towards making the machine: the museum has begun digitizing Babbage’s original notebooks.

The digital files will serve two initial purposes. Firstly they’ll allow researchers to examine the variety of plans and sketches that Babbage made so that they can figure out exactly what his “true” design was. Secondly, they’ll allow the project to produce a computer simulation of the analytical engine.

For now Graham-Cumming is getting access to the digital files as and when they are produced. However, the plan is for the museum to make the entire collection publicly available online in 2012. Graham-Cumming acknowledges the beautiful irony by which ” Notebooks, letters, and plans that have been carefully preserved by the museum will see the light of day using technology that Babbage caught just a glimpse of when thinking up the Analytical Engine.”