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Work Underway To Finally Build Babbage's Analytical Engine 86

Posted by timothy
from the steve-jobs-of-cabbage-computer dept.
mikejuk writes "Last year John Graham-Cumming launched a project to create a fully-functional implementation of Babbage's original design for a computer — the Analytical Engine. Now it looks as if the project is going ahead. The first phase is to digitize all of Babbage's papers and designs. These will be available to the general public in 2012. The machine to be built is no simple calculator: it is a full computer with a store for between 100 and 1000 values, each of 40 digits, and it was programmed using punched cards in a modern 'operator/address' format. There was even a plan to send the output to a printer. When this device is built it will make it clear that the computer age nearly began in the 18th century."
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Work Underway To Finally Build Babbage's Analytical Engine

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  • Moore's law (Score:1, Interesting)

    by kayumi (763841)

    And then there are still people claiming Moore's law is dead

    • And then there are still people claiming Moore's law is dead

      Moore's Law: "I don't want to go on the cart."

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @10:42AM (#37501678) Homepage
    The entire design for the anaytical engine was extremely impressive. The main thing to realize is that the Analytical Engine was Turing Complete http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_completeness [wikipedia.org]. This means essentially that given enough time and memory it could emulate any program you want to. There's an idea called the Church-Turing thesis which says roughly that the set of things which a Turing machine can do are precisely the things which humans can algorithmically simulate. To appreciate how highly this speaks of the actual design of the Engine one should realize that many early computers like the Harvard Mark I were not Turing complete (although all the early Zuse machines were.)
    • Another article read up (on being Turing complete) that makes me appreciate just how much Turing has contributed to information theory.

      In the modern age, Turing is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated bad assed geniuses around. I sorely and sincerely wish that his being homosexual didn't lead to his demise, mankind would be sooooo much better off had he lived a full life!

  • 19th Century? (Score:4, Informative)

    by bennett000 (2028460) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @10:43AM (#37501694) Journal
    The 1800s are the 19th century, how did this not get edited?
    • by mikejuk (1801200)
      Sorry my fault - I latched onto Babbage's birth date and wrote 18th century for 1791. The article does say 1880s and that is indeed the 19th century. Will try harder in future even if I have only just got used to the idea that it is the 21st century.... :-)
      • Wow, you really have trouble with 19th century dates.

        If he was born in 1791 and the work was done in the 1880s, he was an old man with a lot of stamina. I did not see 1880 anywhere in the article, but there are many other sources which put the plans for the Analytical Engine in 1837, a much more reasonable date for someone born in 1791.
        • by mikejuk (1801200)
          And your point is? I agreed I made a mistake - gave the reason for it and you are telling me again I was wrong...
    • by newcastlejon (1483695) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @01:52PM (#37503020)

      The 1800s are the 19th century, how did this not get edited?

      The same reason stuff like this [slashdot.org] gets posted.

      I didn't care before, but I'm starting to dislike this timothy fellow now.

    • by Twinbee (767046)

      I could of cared less. Can I has Cheezburger now?

  • Watch out (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It will probably turn out that apple or someone have a patent on a part of it and get it banned...

    • It will probably turn out that apple or someone have a patent on a part of it and get it banned...

      Yeah, the worst case scenario is that, despite the obvious prior art, these guys can't afford to fight the patent in court.

      • by mikejuk (1801200)
        It should provide good hard evidence of prior art.... Now if only they could find an brass iPhone design in his papers.
      • I think the worst case would be that Babbage had no patent, and some company from the 20th century was "first to file" and actually gets to win the case.
  • by wisebabo (638845) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @10:58AM (#37501768) Journal

    Ok, I know that the original design required making it out of brass and steel and whatnot making it big and expensive. But if I had one of those new (cheap) 3D printers, could I make a (smaller?) scale version out of whatever plastics or resins those printers use? Or are the tolerances too demanding? Would the job be made a lot easier if I "cheated" by using electric motors judiciously placed instead of the (possibly) steam powered original?

    Now THAT would be one heck of a weekend project!

    (Failing that, I heard they were going to make a computer simulation of it first to "test" it. It would be great if they could use some commonly used engineering program like Pro-E or Solid Works and build the model in that. Then we could all play with it!*)

    *assuming you have a license for one of these programs lying around.

    P.S. Then again I guess a mathematical translation of the Analytical Engine to a Turing Machine would also be sufficient.

    P.P.S. I guess some day some nano-technologist will make this thing out with each individual component being just a few ATOMS.

    • by tverbeek (457094)

      I think you misunderstand the use of "engine" in this device's name. It is not "powered" by anything; it is more like a slide-rule or abacus in principle, and operated by a simple hand crank.

      • Actually no-it was not, The analytical engine was to be powered by a steam engine.
        • by mikejuk (1801200)
          Yes I heard that it was to be run using a steam engine and the question was could it over come the friction in all of the parts to make it work. Still it would have been good to have been able to shout "more coal we are just getting the the heavy compuation" It would also give the term "crash" an even more physical interpretation. Being serious for a moment it really is an open question whether or not you can implement an computer using macro mechanical parts i.e the technology of the 19th century. What you
          • Just as making a slide rule larger makes it easier to read and more accurate so making the engine as large as practically possible makes the degree of milling needed less, making the machine possible. I've actually often pondered the AE and I believe if Babbage thought it was possible then, depending on the degree of accuracy and the number of decimal places you were willing to live with the AE is possible. Think about this: had Babbage the time and the resources needed to complete the AE I suspect the digi
            • When asked if, "when the wrong figures are put inn would the right answers come out?" he should have just said yes...

            • by Teancum (67324)

              As an alternate timeline concept, I've wondered at times how awful World War I would have been had the Analytical Engine (or its successor more likely) been in use at the time. Certainly the artillery tables would have been much more accurate and possibly some "computers" running the gun sights for even more deadly accuracy.... especially on the bigger guns. Keep in mind that one of the first tasks for ENIAC was to calculate trigonometry tables for the U.S. Army. Logarithm tables would also be incredibly

          • by ScentCone (795499)

            the steam engine still might not be able to turn the shaft and cycle the machine though its various states

            They could build steam engines big enough to push icebreaking freighters through feet of ice, or to pull multi-ton harvestors through nearly frozen clay. I don't think that lack of torque would be the issue, if you wanted to park a typical steam locomotive engine next to the apparatus. The question would be whether or not the various shafts and gears would sheer, twist, snap etc once all of that torque bumped into all of that friction.

        • Yes, it was to have been steam powered as the number of levels of gear displacement and torque redirection would have made hand cranking it impossible without an assembly of assisting displacer cams as large as the AE itself. I don't think a 3D printer would be able to make parts for this unless one of the resins it can deal with is some kind of stronger that steel carbon-fiber stuff.
    • by Yetihehe (971185)

      (Failing that, I heard they were going to make a computer simulation of it first to "test" it. It would be great if they could use some commonly used engineering program like Pro-E or Solid Works and build the model in that. Then we could all play with it!*)

      Probbly someone will do it in minecraft...

    • Ok, I know that the original design required making it out of brass and steel and whatnot making it big and expensive. But if I had one of those new (cheap) 3D printers, could I make a (smaller?) scale version out of whatever plastics or resins those printers use? Or are the tolerances too demanding?

      If you used resin RP machines I'd expect you'd have trouble with the tolerances even with a full-scale replica. Make it smaller and the problem just gets worse.

      Would the job be made a lot easier if I "cheated" by using electric motors judiciously placed instead of the (possibly) steam powered original?

      No, the prime mover you use isn't all that important. Babbage chose steam because there weren't any suitable electric motors back then

      Now THAT would be one heck of a weekend project!

      Even with RP it'd take a lot longer than a weekend!

      (Failing that, I heard they were going to make a computer simulation of it first to "test" it. It would be great if they could use some commonly used engineering program like Pro-E or Solid Works and build the model in that. Then we could all play with it!*)

      SW wouldn't do because it's primarily for static simulations. You could use SW motion but physically simulating each part is overkill; it'd be quicker to create a besp

    • by jythie (914043)
      Actually, yes, you probably could, but it would be huge. People have built pieces of the engine with things like legos, but the whole machine is pretty large and complicated.
    • If the tolerances don't get you, the required material strength will. One of the reasons the Analytical Engine didn't get built was that the alloys available then weren't strong enough to transmit the force needed to drive the complex geartrains.

      • It seems I spoke too soon. The Difference Engine build by the Science Museum showed that that was possible to build using the alloys available in Babbage's time. Still, I suspect that printed parts aren't as strong as parts that are milled from solid castings.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Once the designs are digitized, how long before someone implements it in Minecraft?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, ISBN 0-553-29461-X, provides an interesting work of alternate history Steampunk fiction that could have evolved if Babbage had completed his Analytical Engine.

  • The London Science Museum built a working Difference Engine [wikipedia.org] in 1991.
  • Follow the "project is going ahead" and then the "Further reading: What if Babbage...?" article. Early on they say, "Suppose the IBM PC had used a Motorola chip?"

    I used to work with an engineer who, earlier, was at Motorola on the 6809 project. One day some suits came in to talk to his boss asking whether Motorola could adapt the 6809 processor to 16-bits. The ultimate response after checking with an engineer or two was: "no". Those suits were from IBM...

    The 68000 must not have been out yet? Perhaps

    • by Osgeld (1900440)

      since the pc was on the market in 81 I would say yes it was a bit late

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      The 68EC000 was a hybrid 8/16 bit design, while the 68000 was 16 bit bus and instructions but 32 bit registers.
  • Konrad Zuse's work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by White Flame (1074973) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @12:44PM (#37502490)

    I'd love to see the designs for Zuse's work [wikipedia.org] digitized as well, even though his real work did get reconstructed. The man independently (re?)invented binary floating point, made the first real programmable computer, all apparently without study or knowledge of Boole or Babbage, simply because he was a civil engineer sick of doing math by hand. That's just awesome and needs to be commemorated.

  • Excellent video of his "Difference Engine" working http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlbQsKpq3Ak [youtube.com]. Seeing the Analytical Engine working also would be amazing. It's mentioned here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlbQsKpq3Ak&feature=player_detailpage#t=471s [youtube.com] in the video.
  • While the cool factor to see it in a room humming away is way off the scale, this is 2011, we don't really need to build it in the physical world just to *prove* something works.

    Just model it in a proper 3D CAD and emulate it.. It also would let one iron out the kinks before you send the prints to get the parts machined.

    • by mikejuk (1801200)
      You would need a physical simulation - i.e.something that does real material, friction, gravity etc. - to be certain that the thing would actually work. This is a lot of gears, levers and connecting rods and it isn't obvious that it could be made to work.
      • by Animats (122034)

        You would need a physical simulation - i.e.something that does real material, friction, gravity etc. - to be certain that the thing would actually work.

        Modern CAD environments like Autodesk Inventor and Pro Engineer support that. Generally, you'd model subassemblies with the physical simulator (with friction, torque, stress analysis) to make sure they'd work, then switch debugged subassemblies to kinematic mode, where gears work in an idealized way and big systems can be simulated.

      • by nurb432 (527695)

        That is why i added the qualifier 'proper'. Most good CAD systems these days can do that.

    • I'd like to have a scaled down model that could fit in my room. After pouring a glass of water into it, I could probably entertain myself for hours, feeding it punch cards and watching it go.
    • My preference would be a simplified simulation, that assumed perfectly solid components, eliminated gravity/friction as variables, "merely" counted the gear steps, and tracked lever/axle angles. Sounds like a reasonable MATLAB/Octave laptop implementation to me, although a visualization of the movements might be a bit over the top without distributing the job over a few (silicon) CPUs.

  • by Greyfox (87712)
    I guess they'll have to dig up Zombie Ada Lovelace to program it...
  • These will be obsolete the moment it's released.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday September 24, 2011 @02:25PM (#37503258) Homepage

    From the article:

    "In the first instance the digitized documentation will be restricted to John Graham-Cumming and Doron Swade for the purposes of Plan 28 and in 2012 will be made available for research purposes and hopefully will have full public availability in due course."

    That's a bit much for century-old documents. Fortunately, Plan 25 is open source and on line [fourmilab.ch], along with a simulator in Java.

    • by blanchae (965013)
      I found the statement that they are going to delay public availability to be a bit strange. What are they afraid of? Someone is going to beat them to the punch and create a working machine before them?
  • Jolly good to hear this project can be actually done but in 1985, The Science Museum in London built his Analytical Engine No. 2. It weighs 2.6 tons and has 4,000 moving parts http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/onlinestuff/stories/babbage.aspx [sciencemuseum.org.uk] Take your kids to see it when you are on holiday in London and tell them to leave their laptops at home....

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