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The Greatest Machine Never Built 132

Posted by samzenpus
from the oldest-school dept.
mikejuk writes "John Graham-Cumming is the leading light behind a project to actually build the analytical engine dreamed of by Charles Babbage. There is a tendency to think that everything that Babbage thought up was little more than a calculating machine, but as the video makes 100% clear the analytical engine was a real computer that could run programs. From the article: 'Of course Ada Lovelace was the first programmer, but more importantly her work with Babbage took the analytical engine from the realms of mathematical table construction into the wider world of non-mathematical programming. Her notes indicate that had the machine been built there is no question that it would have been exploited just as we use silicon-based machines today. To see the machine built and running programs would be the final proof that Babbage really did invent the general purpose computer in the age of the steam engine.'"

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The Greatest Machine Never Built

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:06PM (#39837905)

    There is a tendency to think that everything that Babbage thought up was little more than a calculating machine

    By whom? I have never heard the analytical engine described in terms like that.

  • by mikejuk (1801200) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:23PM (#39837999)
    The non-expert thinks that mechanical computer = calculating machine
  • Re:Move on now. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:25PM (#39838009) Journal

    It was one machine... many others like it were being built. This one caught traction because the media/historic writing was on it's side.

    What? Who else was designing a turing complete computer in the 1830s? I haven't heard of them.

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:10PM (#39838239)
    Charles Babbage is the ultimate example of "The perfect is the enemy of the good." He was so caught up in what he could do better with the Analytical Engine that he did not fill the orders for the Difference Engine. If he had set some people up making Difference Engines rather than spending the money he was given to build a Difference Engine to design the Analytical Engine, he might have been able to get a steady enough flow of money to fund building and designing variations on the Analytical Engine. The question of course is, if he had done that, would he have lived long enough to get any work done on the Analytical Engine at all?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:23PM (#39838321)

    I am quoting from memory here, from Terence Kealey's two books, out of which "The economic laws of scientific research" is the best.
    Charles Babbage talked the British government into investing in the differential machine. He didn't complete it and the money was wasted. A couple of Swedes actually built the machine, but didn't sell many. You see, once you have calculated logarithmic tables and the like once, you can just print more of them.
    The positive result was that the government of the UK did not spend a penny on higher education until after the first world war. I write positive, since the empirical evidence shows that since higher civilian education was all private, it was as a consequence the best in the world. Britain was also the richest country in the world, which helped, but for every dollar government spends on higher education, the private sector spends about 1.25 less. This was true then, and according to the OECD (but hidden away in their reports), it is true now.

    Darwin was a self-financed hobby researcher. He did not apply for grants, he did not have PhD students and he did not have to follow politically fashionable theories of the day.

    All British universities had huge private endowments. Unfortunately, they invested in government bonds and at the end of WWI, these had been reduced to only 25% of their value. The intended students had also been shot to pieces in the trenches. So in 1920, British universities were bankrupt, because of the government, and became state run.

  • by Yvanhoe (564877) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @02:11PM (#39838595) Journal
    Da Vinci's airplanes were built, and they didn't fly. Babbage computers were built, and they worked.
  • by _Shad0w_ (127912) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @02:34PM (#39838703)

    The Royal Navy frequently has a clue, the MOD and government in general, does not.

  • by swb (14022) on Monday April 30, 2012 @01:56PM (#39847693)

    Assuming the best of all possible worlds, the Analytical Engine is built and it works, what aspects of life would have been advanced by it? Whenever I hear about it, people talk about it as if it would have turned Victorian London into a Steampunk Silicon Valley and enabled great advances.

    Would running programs on the difference engine have been sophisticated enough or capable of enough complexity to solve significant engineering problems that were too difficult or time consuming to solve with the by-hand mathematics of the era?

    Was the system scalable enough that you could have built a bigger one capable of handing more useful/larger computations? Or shrinkable enough to make portable to use on ships or in remote locations, yet still calculate useful things?

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