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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 Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:16PM (#39837955)

      Yeah, I'm not quite sure where they got that from, unless it's based on popular confusion with the Difference Engine, an earlier design that could not do general-purpose, programmable computation.

      Babbage as a forerunner of modern computing isn't a recent acknowledgement either: many of the digital-computing pioneers explicitly referenced him, and compared their work to his, usually viewing his work favorably and chalking up its failures to practical implementation problems, not severe drawbacks in the design. Here's [] a 1958 article in New Scientist crediting Babbage, which even includes a table comparing the Analytical Engine with EDSAC [].

      The only serious controversy I know of is whether the design could've been built with technology of the time, not whether the design itself was sound. See e.g. this 1998 journal article [], particularly p. 34 (6th page of the PDF), which concludes that it could probably have been built, though it would've been quite expensive and required the top machining abilities of the day.

      • by mikejuk (1801200) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:23PM (#39837999)
        The non-expert thinks that mechanical computer = calculating machine
      • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:32PM (#39838045)
        A lot happened in the first part of the Victorian era in the UK - I am referencing the UK because (a) that's where Babbage was and (b) I know a little of the history. This was a period when blacksmith engineering was rapidly giving way to scientific engineering. In essence, just as now with silicon, engineering techniques were developing fast as a response to new requirements for precision and metallurgy. So "the technology of the time" would itself have been different if the Government of the day had grasped just what it had, and made a real push for it. I would go out on a limb and suggest that if Prince Albert hadn't died when he did, the Analytical Engine would probably have been built. He was a major proponent of technical development and ruffled a lot of Establishment (classically educated) figures, but his Great Exhibition was a huge success. He died in 1861, in his early 40s. Babbage in 1871.
        • by MightyMartian (840721) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:45PM (#39838461) Journal

          I think that if the British Navy had had half a clue as to what Babbage's work could produce for them, it would have thrown what was then the most substantial military resources in the world at it, and the computing revolution would have happened in Victorian Britain.

      • Now that would be seriously steampunk
      • by nurb432 (527695)

        Yeah, I'm not quite sure where they got that from, unless it's based on popular confusion with the Difference Engine, an earlier design that could not do general-purpose, programmable computation.

        Right, few people know he designed 2 separate machines.

    • by Myopic (18616) *

      They also wrote this:

      "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."

      Um, no. "Dreaming up" a thing is not tantamount to "inventing" the thing. "Inventing" implies, to me at least, actually building the thing.

  • Interesting (Score:4, Funny)

    by heptapod (243146) <> on Sunday April 29, 2012 @12:24PM (#39838001) Journal

    But now we can build computers within computer programs with redstone. Babbage never had redstone.

    • by Canazza (1428553)

      I get the feeling that if the AE is ever built in minecraft, it'll run slower than it's real-life counterpart.

      Redstone is *not* fast.

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      we've been able to build computers within computers for decades. And, are you implying the Analytical Engine could not virtualize itself if one built with big enough "store"? seems to be a matter of just working within a given offset within the store for each virtual AE for each instruction/data stream for of the three card readers.
  • by gfody (514448)
    Konrad Zuse designed and built the first mechanical computer [] in 1941. It's his own design using binary.
    • not the first mechanical computer by millenia, but rather the first turing-complete programmable automatic mechanical computer. big difference.
    • The Z3 was an electromechanical computer, i.e. it used relays. This avoided a big problem with mechanical computers: power transfer. The crank on a Babbage computer potentially had to drive all of the components in the mill, which would place high loads on the gears.

  • 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 Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:16PM (#39838293) Homepage Journal

    Can you really say someone "invented" something if they never actually managed to build it? I have tremendous respect for the work Babbage and Lovelace did, but honestly, I'm not sure they invented the computer any more than da Vinci invented the airplane.

  • by caffeinated_bunsen (179721) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:33PM (#39838383)
    John Graham-Cumming is the leading light behind a project...

    Leading lights generally work better in front of things. I think your metaphorator might be a bit misaligned...

    Yep. Looks like you've got some sinusoidal co-pleneration between the literal input shafts. Gonna have to replace your main spurving bearing, maybe the secondary too. A couple of the marzel vanes on your imagery agitator are looking a pretty worn, might want to get those replaced while you're at it.
  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @01:53PM (#39838505) Homepage

    It's a great project, but I don't think it's really happening. The guy behind it is into PR, not cutting metal. "The project hopes to have a working machine before the 2030s."

    There's a simulator for the Analytical Engine. [] It runs in a Java applet, and you can write and run programs. It's not that hard to program. The Analytical Engine is comparable to a low-end programmable calculator, without trig functions.

    The machine itself isn't that complicated; just big. It's big because Babbage specified 1000 memory locations of 50 decimal digits each. So you need 50,000 memory wheels. That's all for data; programs are on cards. The "mill" part of the machine is roughly the complexity of a good mechanical desk calculator.

    That's actually far too much memory for what the thing can do. Nobody seems to know why 50 digits, either. Babbage had figured out shifting, and understood scale factors, so it's not that he wanted to put the decimal point in some fixed place and work in fixed fractional mode.

    If the thing were built with 100 memory locations of 10 digits each (a typical configuration for an 1980s programmable calculator), it would be equally capable, and 1/50th the size. That's enough capacity for navigational tables and astronomy. Built with full memory, it would be the size of a locomotive, and most of the memory would be idle. The extra memory wouldn't make it useful for bookkeeping or business; the I/O isn't there for that.

    I wrote in and asked how many part numbers (different parts) the machine has, which gives a sense of how much manufacturing effort is required. There probably aren't that many; all 50,000 memory wheels will be identical, and most of the "mill" is repeats of a 1 digit mechanical adder. I didn't get an answer.

    Somebody should model the machine in SolidWorks or Autodesk Inventor. (Or upgrade the mechanism support in Minecraft and let that crowd do it.)

  • in 2011 []
    and 2010 []

  • by m1bxd (940711) on Sunday April 29, 2012 @06:12PM (#39839863)

    Thomas Fowler actually built a calculation machine in wood, presented to the Royal Society in 1840!!!! []

    This only fault was not to have the social background that Babbage had...

    I quote from the front page of the site dedicated to him:

    Fowler writes to Airy:

            "I had the honor in May 1840 to submit the machine to the inspection of many Learned Men in London among whom were the Marquis of Northampton, Mr Babbage, W F Baily and A de Morgan Esq with many other Noblemen and Gentlemen, Fellows of the Royal Society etc and it would have been a great satisfaction to me if I could have had the advantage of your opinion also. They all spoke favourably of my invention but my greatest wish was to have had a thorough investigation of the whole principle of the machine and its details, as far as I could explain them, in a way very different from a popular exhibition:- this investigation I hope it will still have by some first rate men of science before it is be laid aside or adopted.
            I am fully aware of tendency to overrate one's own inventions and to attach undue importance to subjects that preoccupy the mind but I venture to say and hope to be fully appreciated by a Gentleman of your scientific achievements, that I am often astonished at the beautiful aspect of a calculation entirely mechanical.
            I often reflect that had the Ternary instead of the binary Notation been adopted in the Infancy of Society, machines something like the present would long ere this have been common, as the transition from mental to mechanical calculation would have been so very obvious and simple.
            I am very sorry I cannot furnish you with any drawings of the Machine, but I hope I shall be able to exhibit it before the British Association at Devonport in August next, where I venture to hope and believe I may again be favoured with your invaluable assistance to bring it into notice. I have led a very retired life in this town without the advantages of any hints or assistance from any one and I should be lost amidst the crowd of learned and distinguished persons assembled at the meeting without some kind friend to take me by the hand and protect me."

    Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, George Airy and many other leading mathematicians of the day witnessed his machine in operation. These names have become beacons in the history of science yet nowhere will you find reference to Thomas Fowler. Airy asked that he produce plans of his machine but Fowler, recalling his experience with the Thermosiphon, refused to publish his design.

    The machine was superior in many respects to Babbage's calculating machine, the Difference Engine, generally regarded as the first digital computer. Fowler's machine anticipated the modern computer in its design by using a ternary calculating method. This is in contrast to Babbage's machine which performed a decimal calculation, an approach which made his machine very complicated. The government of the day became increasingly disillusioned by the money they were having to pour into its development. So much so that the government refused to even look at Fowler's machine. Had Thomas Fowler published his design he would no doubt have won the support of many leading mathematicians of the time. Unfortunately, it took several decades before his approach was re-invented and in the mean time his name had slipped into obscurity.

  • Yikes, it should not take that long with today's manufacturing technology.

  • 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?

  • That's true.

You are in a maze of little twisting passages, all alike.