Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?

It's Time To Build the Analytical Engine 127

macslocum writes "John Graham-Cumming is launching a project to finish Charles Babbage's dream and build an Analytical Engine for public display. The goal: inspire future generations of scientists to work on their own 100-year leaps."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

It's Time To Build the Analytical Engine

Comments Filter:
  • by joe2tiger ( 1883232 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:04PM (#33797986)
    Question: If we had such a computer, or artificial intelligence. Would we be aware of it’s existence? I am leading to the idea that our military intelligence would likely have AI and suppress any knowledge of it until it is leaked or we are ready. I like to think that we have the tech now for cars to drive themselves but our society isn’t ready for a leap, so we are getting slow introductions to it – i.e. Microsoft Sync that is only available to those who want to buy a new Ford
  • Doron Swade who wrote "The Difference Engine" (the non-fiction book, not the steampunk fiction by Gibson and Sterling) can tell you this:
    It's not possible to create The Analytical Engine. Why? Because Babbage never stopped creating the designs. There is no one clean, complete set of designs for the Analytical Engine.

    If someone were to build it, they would first have to pick and choose from among Babbage's numerous sketches, then fill in any of the missing bits. It's not a true, 100% authentic, Babbage design, unlike the simpler Difference Engine, which had a clean set of engineering drawings for its creation.

  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:40PM (#33798502)

    Whose designs did he build on?

    No ones. There will be ten posts listing jacquard looms, none of which do arithmetic or control flow beyond making a big ole loop.

    There will be a couple posts about theoretical ideas that were eventually implemented in IBMs unit record punch card data processing gear. It only took half a century to implement his ideas in that regard.

  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:57PM (#33798744)

    And it lends further credence to the fact that in order to have your genius recognized and have your ideas propagate, you need to know how to interact with people. Tesla is another example. Brilliance means nothing if no one understands you and no one wants to understand you.

  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @04:21PM (#33799074)
    That's been pretty well established. Being brilliant is one thing, but it's extremely rare for an individual to get anything meaningful accomplished alone. At a bare minimum the process of procuring the resources to put it into place is nigh impossible. Let alone cases where you need others to help test the hypothesis.
  • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @04:35PM (#33799324) Homepage Journal

    Yes just the requirement for simulating it and debugging it says to me that Babbage didn't finish his machine. It smacks of when Bell and Curtis "debugged" Langley's aerodrome to show that he really "invented" the airplane first.
    As it is Babbage is known as the father of Computers which he does deserve. Just the fact that he dreamed up this massive machine when he did shows what a great mind he had.
    Now building one is a great idea. Shouldn't be too hard to simulate with modern cad and then use rapid prototyping to make the parts.

  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @04:37PM (#33799348)

    What I sometimes wonder in hindsight, is could Babbage's machines have been built with the technologies of the time using different techniques that would have been more easy to achieve. He was always pushing the envelope of machining technology with axles and gears, partly in an effort to gain speed. (For example, in the difference engine the gear system had a very complex look-ahead carry feature to make it much faster.) The machines required very tight tolerances and a good deal of force to operate.

    Gears work mostly on compressive forces. If instead he had built a machine based mostly on tension, like pulling strings wrapped around wheels and cogs, would the machines have been more practical to build? The machines might have been one or two orders of magnitude slower. However, the problems he was after, like computing logarithm tables, are highly parallelizable. Instead of trying to create one super machine (and never succeeding), would he have been better off with making a bunch of much slower, easier to build machines?

  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @04:55PM (#33799660)

    "It's just you"</polite_sarcasm>

    The 'little guy inventor' ignored by the establishment and 'ahead of his time' is perhaps the strongest cliche in popular-science writing.

    Particularly in Popular Science. Here -- enjoy the archives. [] I grew up with a molding pile of these extending back to the 30s. I doubt you can find any issue without this trope, and likely more than 3 times in each.

    While I can understand where it comes from and why it's popular (every engineer has a PHB), the trouble is it encourages glossing over real problems and gives crackpots far too much traction.

    The problem being glossed over here, pointed out below [], is we cannot build a defensibly accurate Analytical Engine. This problem was thoroughly examined by no less than Doron Swade who built the Difference Engine.

    I heartily recommend reading his book. Also there's two or three similar hour-long lectures online to whet your appetite. I recommend the one given to Google engineers. Doron's just great. It's a real missed opportunity that BBC didn't have him do a TV series on the history and the project.

  • by Ga_101 ( 755815 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @05:41PM (#33800320)
    There is a great difference between somebody who had a great idea, but was overlooked and somebody who blew it.

    Babbage was the latter.

    When he showed people a small prototype of his difference engine, they knew exactly what kind of potential it had. The TFA even said that the government backed him. I'll stop the press and let that sink in. The British government knew at the time just what a game changer this could have been. What TFA article doesn't say is the extent to which they backed him. In the prices of the day, they invested the equivalent of a fully kitted out and manned battleship in the project. A battleship. What happened?

    Babbage squandered the money, fell out with every metal-smith in the country capable of building the difference engine and committed the ultimate crime of changing his mind and plans time and time and time again. Sure, he had a lot of plans for the Analytical engine, but he couldn't stay focused/act civilly enough to build the machine everybody wanted to begin with. After such an investment and nothing to show for it, nobody would give him the time of day, let alone commission him to build an even more complex machine with an unfinished design.

    It could be said, rather than a man who had a great idea that wasn't realised. Babbage had a great idea that he killed so badly via his own incompetence, nobody touched it for another 100 years.
  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by edremy ( 36408 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @08:23PM (#33802146) Journal
    Of course, you could use the Jacquard loom to print out Life patterns, then scan those back in and create a new set of Jacquard cards based on the next iteration of the pattern. With enough cells you could create a general purpose computer using glider guns for logic. Might be a bit slow though.

I was playing poker the other night... with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 4 people died. -- Steven Wright