Babbage's steampunk computer takes step toward reality

The London Science Museum is in the process of digitising the technical writings of Charles Babbage, as part of a project intended to build the Victorian's never-realised Analytical Engine

London's Science Museum has begun work to underpin the creation of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a steam-powered prototype computer first imagined 170 years ago.

Babbage Analytical Mill

The Science Museum is to help digitise the original plans for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. Only part of the machine (above) was completed as a trial model at the time of his death in 1871. Photo credit: Science Museum

On Wednesday, self-confessed "crazed Charles Babbage fan" John Graham-Cumming announced the museum is in the process of digitising Babbage's technical plans and notebooks, as a step towards realising the Victorian mathematician's vision of creating an Analytical Engine. The machine is being researched and built by Plan 28, a charity being set up by Graham-Cumming and Doron Swade, the museum's curator of computing.

The general-purpose computer would have been programmable via punched card, and would have conformed in several ways with the computers that arose in the 20th century.

Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas and a campaigner who elicited a prime-ministerial apology for the discrimination suffered by Alan Turing, wrote in a blog post that the digitisation of Babbage's writings is needed to "perform the vital academic study of the Analytical Engine as Babbage imagined it".

"I am pleased to be able to say that the Science Museum agreed that digitisation was vital and undertook this project," Graham-Cumming wrote. "The work on digitisation started on Monday, September 12 and early in October Doron and I will have access to the digitised versions of Babbage's plans and notebooks for study."

Graham-Cumming said the Science Museum would make the digitisations available to the general public sometime in 2012.

"Today, the Science Museum doesn't have the resources to immediately make them available to the general public," he wrote. "I know there are many readers who would love to access these documents across the web, but the museum needs just a little more time before they can cope with a flood of enquiries."

Pioneering designs

Babbage's technical writings were bequeathed to the museum by his son, Henry Prevost Babbage. The mathematician first described the Analytical Engine in 1837, and refined his ideas until he died in 1871.

The mathematician's son used his father's designs to build the Babbage Analytical Engine Mill, intended to add, subtract, divide and multiply. Charles Babbage's Difference Engine has already been reconstructed, but that device was a calculator and not programmable.

The full Analytical Engine has never been built, and almost a century passed after its conception before someone else made a general-purpose computer.

The device would have included a type of memory, while pegs stuck into rotating barrels would have carried out the instructions that today would be the responsibility of a CPU. Babbage's description of the machine inspired Ada Lovelace to come up with what many see as the world's first computer programming.

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