Building the Analytical Engine

Charles Babbage

Punch cards for the never-completed Babbage Analytical Engine, and Charles Babbage. Image credit: Science Museum Archive/Science & Society Picture Library

Researchers at the Science Museum in London plan to build a computer called the Analytical Engine, which was designed in 1830 by Charles Babbage, “the father of computing,” but never completed.  A recent article in the New York Times explores the challenges they face with this 10-year, multimillion-dollar endeavor (10+07).

In 1991, the Museum replicated Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, “…a calculating machine composed of roughly 8,000 [10+03] mechanical components assembled with a watchmaker’s precision.”  But this project is more difficult. Unlike the Difference Engine No. 2, there isn’t one final blueprint for the Analytical Engine, but rather several blueprints that show Babbage’s evolving ideas.  “It was constantly in a state of flux,” said Tim Robinson, a docent at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Despite the challenges, researches believe building this machine could “…answer a question that has tantalized historians for decades: Did an eccentric mathematician named Charles Babbage conceive of the first programmable computer in the 1830s, a hundred years before the idea was put forth in its modern form by Alan Turing?”

Either way, given the Eameses’ exhibitions, films and photographs dedicated to the study of mathematics and computers (including Babbage, 1968), one can only guess that they would be excited to hear of the Science Museum’s latest project.

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