Building the world’s first computer

2010 seems like an odd year to begin building the world’s first computer. However, an international campaign to see the production of a fully programmable computing machine designed in 1837 is steadily gaining momentum.

Programmer and science blogger John Graham-Cumming is planning on constructing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine: a steam powered, truck-sized, number cruncher.

Bearing extraordinary resemblance to the way modern computers operate, Babbage’s design included a central processing unit, called “the mill” and an expandable memory – “the store” – equivalent to 20kB in a modern hard drive. It would have been programable by inserting a series of punch cards which would be read and stored, and then it would output its solutions through a printer or curve plotter.

This long and tortuous process would no doubt leave Steve Jobs sweating in his turtleneck, but to realise Babbage’s designs would still be a feat of engineering by any standards.

And don’t expect to walk into PC World and trade in your MacBook for one any time soon. Graham-Cumming has estimated that building a brass and iron machine of this size and complexity will cost around £400,000. He launched an online pledge drive earlier this month and has since compiled a list of 2,700 signatories, many of which willing to fund up to three or four figure sums for the project.

Babbage designed his Analytical Engine as a tool to replace “computers”, arithmeticians employed to calculate mathematical tables and astronomical charts by pen and paper. At a time when such information was vital for navigation, Babbage could see the impact that such a machine would have in shortening production time as well as minimising human error.

Not everyone shared his vision, though. After a life spent battling the government for funding, Babbage never lived to see the construction of his Analytical Engine and it was only in the later half of the 20th century that his contribution to information technology was appreciated.

Babbage’s plight is one that is faced by many science departments in today’s cutback culture. Speaking about his plans to breathe life into Babbage’s dream, Graham-Cumming told the Independent “[This project] is especially important when the Government is thinking hard about how it funds scientific research.”

Some have have gone as far as suggesting that had such Analytical Engines been built, it could have pushed the Victorians into an information age, a century ahead of schedule.

Although this might be a speculative exaggeration, Babbage’s sketches and designs, currently held at the Science Museum in London, have much more profound implications for our society and the power of inspiration. As Graham-Cumming said in an article on the O’Reilly Radar:

“It might seem a folly to want to build a gigantic, relatively puny computer at great expense 170 years after its invention. But the message of a completed Analytical Engine is very clear: it’s possible to be 100 years ahead of your own time.”

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