Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's time to build the Analytical Engine

Normal people have a small part of their brain that acts as a sort of automatic limiter. They get some crazy idea like writing a book or campaigning for a government apology or calculating the number of legal track layouts for a cheap train set and their limiter goes: "Don't be ridiculous" and they go back to normal life.

Unfortunately, I was born with that piece missing.

So, it's not without trepidation that I say that it's time Britain built the Analytical Engine. After the wonderful reconstruction of the Difference Engine we need to finish Babbage's dream of a steam-powered, general-purpose computer.

The Analytical Engine has all the hallmarks of a modern computer: it has a program (on punched cards), a CPU (called the 'mill') for doing calculations and it has memory. Of course, it's not electric, it's powered by steam. But the principles that underlie the Analytical Engine are the same that underlie the computer I'm writing this on.

From Flickr user csixty4

What a marvel it would be to stand before this giant metal machine, powered by a steam engine, and running programs fed to it on a reel of punched cards. And what a great educational resource so that people can understand how computers work. One could even imagine holding competitions for people (including school children) to write programs to run on the engine. And it would be a way to celebrate both Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. How fantastic to be able to execute Lovelace's code!

From Flickr user gastev

Of course, Babbage and his family only ever made parts of the engine (see the picture above). But that shouldn't stop us from constructing it now. All that's needed is money. I'd imagine there are plenty of people who'd want to work on the project.

Unfortunately, I think it would cost a lot of money. The construction of a second Difference Engine for Nathan Myhrvold is said to have cost $1m and that was after all the hard work of figuring out how to make it was completed. It also took years.

But that shouldn't hold us back.

If sufficient money could be raised I'd jump at the chance to run this project as a charity that would donate the completed machine to either London's Science Museum or the National Museum of Computing. Clearly, I can't do this in my free time (and nor could others) so sufficient money would need to be raised to pay a reasonable salary to those involved. And I'd imagine that the materials cost would be very large as well.

Am I mad? Would you donate to make the Analytical Engine an oily, steamy, brass and iron reality? Can we live up to Lovelace's words when she wrote: "We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves. "

PS A commenter asked about pledging money to the project. I'm not quite ready to start accepting cash! :-) But people can pledge by either sending me an email or simply writing a comment here. That'll give me an idea of interest in doing this.

PPS UPDATE. Please visit Plan 28 for more on this topic.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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