Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Plan 28: Analytical Engine project gets underway

Exactly one year ago today on this blog I proposed that Charles Babbage's unbuilt Analytical Engine (the first real computer) should be built and be built in Britain. Over the last year I have been working with Doron Swade (who was responsible for the construction of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2) to put in place a project to actually build the Analytical Engine. The project is known as Plan 28.

This has required building relationships with a number of bodies. I recently announced that the project had been accepted into the portfolio of projects handled by the Computer Conservation Society. They will provide expert advice as needed.

The other vital body to work with is The Science Museum in London. Doron and I have been working with The Science Museum team at many levels to ensure that the project is known about and that we would be able to get access to Babbage's plans and notebooks to perform the vital academic study of the Analytical Engine as Babbage imagined it. The first step to doing that research was to digitize the entire Babbage archive. Digitization greatly facilitates research as these precious documents can be viewed conveniently from around the world.

I am pleased to be able to say that The Science Museum agreed that digitization was vital and undertook this project. The work on digitization started on Monday, September 12 and early in October Doron and I will have access to the digitized versions of Babbage's plans and notebooks for study. This great first step on Plan 28 is, finally, underway. We are very, very grateful to The Science Museum and all we have worked with there for their support and for having undertaken this vital work that will benefit not only Plan 28 but all those who wish to study Charles Babbage's work wherever they are.

In the initial stages, The Science Museum is making the digitizations available directly to Doron and me for study. Subsequently, in 2012, they will be made available publicly for research purposes and they will make their own announcement of full public availability. Today, The Science Museum doesn't have the resources to immediately make them available to the general public; 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. Babbage's writings have waited over a century, just a little more patience is needed before they are generally available. Babbage's technical archive was bequeathed to his son, Henry Prevost, who donated it to The Science Museum. It is a tribute to generations of Science Museum archivists and curators that the archive is intact, listed and physically accessible.

It's hard for me to express what it means for Plan 28 and for the world at large that the museum has taken this step and is digitizing the Babbage archive. Notebooks, letters, and plans that have been carefully preserved by the museum will see the light of day using technology that Babbage caught just a glimpse of when thinking up the Analytical Engine.

I will post another update shortly on progress in registering "Plan 28" as a charity in the UK and let people know when they will be able to make donations.

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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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