Geek Seeks to Bring Babbage’s Analytical Engine to Life

Computer programmer and author John Graham-Cumming is trying to raise at least Pounds 500,000 (US$800,000) to build a working version of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Analytical Engine by Babbage

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London).

He is seeking donations of as little as $10 from about 50,000 people worldwide for the project.

The Analytical Engine, first described by English mathematician Charles Babbage in 1837, was never completed because it was so complex and expensive.

Who’s That Cumming?

Cumming is vice president of engineering at Causata. He also founded Electric Cloud.

In addition, Cumming owns Extravalent, is a member of the Virus Bulletin advisory board, and is the author of The Geek Atlas. His open source POPFile program won a Jolt productivity award in 2004.

In 2009, Cumming launched a petition that compelled the British government to issue a posthumous apology for chemically castrating mathematician and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing for being gay. Turing is considered by many to be the father of modern computer science.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine

In 1837, Babbage published a paper describing a mechanical computer. That device is now known as the Analytical Engine. It was to be made of brass and iron.

Data was entered into the machine using punched cards, very much like the early numerically controlled machines of the 1940s and 1950s. There were three different types of punch cards, one for arithmetical operations, one for numerical constants, and one for load and store operations.

For output, the Analytical Engine would have a printer, a curve plotter and a bell. It would also be able to punch numbers onto cards that would be used for input later. It used base 10 fixed-point arithmetic, unlike the base 2 used in modern computers.

The Analytical Engine would have a memory that could hold 100 numbers with 40 decimal digits each, the equivalent of 1.7 KB. An arithmetical unit known as the “mill” would perform all four arithmetic operations — addition, subtraction, multiplication and division — as well as comparisons and, optionally, square roots.

The mill would have its own microcode consisting of pegs inserted into rotating drums called “barrels.” Think of this as the mechanical equivalent of Braille, where the depth to which the pegs are sunk, and the pattern they create, can be read.

The programming language to be used was similar to modern-day assembly languages. The Analytical Engine’s language allowed loops and conditional branching.

Babbage worked on several versions of the Analytical Engine in a bid to simplify it. He built parts of the creation, which are now in the Science Museum in London. After his death, attempts to get government funding to build the engine were quashed.

Cumming’s Dream

Cumming hopes to build an Analytical Engine for public display. He will work off the extensive notes Babbage left behind. The most complete documentation for the device exists in Babbage’s Plan 28 and 28a.

Cumming has launched a project called “Plan 28” to raise the money and bring together people to build the Engine. He’s soliciting funds on the Internet.

Once he gets enough pledges — he’s seeking 50,000 people willing to donate $10, Pounds 10 or 10 euros — he’ll email the pledgers to tell them how to send in their money. This will go to the non-profit organization that will build the Analytical Engine. Cumming will keep the pledge bank open until Jan. 31, 2011.

Before building the Analytical Engine, Cumming and a team of volunteers must first sort through and streamline Babbage’s notes. They will then simulate the machine using 3D modeling software and a physics engine. The finished device will be roughly the size of a small steam locomotive, and it’s likely that Babbage intended it to be powered by steam, according to Cumming.

Why This Dream?

“The message of a completed Analytical Engine is very clear: It’s possible to be 100 years ahead of your own time,” Cumming wrote. “With support, this type of ‘blue skies’ thinking can result in fantastic changes to the lives of everyone. What seemed like costly research that was unlikely to have any short-term value turned out to be the seed of one of the greatest revolutions mankind has seen.”

Cumming hopes future generations of scientists will be inspired by the completed Analytical Engine to work on their own 100-year leaps.

Perhaps that view has merit.

“I view this project as technology archeology — you’re looking at the past to understand the present,” Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“I think it’s interesting as a scientific experiment.”

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