Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Babbage's Analytical Engine

In December 1837, the British mathematician Charles Babbage published a paper describing a mechanical computer that is now known as the Analytical Engine. Anyone intimate with the details of electronic computers will instantly recognize the components of Babbage's machine. Although Babbage was designing with brass and iron, his Engine has a central processing unit (which he called the mill) and a large amount of expandable memory (which he called the store). The operation of the Engine is controlled by program stored on punched cards, and punched cards can also be used to input data.
John Graham Cummings is trying to get together the money and team necessary to actually build an Analytical Engine - aside from it being the coolest Steam Punk project ever it will give a real insight into how computation is independent of physical arrangements (we won't always be running our computers on silicon) AND it is possible for someone to be literally a century ahead of the curve. Remember - this machine was Turing-complete and so can be considered in the same category as modern computers.
As an aside the Science Museum made a Difference Engine in the early nineties using only materials and techniques that would have been available to Babbage and it worked well. The difference engine is not a Turing-machine, it was used to automate the production of printed log tables but is equally as impressive.
If you want to hear John talking about the project then he is on this week's TwiT and is jolly interesting.

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