In the early 19th century, acclaimed scholar and mathematician Charles Babbage proposed a machine that could actually perform calculations and even run “programs” in order to solve them. And Babbage’s computer was to run entirely without electricity, instead drawing its power from steam. And now a new proposal by John Graham-Cumming is likely to be the first step toward actually building the machine that Babbage proposed.
The device, a massive collection of pistons, gears, levers, knobs, and of course steam, is called the Analytical engine. The machine is designed to not only carry out calculations, but be able to make advanced logarithmic calculations and even trigonometric expressions.
The incredibly prescient computer was proposed as a research tool for scientists, capable of quickly and accurately making calculations that would have taken days or even longer by hand. Many mathematicians of the time depended on aids to actually do several of the calculations to support their studies in the 19th century. Unfortunately, these aids often would miss points and even confuse numbers ultimately resulting in massively important calculations coming out inaccurately.
And while Babbage’s steam computer was never built, another machine known simply as the Difference Engine was built and allowed for more advanced calculations to be made far quicker than would normally be possible. As the calculations became more advanced, and the need for a more advanced machine to perform the calculations, the engine would eventually be replaced by electrical difference engines eventually becoming the advanced computers we use today.
But as a social experiment and in the name of science fiction and steampunk classics such as The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, many have wondered if the device could possibly be made using only the technology available at the time. Unfortunately the Analytical engine was not created in its own time due to lack of funding.
And despite the fact that the engine would have made calculations possible that would have been impossible otherwise at the time, many were too cautious of the incredible price tag required to operate the machine to commit to it. And thus Babbage died with his dream machine never being created.
So with this new device being proposed, a debate rages on alongside it as to whether or not the device would have been possible with technologies at the time and whether or not it could have made a major change to scientific theory both within and outside of the realms of mathematics.
Of course the engine itself is the focal point of the controversy, but there are also proposals within the academic mathematics community that suggest many of the computations would have not had the foundation required but developed by the time the first electric computers were made available to Universities worldwide.
In addition to being an excellent callback to technological history, the Analytical engine would be the realization of the most intricate piece of computational machinery ever designed for historical purposes with the exception possibly being the Antikythera Mechanism. But the machine will not be easy to construct by any means.
An attempt to build the machine was made in the mid 1980’s, but after years of construction it was abandoned with only a partially completed device left behind as a museum piece.