Friday, 15 October 2010

Campaign builds to construct Babbage Analytical Engine

Campaign builds to construct Babbage Analytical Engine

An exciting proposal, reported here by the BBC, to create a full-size replica of what is rightly regarded as the world's first computer, as conceived by Charles Babbage in 1837.

It is incredible to think that the foundations for the computer age were laid down as long ago as the mid-19th Century, but Babbage's designs and creations were to all intents and purposes embryonic computers, albeit very large and steam-powered. This picture (above) illustrates only part of the Analytic Engine; as the article mentions a full-size version has never been built and could easily be the size of a small lorry!

Once again it begs the question of "what if?". Had Babbage succeeded in creating a complete working Analytical Engine, what would it have meant for the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire? Might there, as Dr Swade also wonders, have been an information age in the latter part of the 19th Century? Where would we be now if it had been so?

These kinds of questions are, in part, what led to the formation of the Steampunk movement which does indeed image an alternate universe in which Babbage's machines not only worked but became commonplace; in which steam remained the main motive power and allowed amazing adventures to take place with all the majesty and pomp of Victorian Britain through the 19th Century and beyond.

Even if a scale replica is successfully built and operated it will still be some years off yet and, sadly, unlikely to precipitate us into a Steampunk future (sorry chaps!). It does have the potential to be a major engineering undertaking, though, with the great possibility of rewarding knowledge and understanding of the processes and abilities of these early behemoths. Good luck to them, say I!

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