Get Your Steampunk On: This Guy's Building a Computer From 1837

By Jennifer Welsh | October 15, 2010 6:26 pm

Analytical-EngineWhat would you do with a spare $640,000? John Graham-Cunning would build a steam-powered computer invented in the 1830s.

And instead of waiting around for this mysterious spare money to show up, he’s started soliciting donations. The plan: Raise the money by January 2011, build the analytical engine from Charles Babbage‘s original design, then donate the machine to a museum. Graham-Cunning knows this idea sounds crazy, but it won’t deter him, as he wrote in an article for the O’Reilly Radar:

It might seem a folly to want to build a gigantic, relatively puny computer at great expense 170 years after its invention. But the message of a completed Analytical Engine is very clear: it’s possible to be 100 years ahead of your own time.

If the analytical engine had been built when Babbage thought it up, it would have satisfied all the requirements for a computer, Graham-Cunning told The Telegraph:

“What you realize when you read Babbage’s papers is that this was the first real computer. It had expandable memory, a CPU, microcode, a printer, a plotter and was programmable with punch cards. It was the size of a small lorry and powered by steam but it was recognizable as a computer.”

But the designs were never built, and the world had to wait more than 100 years for the invention of mechanical computers in the 1940s. The analytic engine was designed to replace “computers”–people who wrote out mathematical tables–which would also have been the first example of a person’s job being replaced by a computer. Graham-Cumming explained the machine to The Independent:

“The big difference between it and machines which came 100 years later was that the programme was stored externally, in punch cards,” explained Mr Graham-Cumming. “It is basically a giant number-crunching machine–which is effectively what modern computers are today, it’s just that those numbers appear to us as words or images on a screen.”

And while it sounds like it shouldn’t be that hard to recreate something from the 1800s, there are plenty of confounding factors complicating this project, including the fact that a working model has never been built, says Gizmodo:

Babbage may’ve passed away in 1871, but more than a hundred years later and his computer (which would have run on punched cards containing the programs) still hasn’t ever been fully built. In 1910 his son built part of it, which was able to calculate an incorrect list of pi multiples—but it wasn’t programmable. And who needs a computer than calculates false numbers?

Oh, also, there are no firm set of plans with which to build one from, so they are going to have to go through all of Babbage’s documents to figure out a working design. The plan is to test the designs on a (modern) computer before going through the building process.

When it is fully built, the machine will be about the size of a small steam locomotive, and will be powered by steam. If the project hadn’t been scrapped, imagine how Victorian society would have changed, and how much more evolved technology would be today. We might even have had flying cars by now! Frig!

Related content:
80beats: Steam-Powered Car Breaks a Century-Old Speed Record
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Discoblog: New Robot Would Fuel Itself on Grass, Wood, Human Corpses
DISCOVER: A Look at the World’s First Computer
DISCOVER: Tomorrow’s Computer

Image: Flickr/Gastev

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • LuchinG

    ¿Can It play Pong, at least?

  • Rhacodactylus

    If we are really lucky, it will become sentient, develop a time machine, go back in time and stop the steam punk trend from getting this annoying


  • Brian Too

    Uh, this was already done by IBM in 2000. They did it to prove that Babbage’s advanced machine (which he designed but never built) would in fact have worked. And thereby qualifies as the worlds first computer design.

    It turns out that it does work although it requires a lot of hand cranking. The original story was a little lower key than it might otherwise have been, because every expert already accepted Babbage’s design and it was expected to work correctly.

    I don’t remember the steam part though. The Analytical Engine was hand cranked. What’s that about?

  • Eliza Strickland

    Brian Too: I haven’t seen anything about IBM completing an analytical engine — are you sure they didn’t construct one of his earlier designs, the difference engine?

    Here’s the only thing I found from IBM on the analytical engine, which repeats the information (seen elsewhere) that it was meant to be steam-powered, and that it was never built.

    Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Brian Too

    Well it was 10 years ago after all, so I don’t have the references handy!

    However I distinctly remember that IBM built the machine that Babbage was never able to. And your link, it takes you to a page with a picture of a complex device and it’s headlined “Analytical Engine”. I’d think that means something?

    The whole project was one of those vanity/historical spelunking exercises. Also it was an anniversary of sorts, whether of Babbage or IBM, I don’t remember.

    After some checking around, here’s the only reference I could find. It’s quite unsatisfactory all in all.

    It says, “Several years ago IBM constructed an Analytical Engine according to Babbage’s original drawings…” The article itself is dated 2010.

    Most of the other references I came up with were to the Science Museum of London. One article said that Nathan Myhrvold (formerly of Microsoft) has one of Babbage’s difference engines.

  • http://DermatologyTuscaloosa Tuscaloosa Dermatology

    There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

  • Wes Nelson

    “And who needs a computer than calculates false numbers?”

    Let me think on that for a moment…. maybe a government? But wait, it wouldn’t need a ‘puter to do that, would it?


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