Science Museum To Digitize Babbage’s Analytical Engine
September 22, 2011

Science Museum To Digitize Babbage’s Analytical Engine

 

A project to build British mathematician Charles Babbage's mechanical computer has just earned assistance from the Science Museum in London, who will begin digitizing Babbage´s original plans and notebooks.

The images will ultimately be used by John Graham-Cumming, the programmer and computer historian behind the project, dubbed Plan 28, to create a full working model of the Analytical Engine.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is widely regarded as the inventor of computing.  His Analytical Engine, conceived in the late 1830s, predated the modern computer revolution by more than a hundred years.

Babbage´s notebooks and designs are currently held in the Science Museum's archives, but have never been translated into an easily accessible format.

Scientists hope digital documents will allow researchers around the world to analyze Babbage´s many disparate ideas, and determine the definitive version of the machine.

"There are some complete plans, they are just not totally complete. There will be a degree of interpretation," Graham-Cumming told BBC news.

After a period of study, a computer simulation of the Analytical Engine would be produced before its eventual construction, he added.

"The machine itself is going to be enormous, about the size of a small steam train, so the simulation is important to allow anyone access," he said.

Doron Swade, the Science Museum's former curator of computing, is another key figure in the push to build the Analytical Engine. Swade led the initiative to build Babbage's earlier design, known as the Difference Engine No.2, which was essentially an early calculator.

The Difference Engine was less sophisticated than the Analytical Engine, which is closer to a complete computer, with punched card input and processing by its rotating mechanical barrels and output to a printer, plotter or ringing bell.

Mr. Graham-Cumming said it was possible to make some rough estimates of Analytical Engine's processing power. 

Its memory would be equivalent to roughly 675bytes, slightly more than half that of Sinclair's ZX81, released in 1981, he said.  

A later proposal by Babbage called for 20KB of storage.

The machine's clock speed would be about 7Hz, compared to the ZX81's 3.2MHz. Current high-end microprocessors currently run at around 3GHz, although their modern architectures means they are exponentially more powerful.

"[The Analytical Engine] is actually quite fast given that it's all in cogs, so Babbage was thinking about something relatively powerful. Of course, we're far beyond that now," Mr. Graham-Cumming told BBC News.

Although the project does not yet have a fixed timescale, it was unlikely to produce anything physical for "at least five years,” he said.

However, he has set the goal of completing it by 2021 - the 150th anniversary of Charles Babbage's death.

The Science Museum began work on the digitization of Babbage's notes on September 12, and the Plan 28 team expects to start studying them in early October.

"This great first step on Plan 28 is, finally, underway. We are very, very grateful to The Science Museum and all we have worked with there for their support and for having undertaken this vital work that will benefit not only Plan 28 but all those who wish to study Charles Babbage's work wherever they are," wrote Graham-Cumming in a posting to his blog this week.

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Image Caption: Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage,[1] as displayed at the Science Museum (London). Credit: Bruno Barral/Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA-2.5)   

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