Babbage's historic Analytical Engine could still be programmed today
The first envisaged computer – Charles Babbage’s 1837 Analytical Engine – would still be familiar to today’s programmers, according to a man working towards building a functional model of the archaic design.
Widely accepted as the first programmable computer, the Analytical Engine would be some 13,000 times slower than a Sinclair ZX81, and struggle to fit inside a cargo container, but it is of huge interest as a pioneering project that was nearly 100 years ahead of its time.
“It was the first programmable computer, with software effectively written on punch cards,” said John Graham-Cumming, founder of Plan 28, the project that is building Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine.
“The software would be different from a computer as we know it, as it wouldn’t have been loaded into memory but would be executed from cards,” he said.
Despite the unfamiliar media, the process of writing programs would still be familiar, according to Graham-Cumming.
“There are good descriptions of it in Babbage’s notes and programming for the computer would be akin to assembly languages, so anyone familiar with assemble languages and possibly C language would be able to write for the machine,” he said.
The steam-driven machine would be run using three sets of punch cards.
The first would carry program instructions, the second would include constant numbers that you would feed as input, while the third roll of punch cards would include the memory locations to tell the program where to find the numbers for processing - like parameters in modern programmming.
Graham-Cumming is looking for 50,000 supporters to fund and kick-start the project, and has currently signed up 1,600 enthusiasts to build the machine, which would start as a virtual project in CAD.
“Babbage left good plans, but building it in CAD to begin with would allow us to debug the machine before we went any further,” he said.
It all begs the question of why the project wasn’t built nearly two centuries ago.
One reason that is still relevant to scientists today is money, but Babbage’s obsessive nature also put off potential investors.
An earlier machine from the same mathematician-inventor – effectively a huge brass calculator called the Difference Engine - wasn't built because Babbage kept improving the design rather than build the hardware.