The Analytical Engine

The First Computer

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Introduction

Seldom, if ever, in the history of technology has so long an interval separated the invention of a device and its realisation in hardware as that which elapsed between Charles Babbage's description, in 1837, of the Analytical Engine, a mechanical digital computer which, viewed with the benefit of a century and a half's hindsight, anticipated virtually every aspect of present-day computers. Charles Babbage (1792–1871) was an eminent figure in his day, elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1828 (the same Chair held by Newton and, in our days, Stephen Hawking); he resigned this professorship in 1839 to devote his full attention to the Analytical Engine. Babbage was a Fellow of the Royal Society and co-founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Statistical Society of London. He was a close acquaintance of Charles Darwin, Sir John Herschel, Laplace, and Alexander Humboldt, and was author of more than eighty papers and books on a broad variety of topics.

His vision of a massive brass, steam-powered, general-purpose, mechanical computer inspired some of the great minds of the nineteenth century but failed to persuade any backer to provide the funds to actually construct it. It was only after the first electromechanical and later, electronic computers had been built in the twentieth century, that designers of those machines discovered the extent to which Babbage had anticipated almost every aspect of their work.

These pages are an on-line museum celebrating Babbage's Analytical Engine. Here you will find a collection of original historical documents tracing the evolution of the Engine from the original concept through concrete design, ending in disappointment when it became clear it would never be built. You'll see concepts used every day in the design and programming of modern computers described for the very first time, often in a manner more lucid than contemporary expositions. You'll get a sense of how mathematics, science, and technology felt in the nineteenth century, and for the elegant language used in discussing those disciplines, and thereby peek into the personalities of the first computer engineer and programmer our species managed to produce. If you are their intellectual heir, perhaps you'll see yourself and your own work through their Victorian eyes.

Since we're fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage's dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves. These pages include a Java-based emulator for The Analytical Engine and a variety of programs for it. You can run the emulator as an applet within a Web page or as a command-line application on your own computer (assuming it is equipped with a Java runtime environment). These pages are a museum, and its lobby is the Table of Contents, to which all other documents are linked. Rather than forcing you to follow a linear path through the various resources here, you can explore in any order you wish, returning to the Table of Contents to select the next document that strikes you as interesting. Every page has a link to the Table of Contents at the bottom, so it's easy to get back when you've finished reading a document or decided to put it aside and explore elsewhere.

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by John Walker