Building the Machine Babbage Never Completed

I’ve had a soft spot for the visionary work of Charles Babbage ever since I read Sterling’s and Gibson’s brilliant alternate history, “The Difference Engine“. James Graham-Cunning has a post at O’Reilly Radar that speaks to the tragedy of Babbage’s failure to realize his designs and contains a plea to complete a replica of the Analytical Engine, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished as of yet.

Soldiering on alone with the conviction that his machines would be of great benefit to mankind by taking what had been mental effort and making it mechanical, Babbage wrote that “Another age must be the judge” of his inventions.

Modern computers may be constructed of very different materials but as Graham-Cunning explains the parts and principles are very much recognizably the same. Further, the construction of the Difference Engine No. 2 and its printer using only period materials and techniques proves that, as he says, “Simply put, we live in that age”. Graham-Cunning wants to continue that proof, by settling on which of Babbage’s continually revised designs for the Analytical Engine should be built, modeling it in a simulation for feasibility, and then building a working model.

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. With support, this type of “blue skies” thinking can result in fantastic changes to the lives of everyone. Just think of the impact of the computer and ask yourself how different the Victorian world would have been with Babbage Engines at its disposal.

“The Difference Engine” poses one answer to that question, far from the only one we can imagine as entertaining as it may be. More interesting is the implication of what research today, like Babbage’s may be far ahead of its time.

If you want to support Graham-Cunning’s efforts, he has launched Plan 28 to gather and coordinate support.

The 100-year leap, O’Reilly Radar

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