Work begins on Babbage's Analytical Engine

Work has gotten underway on Plan 28, a project to create Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, the never-built successor to the Difference Engine. The Analytical Engine was to have been a general purpose computer, and Ada Lovelace designed the first-ever programming language to run on it. Many factors led to its never being completed -- the state of the art in precision engineering in Babbage's day, finance woes, and so forth. John Graham-Cumming, who founded the project, is also the author of The Geek Atlas, a fantastic book.
This has required building relationships with a number of bodies. I recently announced that the project had been accepted into the portfolio of projects handled by the Computer Conservation Society. They will provide expert advice as needed.

The other vital body to work with is The Science Museum in London. Doron and I have been working with The Science Museum team at many levels to ensure that the project is known about and that we would be able to get access to Babbage's plans and notebooks to perform the vital academic study of the Analytical Engine as Babbage imagined it. The first step to doing that research was to digitize the entire Babbage archive. Digitization greatly facilitates research as these precious documents can be viewed conveniently from around the world.

I am pleased to be able to say that The Science Museum agreed that digitization was vital and undertook this project. The work on digitization started on Monday, September 12 and early in October Doron and I will have access to the digitized versions of Babbage's plans and notebooks for study. 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.

Plan 28: Analytical Engine project gets underway (Thanks, John!)

(Image: AnalyticalMachine_Babbage_London, Wikimedia Commons/Bruno Barral, CC-BY-SA-2.5.)


  1. Doron’s book on the building of the difference engine (understandably, if confusingly, named “The Difference Engine” like the Gibson/Sterling novel) pretty much dismisses the Ada myth. While Ada did provide examples of engine programs (really just algorithms) in a series of notes to her translation of a French article about the Analytical Engine, they unfortunately seem to be paraphrases of Babbage’s own work, not original work.

    1. That doesn’t mean she didn’t put Babbage’s work together in novel ways (also known as “programming”).

      1. In a way, I hope this is true. It would amuse me greatly if the computer scientist vs. programmer divide began in 1842…

        1. Not if you are trying to cast Babbage as CS and Ada as Programmer. To Babbage, the engines were a form of notation. He was a mathematician firstly and knew that the difference between software and hardware is completely arbitrary.

    2. She wrote notes on his programs, which included original code. While she did not move the state of the art forward, she did understand it which put her in a very select company of mathematicians indeed.

  2. All you need is non-electric means of networking (which probably exists, but I don’t know about) and you can make a working steampunk internet. 

  3. Well, electric telegraphs existed in the 1830s, co-temporal with Babbage’s work, so you can integrate the two and still be legit. ;)
    (And yeah Gibson & Sterling did exactly this in _The Difference Engine_.)

  4. As I recall, the replica difference engine was designed with period manufacturing, metallurgical, etc. in mind. Erm- it was designed to be period correct.

    If the analytical engine truly wasn’t able to be completed in part due to the “state of the art in precision engineering” then how are they planning on making it now?

    I wouldn’t mind if it were made like a watch- similar size gears, jeweled pivots and mating surfaces, etc. but that might not be as grandiose and impressive as the two difference engines that have been made so far.

    But if we’re not interested in being period correct, then I’d like to see a difference engine built with a 3D printer. Preferably a DIY 3D printer.

    1. I think they cut the gearing for the Difference Engine replicas assuming tolerances that would have be achievable back in the day.  My guess is they’d do the same here.  Babbage designed assuming that the parts wouldn’t be totally perfect.  The limiting factor seems mainly to be that he couldn’t afford to have that many parts cut by hand.

  5. No discussion of Babbage’s work is complete without a mention Tim Robinson’s amazing Meccano work:

    He’s built several functioning Difference engines, and most amazingly, one of the control barrels from the Analytical Engine – complete enough to execute (what appears to be) a simple goto loop.

    I saw him demoing a Difference Engine at the Maker’s Faire a few years ago.  It works!

  6. The first step to doing that research was to digitize the entire Babbage archive.

    Impossible! They’d need some sort of… some sort of… analytical engine to accomplish that!

  7. And.. no mention of the difficulty of the manufacture of Babbage’s machine would be complete without noting that his nephew was Joseph Whitworth… yes the same Whitworth of the mechanical standards. At the time of Babbage no standardised thread or measure existed. You couldn’t just go to the hardware shop and buy a tub of M6 nuts and bolts, they all had to be made by hand and no standard existed for threads or diameters. Whitworth’s work with his uncle and the difficulties they had may well have spawned the desire for accuracy for which Whitworth is known to this day.

    1. Doesn’t sound right, although all Brits are related. Babbage did not work with Whitworth. He employed Clement and later with a mechanic whose name escapes me at the moment. Machinists said: “Babbage made Clement; Clement made Whitworth and Whitworth made the tools.

  8. Ada Lovelace didn’t design a computer language. She wrote the first known documented computer program.

    You can read her original notes at The Analytical Engine:

    “Sketch of the Analytical Engine” by L. F. Menabrea, translated and with extensive commentary by Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace. This 1842 document is the definitive exposition of the Analytical Engine, which described many aspects of computer architecture and programming more than a hundred years before they were “discovered” in the twentieth century. If you have ever doubted, even for a nanosecond, that Lady Ada was, indeed, the First Hacker, perusal of this document will demonstrate her primacy beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    Wikipedia says:

    Some biographers debate the extent of her original contributions. Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864).

    I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

    Even though Babbage designed the original program, it’s clear Ada Lovelace was a programmer and perhaps debugger even before the computer the program was written for was ever built.

    1. Dorthy Stein is rather sever on Ada. Ada’s accomplishments were not negligible even if she did not rival Babbage; nobody did. This is not the only example of program writing before the machine is built.

      1. >Ada’s accomplishments were not negligible

        I agree. The link to her original notes (my first blockquote) and Wikipedia’s quote of Babbage (the sentence and paragraph after Dorothy Stein is mentioned) were attempts to support that view.

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