October 15, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Babbage’s Computer May Be Built

The “Analytical Engine,” a 19th-century computer conceived by Charles Babbage, may finally be built 140 years after his death.  The remarkable contraption was to be powered by steam and would fill a warehouse, but the eccentric old man could not get the Royal Society to back it.  His idea, 100 years ahead of its time, would be a true general-purpose computer, able to solve any problem expressible in numerical algorithms.  It would take instructions with punched cards, operate a CPU, use memory, and print output, just like early computers in the mid 20th century.  Given the technology and parts available in the mid 19th century, however, it was a dream far in advance of its time.  His son tried but was unable to get the plans off the ground.  Others also attempted the project but failed.
    The BBC News reported that interest is growing in bringing the “inspirational piece of equipment” to reality, for its historical interest if not for its ability to compete with modern computers.  “A hundred years ago, before computers were available, [Babbage] had envisaged this machine,” a leader of the effort said.  A real working model would answer “profound historical questions,” a historian of computer technology remarked; “Could there have been an information age in Victorian times?  That is a very interesting question.”  Now, with distributed planning and world-wide cooperation, Babbage’s historic computer might just become a reality.

Too bad this contemporary of Darwin did not get his project off the ground.  If the information age had begun in Darwin’s day, perhaps it would have taken the steam out of the idea of random variation producing complexity.  Read our online biography of Charles Babbage – a Christian scholar who would have been comfortable with Intelligent Design theory – for a really entertaining look at a fascinating visionary whose ideas would eventually triumph and change the world.

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