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No. 243:
Babbage's Engine

Today, we ask where an engine went. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's well known that the first programmable computer was Babbage's Analytical Engine. Babbage was a 19th-century mathematician whose whole life was devoted to automatic calculation. In 1821 he made his Difference Engine -- a machine that evaluated polynomials. It was used to grind out all kinds of highly accurate mathematical tables.

The Royal Society gave Babbage a gold medal for the Difference Engine. Then the British government quit funding it just as he was working out a way to make it print its results. That would've eliminated errors of transcription. Much later, the Swedes made one with a printout device. When America bought the Swedish prototype, the British finally decided to put money into the idea. But by then they were thirty years too late.

Meanwhile, after his work on the Difference Engine had been stopped, Babbage turned to a much grander project -- to making his Analytical Engine. It had all the basic elements of a modern computer. You could feed it instructions that made it do sequences of calculations. It could store information and retrieve it.

Babbage began work on the Analytical Engine with government support, but it also dried up. Then he spent his own money on the project. He never could quite finish it, though. Without binary arithmetic, calculations were much more complicated than they are on -- say -- your pocket calculator. And without the electronic diodes (or switches) that do binary arithmetic naturally, he had to use stacks of gear trains.

Babbage called the arithmetic unit of his engine its "mill," because the gears in it really did grind away to produce a result. In the end, his machine had too much friction. He foundered on the mechanical problem of driving it. Nevertheless, he had produced the full-blown ancestor of your computer.

So what became of the machine itself? Babbage offered it to the British Museum, and they rejected it. So it was broken up and dispersed. Parts of it turned up as his grandchildren's playthings. Fragments have been found with Babbage's family in New Zealand. And today museum curators will kill for mere pieces of the full machine they rejected over a century ago.

Babbage, of course, saw too far beyond his time. He had to be forgotten and rediscovered. Yet I wonder how the course of human history might have been changed if the British Museum had accepted his gift of the Analytical Engine -- if those wheels and gears had sat on display where 19th-century children could have gazed at them and wondered what they meant.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Tee, G.J., The Heritage of Charles Babbage in Australasia. Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983.