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A Computer In The 1830s? - "The Analytical Machine" Was A Mechanical Computer Invented By Charles Babbage In England

Updated on September 18, 2012
Babbage's Analytical Engine as displayed in the London Science Museum
Babbage's Analytical Engine as displayed in the London Science Museum | Source

What do you know about the very first computer design?

The first simple computers started appearing in the 30s, right? Yes, but you probably have the wrong century in mind. The first true computer was designed a full century before the dawn of the computer revolution by Charles Babbage in the 1830s - ahead of its time by at least 100 years.

It is called the Analytical Machine or the Analytical Engine and it was designed to be a programmable general-purpose computer that would handle a variety of tasks. It was going to be practically a building and was designed to operate using rotating cogs and other mechanisms in order to achieve true computation. Its design actually includes the most important parts of a modern day computer like CPU, RAM and I/O options, achieved through very different means thought.

Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage (The Inventor)

Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871) was an English mathematician, mechanical engineer, inventor and philosopher. Babbage was born into a rich family with his father in banking, which afforded him the opportunity to receive the greatest education possible in his time and made him part of London's aristocracy and intelligentsia during the beginning of the nineteenth century. Between 1828 and 1839 Babbage held the position of Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, which was the position held also by Newton.

Charles Babbage made important contributions to many fields as astronomy, cryptography and mathematics. He also played an essential role in starting London's Astronomical and Statistical Societies and curiously enough invented the pilot (the metal frame attached to the front of locomotives that cleared the tracks of obstacles). But his most intriguing achievements were in the field of designing computational devices. In 1824 Babbage won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society "for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables, but he didn't stop there. Mechanical computing was his biggest passion and he constantly came up with ideas for new devices some of which he also managed to build in full or in part. Still most of his inventions were never built due to him always moving to a new projects and funding issues.

A single computational element
A single computational element

The Inventions

The machines that Babbage did manage to build proved that mechanical computation was possible. Interestingly enough, the way his steam-powered computers operated or were meant to operate was very similar to the way modern computers work. They had a control unit much like the modern day CPUs that could not only calculate, but also perform conditional jumps, they had separate program and data memory, operated using instructions coming in punch cards like the early 20th century computers and had a separate I/O unit. Based on this we can safely say that Babbage's designs were at least 100 years ahead of this time.

His first big project was the Difference Engine which was meant to calculate numerical tables instead of humans, but despite having sufficient funding, the prototype was never completed. The machine was going to wight around 15 tons and be 8 feet (2.4 meters) high. Later on he created an improved version of his design, which came to be known as the Difference Engine Number Two, which was actually built in 1991 by the London Science Museum using his plans and nineteenth century manufacturing tolerances.

The design of the Analytical Engine (viewed from the top)
The design of the Analytical Engine (viewed from the top)
Name
 
Analitical Engine
Computing Mechanism
 
Mechanical
Numerical System
 
Decimal (fixed-point)
Programming
 
Punch Cards
Calculations
 
Sum / Difference / Multiplication / Division
Additional Computations
 
Comparison / Square Root
Other Processing Options
 
Loops / Conditional Branching
Turing-complete
 
Yes

But Charles Babbage's biggest achievement was his Analytical Machine. It was a much more complex mechanical computer, whose design he was improving and expanding until his death in 1871. The Analytical Machine was designed to run programs coming through punch cards which allowed to operator to supply the control unit with operational instructions to execute in a way similar to the way modern day processors execute programing code. The Analytical Machine was actually the first computing device to be designed to be Turing-complete, decades before Turing would even formulating his theories. Besides a control unit, the machine was supposed to have a program memory unit that would store values needed by the control unit in order to complete the instructions and an array of output device designs like a printer and a plotter and even a bell to alert the operator for malfunctions. Of course, building such a machine based on mechanics, making use of rotating cogs and a steam engine would mean that it would actually be quite big.

In 2011 a group of British researchers initiated a project to build Babbage's Analytical Machine, which is supposed to be ready before 2020.

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    • Distant Mind profile image
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      Distant Mind 4 years ago

      Hello sparkster,

      The Analytical Machine was actually never built and there are disputes about which digital computing device was the first computer and there are devices that were built before ENIAC in the UK and Germany that might deserve the title as well.

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub, I was taught in school that ENIAC was the 1st ever computer. Technically, I suppose it was the first 'digital' computer.

    • Distant Mind profile image
      Author

      Distant Mind 4 years ago

      Thank you for the nice comments. :)

    • profile image

      ignugent17 4 years ago

      I remember the days when I was teaching grade 6 about the father of computer. Thanks for sharing this.

      Voted up and more! :-)

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great hub and very informative information on the first computer and it's inventor . Well done !

      Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Babbage has been credited with the first computer, as you wrote. It is too bad that he wasn't around when it became such a world-wide practice. He was way ahead of his time. Great write up on this inventor.