Friday, October 15, 2010

Building the first computer

Everyone knows of the great Charles Babbage. What? You don't know who he is? He originated the idea of a programmable computer! That was back in the early 1800s. Hopefully that explains for you why you folks down in Texas buy your video games from Babbage's.

Anyway, this programmable computer idea that Babbage thought up never actually got built as he thought it up. A hundred years later we had the first computers, which used electricity and vacuum tubes. Nobody has actually built an Analytic Engine, the name Babbage gave to his mechanical programmable computer. That's right: mechanical. As in powered by steam, not electricity. There are two Difference Engines, a mechanical calculator he thought up, but no Analytic Engines.

This week on TWiT, John Graham-Cumming explained how he has just started a project to build Babbage's Analytical Engine. He is looking for funding and has elected to attempt a grass-roots collection effort using pledgebank. If 50,000 people commit to $10 (or £10 or €10), then he can get started. He estimates that the project will take about $1,000,000 because of the necessary compilation and research regarding Babbage's notes. He worked on the design throughout his life, so there is no single blueprint to use.

I committed to give $10. Please pledge to give. If you need some more explanation then you can contact me or listen to TWiT or both. You are, of course, welcome to donate more. Leo Laporte pledged to donate $1,000.

I should mention that even though the Analytic Engine has never been built, it was programmed by Lord Byron's daughter: Ada Lovelace. That is where the name of the contemporary programming language comes from. It is speculated that she may have helped with the design of the Analytic Engine as well.