Oil painting of Charles Babbage


    The designs for the Analytical Engine include almost all the essential logical features of a modern electronic digital computer. The engine was programmable using punched cards. It had a ‘store’ where numbers and intermediate results could be held and a separate ‘mill’ where the arithmetic processing was performed. The separation of the ‘store’ (memory) and ‘mill’ (central processor) is a fundamental feature of the internal organisation of modern computers.

    The Analytical Engine could have `looped’ (repeat the same sequence of operations a predetermined number of times) and was capable of conditional branching (IF… THEN… statements) i.e. automatically take alternative courses of action depending on the result of a cacluation.

    In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage was delighted with the interest in his project and appointed Ada Lovelace to act as a translator for the article. Ada added a series of in depth notes (which were longer than the original memoir), including detail of a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers using the Engine. It is her level of understanding of Babbage's mechanical machine that gives Ada Lovelace the credit she has today of being the first computer programmer. 

    If it had been completed the Analytical Engine would have been vast. It would have needed to be operated by a steam engine of some kind. Babbage made little attempt to raise funds to build the Analytical Engine. Instead he continued to work on simpler and cheaper methods of manufacturing parts and built a small trial model which was under construction at the time of his death.

    The movement to automate mathematical calculation in the nineteenth century failed and the impetus to continue this work was largely lost with Babbage’s death. From the vantage point of the modern computer age we are better placed to appreciate the full extent to which Babbage was indeed the first pioneer of computing.


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    Swade, D., The Cogwheel Brain: Charles Babbage and the Quest to build the first Computer, London:: Little, Brown, 2001
    Toole, B., Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers, : Strawberry Press, 1992
    Woolley, B., The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter, : Macmillan, 1999

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