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Researchers Are Reconstructing Babbage's Analytical Engine ( 76

Slashdot reader RockDoctor brings an update on a project to build Babbage's Analytical Engine: Between 1822 and 1847, Charles Babbage worked on a number of designs for general-purpose programmable computing engines, some parts of which were built during his lifetime and after. Since 2011 a group under the name of "Plan-28" have been working towards building a full version of the machine known as the Analytical Engine. (The group's name refers to the series of Babbage's plans which they are working to -- versions 1 to 27 obviously having problems.) This week, they've released some updates on progress on their blog. Significant progress includes working on the machine's "internal microcode" (in today's terminology; remember, this is a machine of brass cogs and punched cards!) [and] archive work to bring the Science Museum's material into a releasable form (the material is already scanned, but the metadata is causing eyestrain). "One of the difficulties in understanding the designs is the need to reverse engineer logical function from mechanical drawings of mechanisms -- this without textual explanation of purpose or intention..." Progress is slow, but real.

Last year marked the bicentennial of Ada Lovelace, who wrote programs for the Analytical Engine and it's predecessor, the Difference Engine, and whose position as "the world's first programmer" is celebrated in the name of the programming language Ada.

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Researchers Are Reconstructing Babbage's Analytical Engine

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  • And it does run Linux, because it's Turing Complete. Just....very....slowly

    • No machine buildable by man is turing complete, as our universe has finite mass, and it is impossible to build an infinite machine that can simulate a full turing machine. In this particular case it means that the analytical engine probably has not enough RAM or whatever its name for it is.

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        TC is usually interpreted as "approaching" infinite storage, if given lots and lots of time.

        Also note I should have said "could run" instead of "does run". One would need to code up some adapters/emulators first.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Technically, any computer that can display prompts to the operator to "insert next disc" and "insert previous disc" has access to "infinite" memory in compliance with the rules for a Turing machine.

        • The closest traditional mathematical model to a physical computer is a linear bounded automaton [] (LBA), which is a Turing machine unable to move the head outside an area proportional to input size. It recognizes context-sensitive languages.

      • Downmodding me doesn't change the truth!

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      And it does run Linux

      Pretty good change that, when complete and after the first turn of the crank, it will try to install Windows 10.

  • ...surely didn't appear until computers appeared.
    • You could make a very good case that turning a designer's drawing of a pattern for woven fabric into a set of Jacquard Loom [] cards was an act of programming. The Jacquard loom had no computational capability, and in particular had no capability for a logical branch in it's actions.
  • by cyberpunkrocker ( 1649121 ) on Saturday May 07, 2016 @04:04PM (#52067803)
    Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" created much controversy in its time, but his equally ingenious "Indifference Engine" was received with... "meh".
    • Re:Difference Engine (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Saturday May 07, 2016 @04:45PM (#52067951) Homepage Journal

      My wife and I recently went to England with friends, and one of our stops was at the London Science Museum to see the Babbage Difference Engine #2. (with built-in printer) I wasn't aware that there were enough drawings generated to even attempt the Analytical Engine.

      • Babbage probably made the crucial mistake of not using relays. I'm mildly convinced that a relay version would have been feasible in his time.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, there are far more than mere drawings. Babbage was a mathematician, and developed an entire symbolic language devoted to describing mechanical devices, and it was that language about which he was most proud; the Analytical Engine was, in a way, merely the means by which to develop that language in practice.

        Unfortunately, his language never became widely adopted.

      • ... and that is why I wrote up the message I received about progress on the project : to inform people who didn't know.

        An hour of my life, NOT wasted.

  • It was never built in the first place, so it can't be "reconstructed".
  • One of the more interesting things I remember from a video about the construction of the difference engine was the introduction of deliberate errors. Apparently the engineering drawings included deliberate errors in key pieces so that if they were fabricated as drawn, it would jam the machine up badly. This was in case someone stole or copied the plans but plays hell with constructing one today.

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann