World’s Strangest

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Building Babbage’s Computer from the 1830s

Charles Babbage designed a fully functional mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine in 1837. It used gigantic stacks of cogs for memory (capable of storing 1,000 numbers to 40 decimal places), a CPU-like computing engine developed using gears and wheels, a printer (numbers only), a plotter (for graphics…ish), and even a programming language (Ada Lovelace wrote the first program, and the system used punched cards for program input). The Analytical Engine was the first Turing complete design for a computer — this effectively meant it was the first modern computer, but it was designed more than hundred years before modern computers like ENIAC. The only trouble is that Babbage’s grand machine was never built. A partial prototype was made, but the grand scale of the Analytical Engine was never realized, and Babbage died without seeing it constructed.

In this twelve-minute TED Talk, computer scientist John Graham-Cumming describes the Analytical Engine…and his plans to build it. Pro tip: around 10:30 he mentions the ZX81; if you aren’t familiar with that home computer of my youth, Wikipedia has a good overview.

If you like this talk, check out Graham-Cumming’s book The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive; it’s a travel guide to significant sites in geek history. You may also be interested in The Computer History Museum’s construction of Babbage’s Difference Engine, a simpler design by Babbage (it only weighs 5 tons).


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