Researchers to Build Babbage’s Analytical Engine!

Dear Commons Community,

Angelina Delgado, a student at the Graduate Center, alerted me to an article about researchers in Britain announcing a 10-year, multimillion-dollar project to build a “new” computer.  If the project succeeds, the machine will have only a fraction of the power of today’s computers. It will work based on programming metal gears with a version of the Hollerith (aka IBM) punch card.

What it may do, though, is answer a question: Did an eccentric mathematician named Charles Babbage conceive of the first programmable computer in the 1830s.   Babbage designed his analytical engine but the technology was not available for him to build it in the 1800s.  The Babbage engine is also interesting because of his collaboration with Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. The article mentions:

“Lovelace — daughter of the poet Lord Byron — recognized that the Analytical Engine could be a more generalized media machine, capable of making music and manipulating symbols. And 113 years before John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence,” she considered — and then rejected — the notion that computers might exhibit creativity or even thought.

While Babbage was driven by the desire to automate tabular data for military and related applications, Lovelace wrote a lengthy commentary on the design that would prove deeply influential when it was rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century.

Lovelace is known as the first programmer, because she designed a program for the unbuilt machine. The algorithm appears in a series of notes written by Lovelace after a friend of Babbage asked her to translate an Italian professor’s write-up of a lecture Babbage had given at the University of Turin.”

For those of us who enrolled in basic “introduction to computers” course back in the 1960s/1970s, the Babbage and Lovelace story was required reading.

Great Idea and Cheerio Brits!



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