Campaign launched to build Babbage's steam-powered computer

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A campaign has been launched to build the first working model of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine - 173 years after it was designed.

The nineteenth-century mathematician produced detailed drawings of the steam-powered, general-purpose computer, which are now held at London's Science Museum.

Parts of the machine have been constructed several times, by babbage himself, his family and others. But although his Difference Engine finally became a reality in 1991 and can be seen at the Science Museum no full version of the Analytical Engine has ever been created.

"What a marvel it would be to stand before this giant metal machine, powered by a steam engine, and running programs fed to it on a reel of punched cards," says programmer and blogger John Graham-Cumming, who has launched the campaign.

"And what a great educational resource so that people can understand how computers work. One could even imagine holding competitions for people (including school children) to write programs to run on the engine. And it would be a way to celebrate both Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. How fantastic to be able to execute Lovelace's code!"

It won't be easy. Unlike the Analytical Engine, for which Babbage left a complete set of blueprints, the Analytical Engine was still a work in progress at the time of his death.

The first stage of the project, therefore, would be to go carefully through all the different versions to devide which one to build from.

Graham-Cumming is attempting to raise funds for the project, which would require several people to work on it, as well as some rather expensive materials. He says that, when complete, the machine would be donated to either the Science Museum or the National Museum of Computing.

Graham-Cumming has a long way to go. He's asking people to sign up here and pledge £10/$10, saying he reckons he needs about 50,000 people. So far, 2,403 have agreed.