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What could Charles Babbage have done with modern computer architecture?

Posted on 2017-Mar-27 at 15:04:35 by Phil
Last update on 2022-Jun-20 at 00:21:00 by Phil

The early 19th century British inventor Charles Babbage was a pioneer in attempts to mechanize mathematical computations. He felt that machines could be used to produce and typeset tables of various mathematical numbers so necessary for a modern civilization to function. Existing, hand-calculated and hand-typeset tables were riddled with errors, and this was holding back science, technology, and finance.

Babbage designed (and tried to have built) a Difference Engine to do these calculations, based on the method of finite differences, and requiring only addition to function. Later, he conceived of the Analytical Engine, an extension of Difference Engine No. 2, to actually carry out programs (including looping) using punch cards inspired by those used with Jaquard Looms. Ada, countess of Lovelace, was a mathematician who became the first computer programmer for this unbuilt machine.

Babbage’s designs, although more-or-less functional (errors in the designs may have been deliberate, to prevent industrial espionage), appear to have been near the limit of mid-19th century machining capabilities. Even if he had received continued funding (funding ended for the Difference Engine, and what had been built was scrapped), it is questionable whether it would have produced something usable. Even the 1991 version built for the Science Museum (London) had to be hand-tweaked to stop jamming and overcome friction.

So…

Charles Babbage attempted to build a decimal, purely mechanical calculating machine. I’ve always wondered what the world would be like today if he had succeeded (especially with the Analytical Engine), and computing had nearly a century’s head start. Given the technology of his day (mechanical, steam power, hydraulic, pneumatic, and electromechanical relays), and the architectural concepts of modern computers (binary handling of numbers, possible use of Boolean logic, stored and self-modifiable code and data, etc.), what might he have accomplished? It’s fun to think of steampunk non-electronic computers nearly two centuries ago.


Posted on 2017-Mar-28 at 10:35:39 by Phil
Last update on 2018-Jan-04 at 16:05:55 by Phil

Just some random thoughts on actually building either a Difference Engine or the (more complex) Analytical Engine. The Science Museum took a huge gamble when they hand-verified the Difference Engine and then built it to see if it would work. They did have some friction problems (requiring a 4:1 gearing down of the hand crank to get enough torque), and were plagued by jamming problems for a while. They needed to do some hand-tuning of certain parts, which were intended to be identical. It could have very easily happened that they built this thing, and couldn’t get it to run, proving that Babbage was a foolish dreamer.

Now, at least one group wants to actually build the programmable computer: the Analytical Engine. I would strongly suggest that they do a complete 3D solid model (in a computer) before cutting the first piece of metal. Assume very low friction and no inertia for moving parts, and see if it actually works as expected. Remember, on the Difference Engine, numerous errors and/or deliberate design obfuscations were found and had to be corrected. Once it works in theory, ramp up the friction and inertia to realistic levels, and see how much torque and force will be needed to operate it, and whether the parts will be strong enough. You don’t want to spend tens of thousands of hours cutting parts and assembling it, only to have a shaft twist apart because there was too much friction!

In general, are there affordable 3D modeling programs that could be used to emulate any mechanical computer design, and see if it will work before going through a lot of work to actually build it? Kind of ironic isn’t it — to use a modern electronic digital computer to verify the design of an early 19th century mechanical computer!


Posted on 2022-Oct-30 at 19:25:00 by Phil

I just happened across a YouTube video of Steve Mould’s Mechanical circuits: electronics without electricity. It (more or less) replicates electronic circuits using special mechanical devices from Spintronics. Towards the end, he gets around to briefly showing some computer logic gates, and talks about maybe doing a simple adder.

Anyway, it’s another approach that someone like Babbage might have taken to build a purely mechanical digital computer.

I’ve come across videos of people building simple computers — or at least, calculators and other sections of a real computer, using Legos and TinkerToys. I’m not sure any of them are working reliably enough for Prime Time, but maybe I’ll add some links to them if I come across them again.


Posted on 2023-Jan-11 at 21:04:00 by Phil Last update on 2023-Mar-04 at 20:50:00 by Phil

Another YouTube video, in part about Babbage, Turing, Flowers, and Collosus.

And did you know that Charles Babbage was killed by London organ grinders?

 

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