In the laboratories of Intellectual enterprises there is a big museum piece: the analysis engine. Laboratory IV Where Laboratory of intellectual adventures is a space of over 8,000 square meters located in Bellevue, Washington, USA. There are hundreds of inventors, engineers and scientists work to find new technologies and inflate their patent portfolio. Intellectual enterprises, the parent company, holds more than 35,000 patents in the United States. And until. But what interests us about this American giant is its collector’s item. An analysis engine with more than 8,000 pieces and which has more than a century of life.
Their 5 tons of weight and its size, more than three meters long, makes it difficult to move while it is impossible not to see it. This machinery of the past contrasts with the modernity of the laboratories of Intellectual enterprises, installations where concrete and current technology contrast with its metal parts. Its technical name is Motor difference number 2 (in English, Engine Difference #2). But it is better known as the Difference Engine, Analytical Engine, or Babbage Engine. By its creator, the English mathematician Charles Babbage. In practice it is a mechanical calculator. One of the first. Or we can also say that it is one of first computers modern. A carcass full of mechanical parts like the Russian computer that ran on water. Closer to an industrial machine than a current computer.
Laboratory facilities Intellectual enterprises in the United States, they are the last stop of this analytical engine. The latest information available dates from 2016. Previously, since 2008, this collector’s item was exhibited at the Computer History Museum (Computer History Museum) in Mountain View, CA. Interestingly, this analytical engine is the second of its kind. Her older sister is on display in the science museum london. Without the second, the first would not have existed. Whims of donations from millionaires. And its history is full of problems. So much so that Charles Babbage’s first difference engine it took 167 years to complete. If we take into account that its design was published in the distant 1835, and the construction ended only in 2002 after several pauses between phase and phase of the project.
The person directly responsible for engine difference number 2 is its ideologue and creator, the English mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage. To his credit, he stands out for having been the inventor of machines programmable calculators. The direct ancestors of today’s computers, bridging the gap. His main achievement, a mechanical calculator capable of calculating tables of numerical functions. Faster and more accurate than a human mind. And in 1822, he made it a reality.
But not all of Babbage’s projects were as successful as the Analytical Engine. Despite everything in his favor. Born in late 1791, he was the fourth child of a wealthy family and received a good education. So much so that in 1810 he entered the Trinity College of Cambridge. His specialty, mathematics. He also studied in another University Prestige, peterhouse. Professionally, he taught astronomy at the royal institution (1815) and the following year he was made a member of the Royal Society. And although he didn’t get a teaching job in Haileybury College nor at the University of Edinburgh, he continued his research by himself thanks to the money of his father, provided during his lifetime and inherited after his death.
After creating his mechanical calculator, Babbage wanted to go further. After multiple conceptions which remained only that, ideas and theoretical diagrams, in 1835, he proposed a fully functional design. At least in theory. The practice will take longer to come. Three years earlier he had published the first edition of his book On the economy of machines and manufactures. In it, Babbage discusses various topics such as printing process and production costs and analyzes the mechanization and efficient division of labor. From this book derives what is called the “Babbage principle”.
For context, we have to remember that Babbage is in the epicenter of the industrial revolutiona revolution of revolutions which originated in the UK and which between 1820 and 1840 changed the economy and society by introducing technologies such as Steam machine. At this time, the first industries were born. Hence the importance of Babbage’s theories. His Babbage principle comes to say that the division of labor in processes makes it possible to optimize production, since the quantity of machines or qualified employees required in each process. In other words, you can count on untrained workers for simple tasks and on more qualified and better paid workers for more complex tasks.
Let us leave economic theory for the moment and return to the subject which interests us. Babbage’s Machine or Analytical Engine. We said that in 1835, Babbage realizes design a first functional machine. This mechanical calculator, which will be the first of its kind, and technically the first computer, performs its calculations using finite differences. So instead of using multiplication and division, is limited to the sum, easier to implement mechanically. In addition, each complex task breaks it down to facilitate its programming and avoid calculation errors. In practice, this machine would employ a steam machine and would use punched cards to enter data. The output of the results, generated by means of gears, would be given with a printer.
But to make it a reality, you will have to go through several stages. First, get financing. And it is that despite having economic independence to have a comfortable life for the time, a project of this caliber required more money than it had. Finding funding will not be easy. Although along the way he would find support and interest from other important minds of the time like herself, Ada Lovelacealso mathematical and considered the first programmer Story.
Finally, Babbage will obtain funding from the British government, but after several disputes and differences of opinion With manufacturing officials, high manufacturing costs and other controversies, the silver tap closes in 1878. By the way, two different models. The first, from 1835. It consisted of 25,000 pieces. And the second machine, commissioned in 1847, although simpler, still had 8 thousand. So the British Association o British Association for the Advancement of Science, shelved the project, thus influencing the political decision to stop funding Babbage.
In part, the decision is made because the engine of the machine, Charles Babbage, had died years ago, in 1871. The importance of the machine was appreciated. But its construction was expensive and unnecessary for the time. It is therefore one of his sons who takes over the project. Specifically the youngest Henry P. Babbageindirectly involved in the project since childhood by spending time in his father’s workshop.
Henry Babbage’s breakthrough was to make six demonstration pieces of the so-called Number 1 Difference Engine. One of these was sent to Harvard. And around 1910, Babbage Jr. announced that he could calculate multiples of the number pi with the parts of the machine already built. A small part of what the calculator could do if fully built. This prototype, known as Analytical Engine Mill or Analytical Engine Mill, is in the Science Museum in London. Sadly, Henry Babbage died in 1918.
Neither Babbage nor his son managed to complete their analytical engine. They must spend several decades so that the project is saved from oblivion. Let’s remember. Babbage’s machine gave its premiere in 1835 with working designs. Too. Let’s jump 150 years to 1985. That year, the Science Museum in London will take over the project, from the original blueprints, and build Babbage’s Difference Engine. As the museum itself indicates in its facilities and in this article, the design was by Charles Babbage. The construction was carried out by the Museum. All thanks to a resurgence of the figure of Babbage in the 70s of the last century.
But we are far from having finished this story. In June 1991, the main part of the machine was completed after almost six years. But not at all. The project was revived as a tribute to Babbage, since 1991 marked the bicentenary of his birth. However, an important part of the scanning engine is missing: the printer. And it will take many years, until reach 2002. That year, Difference Engine number 2 is already sold out. A project of nearly 17 years (1985-2002). But more than 150 years old if we stick to the original plans. Over 150 years to complete what for many is the first mechanical calculator and the first computer in history. At least on the plan.
We end this story where we started it. If Charles Babbage’s machine is in the Science Museum in London, what is a copy across the Atlantic at a private company facility in Bellevue, Washington? The answer is simple. One of the founders of Intellectual enterprises is Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTOamong others, and one of the main contributors for the machine to become a reality. His economic contribution was such that he obtained a replica of the original machine, including the printer. As we saw at the beginning of this article, the replica was several years (2008 – 2016) in the Computer History Museum and, since then, it can be seen in the laboratory facilities of Intellectual enterprises.