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Let's build Babbage's ultimate mechanical computer


IN 1837 British mathematician Charles Babbage described a mechanical computer that later became known as the Analytical Engine. Calling it a computer is no stretch: the Analytical Engine had a central processing unit and memory and would have been programmed with punched cards.

Parts of the Analytical Engine were built in the 1800s and are on display in the Science Museum in London along with a stack of punched cards. But Babbage never completed the project.

The computer was an extension of his well-known Difference Engine, which was designed to calculate tables of numbers such as logarithms.

While building a prototype of the Difference Engine No 1, Babbage realised that a more general-purpose machine was possible. While the Difference Engine could perform the same set of calculations over and over again, it couldn't examine its own results to change its calculations. A machine that can do that has the power of a modern computer.

Even though the Analytical Engine would have been mechanical and powered by steam, it would likely have been Turing-complete - that is, capable of computing any computable function. Babbage later returned to difference engines, designing a simpler and faster model referred to as No 2. But though he never built this machine either, he left complete plans which the Science Museum used to build a working model in the early 1990s.

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