Babbage's Notes to be Digitized in Order to Build Working Analytical Engine

Close up of analytical engine model

Recently, the BBC reported that the London Science Museum plans to add to its collection in the history of computing by digitizing Charles Babbage's huge store of design notes on the Analytical Engine. Though the 19th c. Analytical Engine is often pointed to as a machine that presaged the modern computer, a working version was never fully built in Babbage's lifetime (although the notes on the potential machine resulted in the first computer program, written by Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace). And historians have not been the only ones fascinated with this machine--alternate histories in which the Analytical Engine was successfully built form the bedrock of a significant amount of science fiction, particularly in the steampunk subgenre.

Doron Swade, a former curator of the Science Museum and the driving force behind an earlier project that built a working Difference Engine, has teamed up with John Graham-Cumming, who led the campaign in 2009 to ask the British government to issue an apology to the late Alan Turing. (Turing's critical codebreaking work during the war and brilliance in the nascent field of computer science did not protect him from being convicted and punished for having a sexual relationship with a man in 1952. His sentence required chemical castration and resulted in the loss of his clearance to work on secret government projects, likely encouraging him to end his life in 1954.)

The Analytical Engine project will result in a machine nearly as large as a steam train, which the team hopes will be completed by 2021. In the meantime, a modern computer will be used to simulate the Analytical Engine, to give museum patrons access to the Engine's workings, and scholars worldwide will undoubtedly benefit from the digitization of Babbage's notes--although there is no word yet on when or how those will be made available to the public.

(Many thanks to a student in my history of computing class who pointed out this latest news on the Analytical Engine rebuild project to me.)