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A Vision Ahead

On December 26, 1791, English mathematician and pioneer computer scientist Charles Babbage was born. He spent much of his life trying to plan and build a machine that would make as many calculations as possible. Error free, of course. He had read about the mechanical calculator that Pascal had built over a hundred years earlier, and figured it was time to take it into his present 19th century.

He drew up plans and revealed them to the Royal Astronomical Society, calling his modern calculating machine a difference engine. It would greatly assist astronomers in their computations. This excited everyone and the government granted Babbage sums of money over several years to build the device. However, Babbage’s vision, even the plans he drew, were way ahead of his time. Each part, and there were thousands of parts, required unique tooling. In fact, Babbage needed to create the tools to do the tooling of the engine’s parts. Twenty years later, the machine was mired in oversight disagreements and changes in government interest and abandoned.

Babbage was soon on to an even more exciting and broader vision, a machine that would do not just some astronomical table computation but any kind of calculation. Bring it on! This he called an analytical engine. It was the world’s very first general-purpose computer. It would work with punch cards much like the Jacquard cards used by the “computerized” textile loom. However, after thousands of sheets of mechanical drawings and assembling a trial model, this engine was never completed.

Having learned much about the different steps in building a modern computer, Babbage revisited his Difference Engine for a second version. This time he cut the number of required parts down by a third. Nonetheless, Babbage did not attempt to build the device.

His detailed, original plans were dusted off and examined closely in the 20th century. In 1991, the Second Difference Engine was built! It functions perfectly and resides in the Science Museum, London, England. A duplicate is displayed and demonstrated at the Computer History Museum , Mountain View, California.

Ahead of the technological ability of his age. Ahead of his time with his vision. Babbage helped found a section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that grew into today’s Royal Statistical Society. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in the first year it was awarded. The Charles Babbage Institute, a centre for the history of information technology, is located at the University of Minnesota.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage