back to article Legendary steampunk computer 'should be built' - programmer

A well-known British programmer, blogger and online campaigner has called for a collaborative effort to finally make a legendary steampunk mechanical computer - the Babbage Analytical "Engine", designed but never actually built - a reality. John Graham-Cumming will be well known to many Reg readers as the programmer behind …

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Anonymous Coward

instruction set?

come on reg - give us the instruction set and memory model, then we'll see what sort of stuff could be written for it.

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Boffin

A few from a list I got

AWTT Assemble With Tinker Toys

BOD Beat on Drum

BRO BRanch and Overheat

BWABL Bells, Whistles and Blinking Lights

BWOP BeWilder Operator

CAF Convert Ascii to Farsic

CRN Convert to Roman Numerals

DSI Do Something Interesting

DSR Detonate Status Register

DSTD Do Something Totally Different

DSUIT Do Something Utterly, Indescribably Terrible

DTC Destroy This Command

ENF Emit Noxious Fumes

ENG Enable Gravity

EOI Execute Operator Immediate [a fast version of another instruction]

EP Execute Programmer

EPI Execute Programmer Immediate

FLD FLing Disc

HCF Halt and Catch Fire

IDC Initiate Destruct Command

LTS Loop Till Smokes

LUM LUbricate Memory

RIC Rotate Illogical thru Carry

RLI Rotate Left Indefinitely

ROD ROtate Diagonally

RRC Rotate Random thru Carry

SPA Sliding Point Arithmetic

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Yes, but

has anyone worked out how to play Tetris on it yet?

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...ust add a mechanical display

...and tetris should be possible.

There's a description of a possible mechanical display in "The Difference Engine" by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Fun.

A thought: now we have NC machining and much better materials than Babbage could get his hands on, there's no reason why a Difference Engine shouldn't be quite a bit smaller than the original design. This would reduce material cost and space requirements a lot and could/should still be steam powered, preferably from a bio-methane boiler: this would let it continue to run long after all fossil fuel has been used up.

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How disappointing

.....not one single comment about its ability to run a certain FPS?

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@ Thomas 4

Only need FPS for gaming and video. For raw number crunching, it's the MIPS that count.

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FAIL

@ heyrick

He meant the other kind of FPS.

Incidentally, given enough memory, any computer can run Crysis - just not at a very high FPS (of the first kind).

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Anonymous Coward

Go for it

It'll still be usable when the light's go off and we are sitting around burning animal faeces for warmth and animal fat for illumination.

And talk about resistant to EMP!

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It's being done already

It'll still be usable when the light's go off and we are sitting around burning animal faeces for warmth and animal fat for illumination.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11433162

Colin

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EMP proof

that would be a nice benefit, how far could it be miniaturised i wonder.

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Boffin

@"how far could it be miniaturised i wonder."

Very far ... even down to Nanotech sizes. There has been (for some years) work towards exactly this goal and in the past 2 weeks, DARPA have said they are looking into nanotech mechanical computation...

http://www.physorg.com/news203947752.html

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Go

LONG OVERDUE!

Bring it on, its long overdue and maybe it will actually work...

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so...

... not any different from a government IT project then?

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This post has been deleted by its author

But surely it was finished?

and they went off to fight crime...

http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/lovelace-the-origin-2/

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A mechanical computer ...

gives a whole new meaning to "bugs."

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Umm...

Isn't it more like the original meaning?

http://www.jamesshuggins.com/h/tek1/first_computer_bug.htm

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Boffin

Little bit of computing history.

The term "Bug" was coined by a Grace Murray Hopper, after locating a problem within one of the large, relay-powered mainframes of the day. A moth had become stuck in the system and was preventing a relay from working correctly. This was recorded in her log book, along with the offending moth, as the first computer bug.

So now you know.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btmurr.html

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Flame

erm, nope.

doesn't it give the original meaning to Bugs even more meaning as according to popular internet myth it was a bug in a big computer in the 50s that gave its name to the term.... it was a moth wasn't it.... *

being lazy i am not going to google the truth in this for you, do it yourself.

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Anonymous Coward

fascist titular dictat

...even in the link given by CD001 above, which is all about the moth incident, the end of the article clarifies (and the wording of the beginning of the article suggests) that the term 'bug' was already in use before the moth thing happened.

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Boffin

I believe

the term "bug" can be traced back to card-programable mechanical weaving looms (which inspired Babbage so the loop is somewhat closed).

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bugs

Actually, that's the original meaning of the term "bugs" - insects that crawled into early computers and stopped them working

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science museum

Must just plug the SM's computing collection here.

Went there at the weekend with my son and my mum. He wasn't interested in the computing side so I got dragged past it at high speed.

Aside from the punched card machines that my mum worked with when she started out in programming there are some really old fashioned ways of doing stuff that were high tech at the time. Pegasus, Manchester and that financial modelling device that ran on water that I didn't get a chance to note the name of.

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My mum also

...worked with similar machines and took great joy in embarrassing her children by pointing out her tasks on these 'ancient' museum pieces. It is her I have to thank for sparking my interest in the subject and thanks to the SM for some brilliant exhibits.

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Is this your mum?

http://www.icl1900.co.uk/images/1906A1971.jpg

Nice legs.

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Troll

Obvious question.

Will it run Crysis?

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Crysis - of course!

Of course it will run Crysis, only thing was it would have a frame rate of about 1 frame per decade... so possibly would feel a bit laggy.

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Computer of dreams

Build it, and they will write the programs!

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By jingo we should build it!

And insist that everyone who wants to program the beast should wear a stovepipe hat and grow appropriately fearsome Victorian facial hair.

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Unhappy

RE: By Jingo

Would a prosethic facial warmer be acceptable for those of us with the unfortunate gentic disposition that does not allow for the growing of such fearsome facial attire.

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Happy

Re: RE: By Jingo

By "unfortunate gen[e]tic disposition" do you mean "female"? If so, you are already in the spirit of Victorian science sir, and I salute your attention to detail.

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Re: RE: By Jingo

"By 'unfortunate gen[e]tic disposition' do you mean 'female'?"

Not necessarily. My mother's side of my family are all rather thin-haired, and I unfortunately picked up that gene, resulting in my inability to grow any kind of substantial beard (although I have managed to grow a halfway-decent moustache). Attempts to grow out my facial hair have resulted in pathetic little patches which make me look rather like a nuclear accident victim. So, clean-shaven but for the moustache it is.

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Ada Lovelace as a programmer and mathematician

The article heavily implies (along with the linked article from 1999) that Ada's position as "first programmer" is based on myth. However, this is not clear from her notes on the translation of Menabrea's talk (scroll down for her notes):

http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html

assuming that the transcript hasn't been favourably edited, she certainly seems competent enough. It's a little difficult to read text from ye olden days due to that fact that the style was kind of verbose and dull. However, consider this small snippet:

"In studying the action of the Analytical Engine, we find that the peculiar and independent nature of the considerations which in all mathematical analysis belong to operations, as distinguished from the objects operated upon and from the results of the operations performed upon those objects, is very strikingly defined and separated."

Sounds like OO programming to me :)

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Sounds more like

the Harvard architecture, where data and code are separated

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Absolute opposite of OO....

The point of OO is that the operations are intrinsically linked to the objects operated upon and the results of the operation. Lovelace was pretty much declarative, borderlining on functional, in her approach to programming.

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"Educational resource"

> And what a great educational resource so that people can understand

> how computers work

<rant>

Well let's start by turning what we've already got i.e. the Difference Engine in the science museum and the reconstructed Bombe at Bletchley and the Manchester Baby at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry into "Educational resources". At present, these are just artefacts that you can look at. If you go to the book shops of those places you can no doubt pick up a 500-page book explaining stuff, but none of those things has the 5-minute video or 1000-word booklet describing how it works. Perhaps the problem is that the geeks who make the reconstructions are incapable of explaining how they work in less than 500 pages and the museum curators are incapable of explaining them at all. I've visited each one and found myself explaining stuff to other visitors, who are definitely capable of grasping stuff at the appropriate level.

</rant>

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It should definitely be done

Maybe with Lottery money - do you feel lucky, Steampunk?

It makes me wonder, though. Imagine a parallel historical track where Babbage had built it, and electronic computers hadn't happened. How would the concept have developed, and what would a 21st century analytical engine look like?

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I think...

I think the electrical versions would have arrived sooner, actually; the original televisions were mechanical, after all. Interesting thought, that...

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Imagine a parallel historical track

"It makes me wonder, though. Imagine a parallel historical track where Babbage had built it, and electronic computers hadn't happened."

I think Bruce Sterling and William Gibson already did just that .....

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M7S
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If there was a proper fund

I'd pledge some cash, on the basis that if they dont raise enough to start the project we can get it back. In these difficult economic times its probably the only way to do it. Any ideas as to total cost?

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It's all very well building the hardware...

...but who will implement the App Store for it?

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Viv
Stop

If built MS will file suit for infringement of their patents

Obviously the only problem will be that Microsoft will file suit for infringing its intellectual property rights.

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If Built

If built Apple would build the magical wonderful amazing tech into their next product and claim that they had only just invented it and then patent it anyway.

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Ten thousand towers...

... the cyclonic hum of a trillion twisting gears, all air gone earthquake-dark in a mist of oil, in the fractioned heat of intermeshing wheels. Black seamless pavements, uncounted tributary rivulets for the frantic travels of the punched-out lace of data, the ghosts of history loosed in this hot shining necropolis. Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye.

- The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

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Unhappy

@Graham Marsden

"The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling"

So much research

So many characters.

So much imagination.

So little plot.

<sign>

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Would love to see it done, but which one would you build?

I would really love to see this built, but wasn't part of the problem originally that Babbage, being terrible at just sticking to one thing and getting it done, ended up coming up with loads of half-finished designs?

Also, I seem to remember that building the Difference Engine that lives in the Science Museum actually helped drive the engineering company that built it to bankruptcy.

This is all based on what I remember from the book "The Cogwheel Brain" so I might have it wrong.

I would be first in the cue to see a working AE though so I'm really hoping someone steps forward with the cash.

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Error! Error!

I just want to know what happens when the machine encounters a divide by zero error. I'm sure those schoolchildren writing programs for it will generate those and many other gear stripping delights. Or somebody will do it on purpose just to see the crash.

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Wrong

A little plate pops up with the message "wrong" on it!

http://books.google.com/books?id=NZcBAAAAQAAJ&dq=inauthor%3Acharles%20inauthor%3Ababbage&lr&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is&as_brr=0&pg=PA187#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Wrong

That has made my afternoon. Tonight I will raise a glass of Mr Shepherd's ale to the memory of Mr Babbage!

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just spins

Divide by zero would just cause the unit to spin like a gear without any teeth.

Divide by zero is not illegal, just difficult to represent correctly. But, a spinning gear (just like a modern loop) would do fine.

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