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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  1. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      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

  2. Smallbrainfield
    Thumb Up

    Yes, but

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

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      ...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.

      1. Thomas 4

        How disappointing

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

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          @ Thomas 4

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

          1. YARR
            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).

  3. Anonymous Coward
    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!

    1. Colin Brett

      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

    2. Rob 30

      EMP proof

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

      1. MinionZero
        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

  4. graeme leggett

    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.

  5. JimND

    But surely it was finished?

    and they went off to fight crime...

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

  6. Michael 82
    Go

    LONG OVERDUE!

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

  7. publius

    A mechanical computer ...

    gives a whole new meaning to "bugs."

    1. CD001

      Umm...

      Isn't it more like the original meaning?

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

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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.

        1. LaeMing Silver badge
          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).

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      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.

    3. M Gale
      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

    4. Anonymous Coward
      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.

    5. Lottie

      so...

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

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    6. benjymous

      bugs

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

    7. John Hughes

      Is this your mum?

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

      Nice legs.

  8. Gilleain Torrance

    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 :)

  9. TeeCee Gold badge
    Troll

    Obvious question.

    Will it run Crysis?

  10. Code Monkey

    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.

  11. Phil Endecott Silver badge

    "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>

  12. Swoop
    Thumb Up

    Computer of dreams

    Build it, and they will write the programs!

    1. Eden
      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.

      1. Evil Graham
        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.

        1. Mike Flugennock

          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.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      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.

    3. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      Sounds more like

      the Harvard architecture, where data and code are separated

    4. The Indomitable Gall

      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.

  13. SlabMan

    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?

  14. M7S
    Thumb Up

    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?

    1. ArmanX
      Go

      I think...

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

    2. A J Stiles

      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 .....

  15. 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.

  16. Paul 75

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

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

  17. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Up

    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

    1. Slartybardfast
      Stop

      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.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      @Graham Marsden

      "The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling"

      So much research

      So many characters.

      So much imagination.

      So little plot.

      <sign>

  18. Paul 25

    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.

    1. Greg Paris

      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.

      1. Ed 13

        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

        1. Code Monkey

          Wrong

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

      2. Lewis Mettler 1
        Go

        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.

        1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

          Or, like Hex

          it would read:

          ++++ Divide by cucumber error ++++

          ++++ Reinstall Universe ++++

          ++++ Redo from start ++++

          (Hats of to Terry Pratchett)

      3. kneedragon

        same as now

        The same will happen as happens now. The Div By Zero flag will go up. Then the OS, or from DOS days the BIOS, will terminate the app and return an error msg with a completely meaningless display and a number, and after twenty paragraphs of reading, the stupidity of what you've done will drop you like a dead fish.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Competition

    Being able to run an interesting competition is some sort of marker for whether it's a real computer... back when the replica of the Manchester SSEM or 'Baby' was being put together I wrote to the team suggesting that they run a programming competition for it. Which I was glad to see them do.

    Posted AC because I never got any credit at the time either...

  20. Aaron Em

    "Steampunk"?

    You sicken me. The Analytical Engine is (or will be) a machine for computing, not a toy for a pretentious child.

  21. nobby

    i wonder

    if that bunch of cards lovingly crafted by Ava will get fed into the machine and a single piece of paper will ticker-tape out of the other end saying

    Hello World!

    1. I didn't do IT.
      Happy

      Re: Not a toy

      Sad to say, but all the people with the time and money that might go to this endeavor *were* the pretentious children in their day... Some of us have even grown up, in some ways... :)

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Simulate it before building it perhaps?

    Since CADing the machine is likely to be a necessary step, why not simulate it after designing it? No point having tens of thousands of components machined if it turns out to be a pile of junk, or have problems Babbage didn't anticipate. Got to be some finite element codes that'd handle cogs turning and stuff, that'd be neat to play with.

  23. John Watkins
    Go

    Back garden workshops

    This could be a brilliant project for all those retired engineers with the skills and equipment to potter over during their spare time.

    Just bung 'em a couple of hundred thousand for materials, some tea & biscuits and in a couple of years, Bob's your uncle!

    1. Code Monkey

      Yes

      Rather like the retired railway staff that keep the non-Analytical steam engines going. I'm sure there'd be plenty of geriatroboffins who'd love a go at building one of these.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

        These engineers

        would need to work to extremely tight tolerances (much better than could be achieved in Victorian times). You really need extremely high and consistent quality.

    2. Richard 45
      Unhappy

      No title

      Pity Fred Dibnah had died. "This here is a com-pu-ter, and it works off steam. I need to shove more coal on before it does the next calculation."

  24. LuMan
    Go

    We can all build it

    Why not make the plans for each individual component fully available to the general public? There's enough of us engineering geeks out here to build components far surpassing the accuracy of Victorian engineering.

    We all agree to build a component to, say, 0.1mm tolerance and send it in to JG-C who can organise a team to work on the assembly. If we all spring for our own little bit of component production costs would be minimal and we'll all feel a part of something pretty damn fantastic!

    @Code Monkey - I'm already growing a rather obtrusive handlebar moustache and a set of sideburns you can mop a flaggon of ale up with!

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Nice idea, but

    Isn't there one in Minecraft already?

  26. snafu
    Happy

    To the Difference Engine!!! (cue Batcave music)

    You need to read Sydney Padua's Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. You do!

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

  27. Mostor Astrakan

    Pray, Mr. Babbage...

    "On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

    The first luser support calls in recorded history.

    1. JimND

      @snafu - Another SP fan!

      I beat you at 12:06 :)

      Seriously, it's worth reading Sydney's comics, and check the footnotes for interesting Victorian factoids...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RE: I'm already growing a rather obtrusive handlebar moustache

      My mutton chops are bigger than your mutton chops.

    3. BongoJoe
      WTF?

      Shirely

      we'd have Imperial measurements and not French ones?

      1. A J Stiles

        The metric system is British

        Actually, the metric system has every right to be called a British invention -- the French needed a lot of our help getting it to work. (Fundamental stuff like, only having *one* definition for the metre.)

        We just let them think they invented it, in exchange for them letting us think we invented front-wheel drive cars.

  28. Doug Glass
    Go

    Already Built

    But the Mayans built it and got 12/12/12 from it. Packed it away later to be "discovered" by Babbage.

  29. Ken 16 Silver badge
    Coffee/keyboard

    launch a simulator first?

    To allow developers to generate code. I'm sure there would be groundswell of (admittedly geeky) interest in the project then.

    Ideally, the engine itself would run in a vacuum or a mineral oil bath to avoid both corrosion and bugs. We would need a big steam engine or waterwheel to drive it.

    A genetic algorithm could be used to refine it's design details and then pass the result on to the CADCAM shops.

    I also will need a new keyboard with very large levers in place of function keys.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Grenade

    engine, tell me... what is 1/0?

    I think I would have trouble resisting the urge to see what would happen when I tried a divide by zero.

    I have a feeling there would be a terrible grinding of gears and possibly an explosion.

    Which would be quite amusing but probably not the best of form.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Joke

      re: engine, tell me... what is 1/0?

      "Out of cheese error - redo from start"

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reminds me...

    "... 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"

    ...why I stopped reading Gibson (after a chapter or 2 of Idoru). Tried once cos of the hype around him and boy did I hate it. So er, thanks for reminding me. I did think of checking out the Difference Engine but will avoid it and stick to proper SciFi and not pretentious wank like the above. I know, different tastes and all that. Seriously though, thanks for reminding me :o)

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      @ AC

      A lot of sci-fi is "pretentious wank". Name the best three sci-fi authors - I bet a lot of us would arrive with the same names. Out of how many?

      1. Sam Therapy
        Thumb Up

        Re: best three SF authors

        1. Iain M Banks

        2. Alastair Reynolds

        3. Larry Niven (before he ran out of ideas)

        I don't mind Gibson's stuff but IMO, the above mentioned are miles ahead.

  32. Ian Halstead

    But will the design allow for...

    a doubling of boiler and furnace capacity every 18 months?

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      @Ian Halstead

      Holy shit! Moore's Law is actually a corrollary to Boyle's Law?

      Who saw that coming?

  33. Alan Firminger

    /0

    Powered mechanical calculators from the 1930s, as seen in The Small Back Room, survived.

    I ask what was the instruction set. Simulators at noon.

  34. Acme Fixer
    Stop

    But, But, But...

    The Analytical Engine should not be built UNTIL it has been 'built' in virtual reality. With the power of today's computers, it will be possible to do exactly the same thing, and also be able to take a virtual tour of the insides of the machine, much more intimate than the 'real thing'. And if the simulation is open source, anyone can d/l and run it at their own convenience.

  35. Dave Bell
    Coat

    A Reality Check

    Once the Difference Engine was built, people were able to build others. I've seen video of working machines made from Meccano and Lego.

    1: This project may be easier than we think.

    2: On developing field of computer-aided design is rapid prototyping, Do we have the materials for sufficiently durable parts to be made with sufficient precision? It would be a great demonstration project.

    And Whitworth threads only, please.

  36. Andus McCoatover
    Joke

    Nice if it happened...

    ...but would it be faster than Vista to start up, being steam-powered?

    Fuc*king BIG YES!!

    1. Code Monkey

      "Needs more coal"

      Which has often been my standard reply to a ticket for any of our older production servers.

    2. Michael 82
      Thumb Up

      Agreed with Andus!

      Yes would be awesome, however it depends when you start the clock from lighting the match or from when you have a full head of steam, before flicking the one switch????

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Boffin

        Write failed: Broken pipe

        Clearly, UNIX is steam-powered

  37. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    Mechanical computer

    I thought that the Russian already did this on their subs.

  38. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Punched cards don't come on a "reel" - you're thinking of paper tape.

    Punched cards come in decks, or if you're talking Jacquard -type cards, fanfold stacks similar to those used in player pianos.

    Some expert.

  39. John Savard Silver badge

    Already One

    The original Zuse Z-1 was a mechanical computer, although designed on very different mechanical principles than the Analytical Engine.

    What is perhaps a bigger tragedy than Babbage's failure, which was probably unavoidable, was that Torres y Quevedo was not able to successfully construct his attempt at a general-purpose computer, made with electrical relays. That could have led to computers existing much earlier than was actually the case.

    It would be nice to have a working Analytical Engine, but spending that much money on something that would basically just look pretty in a museum is questionable. When we can afford it more easily, perhaps.

  40. YumDogfood

    Better passify those cog surfaces.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_welding

  41. Nebulo
    Go

    I'm holding out

    ... for a properly "piped" interface to a proper steam fairground organ, to do soundcard duty.

    A beautiful project, and like most of us here I want to see (and hear!) it.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't Give To HP (EDS)!

    Whatever they do, please don't give it to the old EDS to write the code for. If this project has been running for 200 years then they will use that to guide their thoughts on delivery timescales and the sun will have burnt its last embers before we see anything.

    I would have suggested that HP might have the technology to build this, however they seem to have lost their way recently by hiring a failed software leader, so heaven help HP if he's let loose in Packard's old garage.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Flame

      *RECENTLY* lost their way?

      Umm, the Agilent spin-off was ten years ago. Since then HP stopped inventing however much their slogan tries to convince you otherwise, with the possible exception of inventing more ways to turn pigments into money.

      Getting EDS, and now Apoteker, on board is just par for the course.

  43. M. Burns Silver badge
    Boffin

    Quaint, but that's all

    It would be a fun project to build, but that would be the extent of it. Babbage Analytical "Engine" would not even be the computational equivalent of an old 1970's programmable calculator (e.g. SR-52, HP-65).

    But it would be cool, in an H.G. Wells sort of way.

  44. Graham Bartlett

    Reminds me...

    ... why I started reading Gibson. If that passage doesn't do anything for you, definitely don't try Neal Stephenson, Stephen Donaldson, Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Charles Stross, Philip Dick, Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester or Ray Bradbury (picking a few of the more literary SF writers). Asimov or Heinlein might be OK. Otherwise the Star Wars tie-ins are a safe bet.

    SF books can be just a paper version of a Michael Bay film - and if that's all you want, then fine. The Stainless Steel Rat series is great fun. But there's no reason that SF can't be more that that.

  45. Nigel 11

    Why do it the wrong way?

    There are at least two better ways to build a non-electronic computer using principles that were understood in the middle 1800s. It's a huge shame that Babbage never encountered them.

    The first is electromagnetism. Use relays. I don't think they'd been invented, but I'm sure if you'd asked a young Faraday how to turn an electric current on or off using another electric current, he'd have invented the relay in minutes. Anything binary that can be done with a transistor can be done with a relay. Don't know if a stored-program computer has ever been built out of relays, but complicated logic often still is. That's because relays have quite enormous noise immunity and can be designed to fail safe. Good characteristics for (say) safety interlock systems in a nuclear power station.

    The second is fluidics/ pneumatic logic. Logic gates and binary storage can both be created out of streams of compressed air (or water), rather than streams of electrons. For a fun application, look up the water computer that someone built at MIT. I believe that a compressed air computer has actually been used inside a jet engine (probably in the days of Germanium transistors which couldn't hack hot places).

    Note: a clock rate of many kilohertz should be achievable. Practical note: one could give such a beast keyboard input (like an organ, but with more complex pipework). Aesthetic note: a factor of two is an octave, threes give perfect fifths, fives give major thirds. Some algorithms might sound quite pleasant as they crunched. Anyone fancy writing a simulator including audio?

    1. kneedragon

      done

      I seem to remember a certain german electrical engineer, who delivered a working (primitive) computer on a table top in 1936, using relays. His request for funding, to develop the idea, was rejected. I seem to recall it had a clock of 50 Hz, an accumulator, a couple or four 8 bit registers... I don't think it had alternating data / opcode.

      It wasn't quite a von neuman machine, but it was well on the way, and the things he said in trying to 'sell' the bigger version showed he had a firm grasp on what had to be done next. It's perhaps just as well they didn't fund him.

      1. Nigel 11

        <shudder>

        In fiction, the Nazis did continue that development. Charles Stross, "The Atrocity Archives".

        Where's the Cthulu icon? (though Stross is both scarier and funnier).

    2. graeme leggett

      re Water-based computer - the Phillips Computer

      MONIAC Computer, aka Phillips Hydraulic Computer aka Financephalograph.

      The one I couldn't remember in the Science Museum. Invented 1949 by a student at the LSE. could model the UK economy.

      Readers of Terry Pratchett's Making Money may recognise the principles.

  46. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    Beowulf cluster?

    I'll get my coat ...

  47. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    The Next Control Step ...... a Quantum Communications Power Leap.

    "Graham-Cumming writes on his blog:

    I say that it's time Britain built the Analytical Engine. After the wonderful reconstruction of the Difference Engine we need to finish Babbage's dream of a steam-powered, general-purpose computer. "

    Time has moved things on quite considerably, Graham-Cumming, and today are all of us in an altogether different space, and hosted hosting place in CyberSpace.

    The Post Modern, Babbage Analytical Engine for the LOVE Lace of Ada is AIdDeep and Welcoming Passion delivering PerlyGatedDPython Strings for New Fangled Meme Entanglement .......the SMARTer NEUKlearer HyperRadioProActive IT Drivers for stream-powered, multi-purpose, unilateral controlling command of computers and coded Programs.

    CodedDXSSXXXX ProgramMING is just one of ITs Utilities and is a Sophisticated Facility for AIdDriver Target Acquisition Systems ..... and acts as a Virtual Master Key and Crack Hack Tool for both Public Pilot Projects and Private Pirate Raids ...... and all blissful kinds of blessed shenanigans in between.

    And that is so much more Enigmatic Bletchley Park than Dogmatic Science Museum ..... and most probably also the sort of Subject Matter of ESPecial Interest to a BAE or Foreign Officed Clone/Sister System.

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's the betting that building the steam engine

    is the most expensive part of the exercise?

  49. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Boffin

    Babbage computer? Mechanical computer? Nanomechanical computer?

    All possible.

    By the way one *very* interesting point of Babbage's plan was making it fail safe. The DE concept predates the idea of "Verifiable" processors attempted by (for example) the RSRE VIPER project by about 150 years.

    One of KE Drexlers projects was a mechanical computer to play noughts and crosses (not sure if hard wired or actually programmable) which formed the basis of his nano-mechanical rod-and-ball logic.

    It would be interesting to see what the tolerances for the 1830 *were*. Mass production and interchangeable parts were coming in so tolerances were good enough to replace file-to-fit.

    For a curved ball on this using modern hindsight look at a mechanical *binary* computer. Eliminate the rotating elements and go to 2 position indicators using some kind of flexure mounts. While these limit angular movement to at most about 30deg the binary nature should still make it readable. High precision mechanical parts can be made using photochemical methods in large quantities. Handy if you're looking to do this.

    Clock speed? Well smaller objects can move faster (Drexler's point was at nanometre scale mechanical objects would have GHz operating speeds) but something you could assemble with your bare hands isn't going to work that well. The speed of sound at 340ms suggests an object about 1/3 of a mm *could* move around 1MHz. But the tight fitting of parts are likely to give an air cushion effect which would knock this down a lot. 10s to 100s of KHz seems possible.

    As to what use it is. Who knows?

  50. Clive Harris
    Linux

    Linux kernel port?

    I'm sure we could port the Linux kernel to it with a bit of effort.

  51. Mikel
    Pint

    Build it.

    It's the right thing to do.

  52. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Joke

    Linux port to follow?

    Well it runs on *nearly* everything else.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Not nearly as much

      as NetBSD, which *does* run on everything, short of a kitchen sink (but I haven't kept up with the latest ports, so I may be wrong there).

  53. Vanir

    It'll never get built ...

    as it probably will break some hardware patent or some software patent and the lawyers will yet again skim money.

  54. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    Removable storage? Interwebs?

    "CD Burning" could attain a whole old meaning again. Maybe vinyl LPs should be cooked instead for removable media. Fully EMP and rust proof. And fully analogue to boot.

    How would the network connection for this thing be?

    My coat is the one dirty with soot.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Interface

      For output I'd expect it to be able to control whistles, the sound of which can be picked up and fed to a FSK (75 or 110bd, maybe 300bd) modem. The input converter could be any device that spits out paper tape or punched cards

  55. veti Silver badge
    Stop

    JGC is out of his tree

    Babbage spent 20 years trying to build his "Difference Engine", and he damn' near bankrupted the government in the process. And we're talking about the British government at the height of Victorian financial glory, not today's debt-ridden behemoth.

    The "Analytical Engine" is far more complicated. It's as sure a recipe for bankruptcy of anyone who tries it as I've ever heard of.

    JGC wants to throw his own money away, fine. Even take up a public subscription if you like. But don't come crying to the taxpayer when it all goes tits up.

  56. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    Nothing wrong with...

    ...Stainless Steel Rat. Read them all at the time, along with the 2000ad adaptations!

    Not saying they're the best but favourites...

    1. Peter F Hamilton

    2. Iain M Banks

    3. Stephen Donaldson, just for the GAP series/Michael Moorcock, for the old sci-fi stuff.

    Liking Richard Morgan too.

    As I said, people like different things, and I just don't like Gibson. Obviously some of you can't handle that when you're coming out with comments like the Star Wars stuff etc, which btw, isn't SciFi.

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