back to article Boffins step closer to steam-powered Babbage computer

A project to build British mathematician Charles Babbage's mechanical computer has won assistance from the Science Museum in London. The museum has begun digitising Babbage's plans and notebooks so that John Graham-Cumming, the programmer and computer historian behind the project, and his team can begin work. Babbage first …


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  1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge


    I hope I will see it working in my lifetime!

    Although to be honest, to "understand how computers work" you only really need an abacus. Less fancy, but also much less expensive!

  2. LuMan
    Thumb Up


    What a fantastic initiative. Love it. Can't wait to see it realised.

    On a similar note, didn't someone build a difference machine out of Meccano, or something?

    1. MCG


      Methinks you should go look out that ancient "How Computers Work" book and toil over it until you discover the startling reason why true computers differ from mere calculators (such as abaci). Or then again, you could just Google it.

      1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge


        In the case of the abacus the program is "entered" by the user's fingers, not punchcards, but it is perfectly possible to demonstrate how computers work (including some pretty complex notions of programming) using only an abacus. Some people even build binary abaci especially for the purpose of teaching how binary computers work, although with the right conception you can manipulate pretty much any set of conceptual objects with an abacus.

        1. John Hughes

          There is no program in an abacus

          The program is in the users head.

          The abacus itself is just a memory.

          1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

            In the words of Deep Thought

            "The Milliard Gargantubrain, A mere abacus"

            (RIP Douglas Adams)

      2. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge


        Calling abaci "mere calculators" is an insult to both abaci and calculators. Although an abacus can be used for calculation, it is only an abstraction tool; the "calculator" would be the system [abacist abacus]. The same system can be a full-fat -although not very fast- "computer", and more, with the right abacist. The abacus is not limited to binary, either, which is very interesting for CS teaching purpose; although it is not possible to model a real quantic computer at the iron level with a reasonnably-sized single-frame abacus, you'll note that Babbage's machine is not more helpful in that case.

        Actually it might just be possible to model a quantic computer using a multiframe abacus, I'll give it some thought.

  3. Monkey Bob

    Must. Read. Slower.

    I read that as cabbage-powered steam computer.

  4. LuMan

    Re: My Earlier Post

    Yep, a quick Google and there you have it:


    1. BoldMan

      Bits of the Analytical Engine have been built in Meccano and also in Lego, but nobody has yet built the whole thing (that i know of).

      As for differential analysers, ie analog computers, Meccano is a favourite material for these, Barnes Wallis even had one for helping with his Bouncing Bomb calculations.

    2. Mr T

      Re: Must. read. Slower.

      I'm glad I'm not the only one to make that mistake!!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      > cabbage-powered steam computer.

      ... would be the one somewhere on the plains around Ankh-Morpork...

  5. NoneSuch

    Just don't load iOS or Windows on it. As an unapproved piece of hardware they will sue you.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Actually it's going to run Windows ME. It's the only hardware platform that will run ME for longer than 5 minutes!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Of course.

        Of course. And at least it will be on a computer that crashes properly!

      2. bazza Silver badge


        Only because it takes 5 minutes to execute the first 10 instructions of the BIOS...

  6. David Lester

    An issue for steam-powered computers...

    ... is that of heat transmission.

    One of the "computing engines" in the Science Museum's collection is Carter's Ringing Machine. This was devised circa 1900 by Mr Carter, who was a Birmingham Bell-ringer, and -- for afficionados it was capable of ringing Stedman Triples on hand bells via an electro-mechanical linkage. The problems was that with the original steam engine, heat was transmitted via the drive shaft into the system causing sufficient expansion for the tolerances to be exceeded and the machine to seize.

    In more recent times, the machine has rung a "full extent" of Stedman Triples (that's all 7! = 5040 changes or about three hours), using an electric motor as power supply. It's worth a look if you can get the curator to give you a private demonstration.

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Seems like a simple fix...

      Use a drive belt between the steam engine and 'computing engine'?

  7. James Micallef Silver badge
    Thumb Up


  8. ZankerH
    Thumb Up

    Love it, but...

    can it play crysis while tweetbooking about my cloud-enabled, social, geotagged bowel movements?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge


      they gave up on Crysis comparability when they decided to go for a tablet form factor.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Tweeting about it, yes.

      Cloud-enabled, yes.

      Geotagged, yes. (via contact-less methods one hopes)

      But social? My mind spins trying to understand any way in which bowel movements can be social.

      But if you are having trouble, a good blast with steam should sort things out.

    3. TeeCee Gold badge


      Youll need the upgrade. That version has two boilers powering it, providing Steam Linked Injection. Each boiler has two fireboxes and the whole thing is arranged so that the four fireboxes are in a cruciform arrangement to maximise space for stoking, known as four-way cross fire.

      Coming soon from Antique Macro Devices......

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

        Or just use Parson's steam turbine

        The Babbage engine in turbo mode

  9. Chris Miller

    But what happens

    when it gets a virus?

  10. Disco-Legend-Zeke

    Would Be Fun... load the dimensions into a proper CGI rendering engine.

    We should be able to see the virtual Babbage machine in action. Perhaps degubbing prior to physical build.

  11. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. emmanuel goldstein
    Thumb Up

    Networked Babbages

    The first commercial telegraph was in 1839. If two Babbage machines had been created around the same time and placed 10 miles or so apart... see where I'm going here?

    19th Century steam-powered networked computers.

    1. WonkoTheSane

      I do see where you're going with this...

    2. Will Godfrey Silver badge

      You'd need a babbage-fish for the translation layer.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Forbin project was my first thought


  13. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    @ Disco-Legend-Zeke

    That degubbing sounds serious. Are you seeing a doctor about it?

  14. Lars Silver badge

    Be carefull

    Or you might step on a Microsoft patent.

  15. Lars Silver badge

    And beware of round corners too.

  16. Zippy the Pinhead

    Steampunked computer

    It's gotta have lots of brass! lots and lots of brass!

  17. Ian Johnston Silver badge


    sues in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ...

  18. Zippy the Pinhead


    >> And beware of round corners too.

    Too right.. cause everyone knows the steam powered ipad is prior art!

  19. M Gale

    So if you create this in AutoCAD, Inventor or similar...

    ...and then run it in a simulation...

    ...does that mean that your CAD program is a hypervisor?

  20. Martin Usher

    Typical government computing project....

    ..only 150 years late on delivery this time.....

    1. Scott Broukell

      Sadly ....

      .. it was lack of government, or other, funding that shelved both major projects. Had funding and foresight been in abundance at the time, the machines could have, amongst other things of course, calculated highly accurate ranging tables for the navy etc and we would have really, really have been ruling the waves then.

  21. ian 22


    An astounding 3 flops per second!

    Has anyone calculated the number Watts per operation this beast will require?

    Grind grind grind.....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      MIPW might be a better measure

      I have not looked at the actual specs, but I'd be very surprised if it can do *any* floating point operations, let alone 3 per second.

      Ok, sure you can probably emulate a flop ... once per week.

      I think performance should be measured in MIPW (Million Instructions Per Week).

      1. kwhitefoot

        Why should it not be able to do floating point?

        Perhaps the body should be optional too.

  22. graeme leggett

    Interesting error messages, etc

    "unexpected washer in line 50"

    Also I note it could be powered by renewables - eg a waterwheel or wind turbine. Very Eco.

    1. Bill B

      You sir, owe me a new keyboard

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    finally a computer that does not require electricity

    might be useful when solar flares take out all silicon computer

  24. Northern Fop

    Seriously? No one?

    Nobody has mentioned "The Difference Engine" by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson? Progenitor of all recent steampunk, where Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine in his lifetime? Not one of you? Oh, the shame.

    Go read it!! It's ace.

    1. jphb
      Thumb Up

      "The Difference Engine" is a great read.

      For a factual account Tom Standage's "Victorian Internet" [1998] is also well worth a read.

      Digital store and forward communications networks - just like the Internet -

      in the 18th (yes 18th) century.

    2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      It's a good book

      But it feels like it's building up to a better ending than it actually has.

    3. skeptical i

      Also, I believe Neal Stephenson has a difference engine plot thread ...

      ... somewhere in his Baroque Trilogy.

  25. Alan Edwards

    Steam-powered mechanical computer

    1) It's probably quicker than a single-core Atom

    2) No, it won't run Crysis

    3) You probably could build a Beowulf cluster of them, a giant rubber belt powering two off the same steam engine.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't go rubber...

      Go steel chains. Strip a few hundred of those no-muffler-noisy-two-strokes motorcycles off their chains.

      Rubber belts for power transmission require tension, which force the bearings over time. Chains eventually need spring fasteners for long distances, but wear out at slower rate, with proper application of axle grease. At a plus, chains provide synchronicity, should that ever be needed. Plus they agree with high temperature, soot... as long the grease is there.

  26. Nick Galloway

    programming & maintenance?

    So who will qualify as the new Miss Lovelace & Mr Whitworth?

  27. Martin Taylor 1

    Sorry, is it fed with a reel of punch cards or a pack of paper tape?

    1. John Hughes

      Reel of punched cards

      Think Jacquard loom.

  28. Ken 16 Silver badge

    Water wheel?

    That would take away the heat transmission problem and make it a 'green' computing initiative. You could probably govern it so the water cooling at one end counteracts the heat from friction in the gears. It might be worth investigating running it in an inert atmosphere to avoid corrosion and bugs.

  29. Javc

    Linux port

    I'm sure a linux port is in the works. (Still faster than Vista)

  30. Bunker_Monkey
    Thumb Up

    Will be awesome...

    Then it'll become self-aware and the world will never be the same again...

    Just make sure no-one hooks it up to the internet, unless its with TalkTalk

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