This is pretty cool. Scientists in the U.K. are trying to build Babbage’s analytical engine based on his unfinished blueprints. To fill the gaps, the scientists are turning to crowdsourcing!
What it may do, though, is answer a question that has tantalized historians for decades: Did an eccentric mathematician named Charles Babbage conceive of the first programmable computer in the 1830s, a hundred years before the idea was put forth in its modern form by Alan Turing?
The machine on the drawing boards at the Science Museum in London is the Babbage Analytical Engine, a room-size mechanical behemoth that its inventor envisioned but never built.
In the case of the Difference Engine, a complete set of plans existed. The Analytical Engine, by contrast, was a work in progress, as Babbage continually refined his thinking in a series of blueprints. Thus, the hope is to “crowd-source” the analysis of what should be built; plans will be posted online next year, and the public will be invited to offer suggestions.
“There is no single set of plans that design a single machine.” said Tim Robinson, a docent at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. “It was constantly in a state of flux.”
The project is significant in part because there has been a heated debate over whether — given time and resources — Babbage would have been able to build the machine he foresaw.