One of the great inventions that never was – until now?

Campaign for Babbage's 'Analytical Engine' to be built – 173 years after it was devised

It may seem an anachronism in the era of the ever-shrinking digital gadget, but Charles Babbage's locomotive-size "Analytical Engine" remains one of the greatest inventions that never was.

Babbage's brainchild, first conceived in 1837, never wound into life. But now John Graham-Cumming, an influential programmer and science blogger, is leading a quest to build the Analytical Engine in all its 19th-century glory. He plans to use detailed blueprints which Babbage laid down in a series of notebooks held in the archives of London's Science Museum.

To be powered by steam and built in brass and iron, the giant machine would have towered over its inventor, now known as the father of computing. Years of soaring costs, and personal bust-ups with his political paymasters, meant it was never built. Yet it was so advanced that it could have propelled Victorian Britain into the computer age a century ahead of time.

The drawings held in the Science Museum reveal the ungainly machine as the forerunner of the modern electronic computer. It contained a central processing unit, which Babbage called a "mill", and 1.7 kilobytes of expandable memory, which he referred to as "the store". It was fully programmable via punched cards used to input data.

"The big difference between it and machines which came 100 years later was that the programme was stored externally, in punch cards," explained Mr Graham-Cumming. "It is basically a giant number-crunching machine – which is effectively what modern computers are today, it's just that those numbers appear to us as words or images on a screen."

Mr Graham-Cumming last year secured from the government a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, the genius code-breaker and computer pioneer who took his own life in 1954 after falling foul of Britain's repressive anti-homosexuality laws. Now he believes it is time for Babbage's contribution to the development of British science to be fully honoured.

"It is an inspiration. This is what blue-sky research is all about, and it can have fantastic benefits for people's lives. Just think of the impact of the computer, and ask yourself how different the Victorian world would have been with Babbage engines at its disposal. He was 100 years ahead of his time, and this is especially important when the Government is thinking hard about how it funds scientific research," he said.

It is estimated that to build a working prototype of the Analytical Engine would cost more than £400,000. (It would be a follow-up to the "Difference Engine", which Babbage had similarly planned to build and which was reconstructed at the Science Museum in 1991.) But first, detailed research is needed.

It is hoped that the end product could inspire youngsters to study computing, thus fostering a new generation of inventors. One of the reasons, apart from cost, that Babbage's creations were never built in his lifetime, argues Mr Graham-Cumming, was his irascible personality.

Born into a wealthy banking family, he began working on logarithms and calculating machines in the 1820s, at a time when navigation was crucial to the fortunes of the British Empire. Sailors and traders were seeking ever more accurate maps, requiring complex astronomical calculations.

Babbage could see almost unlimited applications for his research, but convincing the political classes, in including figures such as the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, to continue funding it was another matter.

Babbage was a great socialite, throwing glamorous parties at his home in London's Marylebone, but he could also be rude and eccentric. He once launched a campaign to ban organ grinders from city streets on the grounds that their noise prevented people from thinking.

His contribution was largely overlooked by his peers and the establishment, though The Royal Astronomical Society awarded him a Gold Medal for his work on star charts. He twice stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, and invented a "cow-catcher", to remove obstacles from the paths of trains.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine