Monday, 1 April 2019

Charles Babbage & Plan 28

Wikimedia Commons (2006). 
My Father was a SciFi fan from an early age - at a time when being a SciFi fan marked you out as being peculiar. My siblings and I grew up surrounded by Science Fiction of all stripe, though I personally loved the hardcore science-based stories. Never mind all that sword crap: who would turn the clock back to a sword when we can have a ray gun?!

I vaguely remember somewhere in my early teens reading a short story - possibly in an Analog magazine - about Charles Babbage having built his difference engine in New Zealand and having taken it to Antarctica, where it was still working today. The memory of the New Zealand connection stayed with me... it meant that someone knew where New Zealand was and thought it important enough to include in a SciFi story (quite exciting for me). O
ther than the New Zealand mention, I have little recollection of the story, aside from an impression of lots of rain, sailing ships and Victorian conversations in the dark. Taken together though, it was enough to make me interested in Babbage; to be aware of his early thinking; and to know of his connection to Ada Lovelace... (the world's first computer programmer).

Years later I found out that the Babbage story had a real Kiwi connection, as some of Babbage's family members had migrated to New Zealand. The University of Auckland computer museum also has a model of the difference engine (University of Auckland, n.d.).


Babbage's difference engine was effectively a calculator. He had designed it at a time before precision engineering, before screws, nuts and bolts had standard lengths, gauges, materials, threads or tightening systems. We rarely consider how important standardisation is to engineering - and if you want an insight into that, read Simon Winchester's book, "Exactly" (2018).


Charles Babbage was an inveterate tinkerer. He started with various plans for his machines, then would improve on his start place and make non-sequential margin notes - sometimes on unrelated pieces of paper, reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci - or give up the plan mid-mind-flight and start a new one. Not only did he plan the difference engine, but also the analytical engine, now considered to be the world's first computer... and long before Turing. The analytical engine is sometimes called the thinking engine.


Since 2010, John Graham-Cumming (the guy who pressured the UK Government to pardon Alan Turing), is leading a project called "Plan 28". Plan 28 is the project to recreate Babbage's analytical engine, using - you guessed it - Babbage's plan 28. This project could only start once enough of all Babbage's writings had been digitised and cross-referenced, due to the non-linear way that Babbage's mind worked. It is hard to determine whether that little screw drawing that he put on the back of plan 14 is related to plan 28 if you don't have well cross-tabulated data, compiled by people with an in-depth understanding of engineering, tool and die manufacture, AND computer science.


About a quarter of a million pounds worth of Plan 28 project funding has been secured over time, and the analytical engine construction is intended to be complete by 2021. The most recent update (Swade, 5 January 2019) explains:

"The end is in sight creating the cross-referenced database for the set of some 20 Scribbling Books, the manuscript notebooks in which Babbage recorded his workings and thoughts on his engine designs. Tim Robinson, who has been compiling the database is up to the last year of Babbage’s life (1871) and is within striking distance of completion. The process has taken [almost] three years."
Please note that the construction of the analytical engine itself will not be an insignificant thing, as it was planned to be the size of a train engine (Graham-Cumming, 2012). Definitely not pocket-sized. And every screw, nut and bolt will have to be worked out and machined (remember - before standardisation).

The build start will be exciting. I am looking forward to what we learn about computing itself as the analytical engine construction phase begins. 


Sam


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