The computer that took more than 150 years to build

In the laboratories of Intellectual Ventures there is a great museum piece: the Analytical Engine. IV Lab or Intellectual Ventures Lab is a space of more than 8,000 square meters located in Bellevue, in the state of Washington, United States. There, hundreds of inventors, engineers and scientists work to find new technologies and add to their patent portfolio. Intellectual Ventures, the parent company, has more than 35,000 patents in the United States. And up. But what interests us about this American giant is its collector's item. An analytical machine with more than 8,000 pieces and that is more than a century old.

Its 5 tons of weight and its size, more than three meters long, make it difficult to move while it is impossible not to see it. This machine from the past contrasts with the modernity of the Intellectual Ventures laboratories, facilities in which concrete and current technology contrast with their metal parts. Its technical name is Difference Engine number 2 (in English, Difference Engine No. 2). But it is better known as a difference engine, analytical engine, or Babbage engine. By its creator, the English mathematician Charles Babbage. In practice it is a mechanical calculator. One of the first. Or we can also say that it is one of the first modern computers. A hulk full of mechanical parts like the Russian computer that worked with water. Closer to an industrial machine than to a current computer.

The facilities of the Intellectual Ventures laboratories in the United States are the last stop of this analytical machine. The latest information available is from 2016. Previously, since 2008, this collector's item was on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Interestingly, this Analytical Engine is the second of its kind. His older sister is on display at the Science Museum in London . Without the second, the first would not have existed. Whims of millionaire donations. And his story is full of problems. So much so that Charles Babbage's first difference engine took 167 years to complete. If we take into account that its design was published in a distant 1835 and the construction did not finish until 2002 after several pauses between phase and phase of the project.

Source: Museum of Sciences from London

Charles Babbage, mathematician, philosopher and computer pioneer

The person directly responsible for the difference engine number 2 is its ideologue and creator, the English mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage. To his credit, he stands out for having been the inventor of the machines programmable calculators . The direct ancestors of today's computers, bridging the gap. His main achievement, a mechanical calculator capable of calculating tables of numerical functions. Faster and more accurately than a human mind. And in 1822 he made it a reality.

But not all of Babbage's projects were as successful as the Analytical Engine. Despite having everything in his favor. Born in late 1791, he was the fourth child in a wealthy family and received a good education. To the point that in 1810 he entered the Trinity College in Cambridge. His specialty, mathematics. He also studied at another prestigious college, Peterhouse . Professionally, he lectured in astronomy at the Royal Institution (1815) and the following year was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. And despite not getting a teaching position at Haileybury College or the University of Edinburgh, he continued his research on his own thanks to money from his father, provided during his lifetime and inherited after his death.

After creating his mechanical calculator, Babbage wanted to go further. After multiple designs that remained just that, ideas and theoretical schemes, in 1835 he came up with a fully functional design . At least in theory. Practice will take longer to come. Three years earlier he had published the first edition of his book On the economy of machinery and manufactures. In it, Babbage deals with various topics such as printing processes and production costs and analyzes mechanization and the efficient division of labor. From this book arises what is known as “Babbage's principle”.

As a context, we must remember that Babbage is at the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, a revolution of revolutions born in the United Kingdom and that, between 1820 and 1840, he changed the economy and society by introducing technologies such as the steam machine. At this time the first industries are born. And hence the importance of Babbage's theories. His Babbage principle comes to say that the division of labor into processes allows production to be optimized, since the amount of machinery or qualified employees needed can be specified. in each process. In other words, you can count on untrained workers for simple tasks and others, more qualified and better paid, for more complex tasks.

Source: Museo de Ciencias of London

Babbage's analytical engine, from theory to practice

Let us leave economic theory for the moment and return to the subject at hand. Babbage's machine or analytical engine. We said that in 1835, Babbage manages to design a first functional machine. This mechanical calculator, which will be the first of its kind, and technically the first computer, performs its calculations using finite differences. Thus, instead of using multiplications and divisions, is limited to addition, which is easier to implement in mechanics. In addition, each complex task breaks it down to facilitate its programming and avoid calculation errors. In practice, this machine would employ a steam engine and use punched cards to enter data. The output of the results, generated by means of gears, would be given with a printer.

But to make it a reality, you will have to go through several stages. First, get financing. And it is that despite having economic independence to have a comfortable life for the time, a project of this caliber requires more money than I had. Finding financing will not be easy. Although, along the way, he will find the support and interest of other important minds of the time such as herself, Ada Lovelace, also a mathematician and considered the first programmer of history.

Finally, Babbage will obtain financing from the British government, but after several disputes and differences of opinion with those responsible for manufacturing, the high manufacturing costs and other controversies, the money faucet is closed in 1878 By the way, two different models. The first, from 1835. It consisted of 25,000 pieces. And the second machine, started in 1847, despite being simpler, still had 8,000. Thus, the British Association or British Association for the Advancement of Science, shelved the project, thus influencing the political decision to stop financing Babbage.

Henry Babbage's breakthrough consisted of making six demonstration pieces of the so-called difference engine number 1 a reality

In part, the decision was made because the promoter of the machine, Charles Babbage, had died years ago, in 1871. The importance of the machine was valued. But building it was expensive and unnecessary for the time. Hence, one of his children takes up the project. Specifically the youngest, Henry P. Babbage , who had been indirectly involved in the project since he was a child by spending time in his father's workshop

. Henry Babbage's breakthrough was to make six demonstration pieces of the so-called difference engine number 1 a reality. One of them was sent to Harvard. And around 1910, Babbage Jr. announces that he can calculate multiples of the number Pi with the parts of the machine already built. A small part of what he could do if the calculator were fully built. This prototype, known as the Analytical Engine Mill, can be found in the Science Museum in London. Unfortunately, Henry Babbage passed away in 1918.

Source: Arnold Reinhold (Wikipedia)

Making Babbage's dream come true

Neither Babbage nor his son managed to complete their Analytical Engine. It will take several decades for the project to be rescued from oblivion. Let's remember. Babbage's machine gave its first in 1835 with functional designs. As well. Let's jump 150 years to 1985. That year, the Science Museum in London will take up the project, based on the original plans, and build Babbage's difference engine. As the Museum itself indicates in its facilities and in this article, the design was by Charles Babbage. The construction was carried out by the Museum. All thanks to a resurgence of the figure of Babbage in the 70s of the last century.

More than 150 years to finish what, for many, is the first mechanical calculator and the first computer in history

But we are far from finishing this story. In June 1991, the main part of the machine is finished after almost six years. But not all. The project was taken up again as a tribute to Babbage, since 1991 marked the bicentenary of his his birth. However, an important part of the analytical engine is missing: the printer. And this will take several years, until reaching 2002. That year, Difference Engine number 2 is already complete. A project of almost 17 years (1985-2002). But more than 150 years old if we stick to the original plans. More than 150 years to finish what, for many, is the first mechanical calculator and the first computer in history. At least, on plan.

We end this story where we started it. If Charles Babbage's machine is in the Science Museum in London, what is a copy on the other side of the Atlantic, in the facilities of a private company in Bellevue, Washington? The answer is simple. One of the founders of Intellectual Ventures is Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft, among other things, and one of the main contributors to make said machine. Such was his economic contribution that he got a replica of the original machine, including the printer. As we saw at the beginning of this article, the replica was for several years (2008 – 2016) in the Museum of Computer History and, since then, it can be seen in the laboratory facilities of Intellectual Ventures.