back to article Legendary steampunk computer 'should be built' - programmer

A well-known British programmer, blogger and online campaigner has called for a collaborative effort to finally make a legendary steampunk mechanical computer - the Babbage Analytical "Engine", designed but never actually built - a reality. John Graham-Cumming will be well known to many Reg readers as the programmer behind …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    instruction set?

    come on reg - give us the instruction set and memory model, then we'll see what sort of stuff could be written for it.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      A few from a list I got

      AWTT Assemble With Tinker Toys

      BOD Beat on Drum

      BRO BRanch and Overheat

      BWABL Bells, Whistles and Blinking Lights

      BWOP BeWilder Operator

      CAF Convert Ascii to Farsic

      CRN Convert to Roman Numerals

      DSI Do Something Interesting

      DSR Detonate Status Register

      DSTD Do Something Totally Different

      DSUIT Do Something Utterly, Indescribably Terrible

      DTC Destroy This Command

      ENF Emit Noxious Fumes

      ENG Enable Gravity

      EOI Execute Operator Immediate [a fast version of another instruction]

      EP Execute Programmer

      EPI Execute Programmer Immediate

      FLD FLing Disc

      HCF Halt and Catch Fire

      IDC Initiate Destruct Command

      LTS Loop Till Smokes

      LUM LUbricate Memory

      RIC Rotate Illogical thru Carry

      RLI Rotate Left Indefinitely

      ROD ROtate Diagonally

      RRC Rotate Random thru Carry

      SPA Sliding Point Arithmetic

  2. Smallbrainfield
    Thumb Up

    Yes, but

    has anyone worked out how to play Tetris on it yet?

    1. Martin Gregorie

      ...ust add a mechanical display

      ...and tetris should be possible.

      There's a description of a possible mechanical display in "The Difference Engine" by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Fun.

      A thought: now we have NC machining and much better materials than Babbage could get his hands on, there's no reason why a Difference Engine shouldn't be quite a bit smaller than the original design. This would reduce material cost and space requirements a lot and could/should still be steam powered, preferably from a bio-methane boiler: this would let it continue to run long after all fossil fuel has been used up.

      1. Thomas 4

        How disappointing

        .....not one single comment about its ability to run a certain FPS?

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          @ Thomas 4

          Only need FPS for gaming and video. For raw number crunching, it's the MIPS that count.

          1. YARR

            @ heyrick

            He meant the other kind of FPS.

            Incidentally, given enough memory, any computer can run Crysis - just not at a very high FPS (of the first kind).

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Go for it

    It'll still be usable when the light's go off and we are sitting around burning animal faeces for warmth and animal fat for illumination.

    And talk about resistant to EMP!

    1. Colin Brett

      It's being done already

      It'll still be usable when the light's go off and we are sitting around burning animal faeces for warmth and animal fat for illumination.


    2. Rob 30

      EMP proof

      that would be a nice benefit, how far could it be miniaturised i wonder.

      1. MinionZero

        @"how far could it be miniaturised i wonder."

        Very far ... even down to Nanotech sizes. There has been (for some years) work towards exactly this goal and in the past 2 weeks, DARPA have said they are looking into nanotech mechanical computation...

  4. graeme leggett

    science museum

    Must just plug the SM's computing collection here.

    Went there at the weekend with my son and my mum. He wasn't interested in the computing side so I got dragged past it at high speed.

    Aside from the punched card machines that my mum worked with when she started out in programming there are some really old fashioned ways of doing stuff that were high tech at the time. Pegasus, Manchester and that financial modelling device that ran on water that I didn't get a chance to note the name of.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      My mum also

      ...worked with similar machines and took great joy in embarrassing her children by pointing out her tasks on these 'ancient' museum pieces. It is her I have to thank for sparking my interest in the subject and thanks to the SM for some brilliant exhibits.

    2. John Hughes

      Is this your mum?

      Nice legs.

  5. JimND

    But surely it was finished?

    and they went off to fight crime...

  6. Michael 82


    Bring it on, its long overdue and maybe it will actually work...

    1. Lottie


      ... not any different from a government IT project then?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. publius

    A mechanical computer ...

    gives a whole new meaning to "bugs."

    1. CD001


      Isn't it more like the original meaning?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        fascist titular dictat

        ...even in the link given by CD001 above, which is all about the moth incident, the end of the article clarifies (and the wording of the beginning of the article suggests) that the term 'bug' was already in use before the moth thing happened.

        1. LaeMing

          I believe

          the term "bug" can be traced back to card-programable mechanical weaving looms (which inspired Babbage so the loop is somewhat closed).

    2. M Gale

      Little bit of computing history.

      The term "Bug" was coined by a Grace Murray Hopper, after locating a problem within one of the large, relay-powered mainframes of the day. A moth had become stuck in the system and was preventing a relay from working correctly. This was recorded in her log book, along with the offending moth, as the first computer bug.

      So now you know.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      erm, nope.

      doesn't it give the original meaning to Bugs even more meaning as according to popular internet myth it was a bug in a big computer in the 50s that gave its name to the term.... it was a moth wasn't it.... *

      being lazy i am not going to google the truth in this for you, do it yourself.

    4. benjymous


      Actually, that's the original meaning of the term "bugs" - insects that crawled into early computers and stopped them working

  8. Gilleain Torrance

    Ada Lovelace as a programmer and mathematician

    The article heavily implies (along with the linked article from 1999) that Ada's position as "first programmer" is based on myth. However, this is not clear from her notes on the translation of Menabrea's talk (scroll down for her notes):

    assuming that the transcript hasn't been favourably edited, she certainly seems competent enough. It's a little difficult to read text from ye olden days due to that fact that the style was kind of verbose and dull. However, consider this small snippet:

    "In studying the action of the Analytical Engine, we find that the peculiar and independent nature of the considerations which in all mathematical analysis belong to operations, as distinguished from the objects operated upon and from the results of the operations performed upon those objects, is very strikingly defined and separated."

    Sounds like OO programming to me :)

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      Sounds more like

      the Harvard architecture, where data and code are separated

    2. The Indomitable Gall

      Absolute opposite of OO....

      The point of OO is that the operations are intrinsically linked to the objects operated upon and the results of the operation. Lovelace was pretty much declarative, borderlining on functional, in her approach to programming.

  9. TeeCee Gold badge

    Obvious question.

    Will it run Crysis?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Crysis - of course!

      Of course it will run Crysis, only thing was it would have a frame rate of about 1 frame per decade... so possibly would feel a bit laggy.

  10. Code Monkey

    By jingo we should build it!

    And insist that everyone who wants to program the beast should wear a stovepipe hat and grow appropriately fearsome Victorian facial hair.

    1. Eden

      RE: By Jingo

      Would a prosethic facial warmer be acceptable for those of us with the unfortunate gentic disposition that does not allow for the growing of such fearsome facial attire.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: RE: By Jingo

        By "unfortunate gen[e]tic disposition" do you mean "female"? If so, you are already in the spirit of Victorian science sir, and I salute your attention to detail.

        1. Mike Flugennock

          Re: RE: By Jingo

          "By 'unfortunate gen[e]tic disposition' do you mean 'female'?"

          Not necessarily. My mother's side of my family are all rather thin-haired, and I unfortunately picked up that gene, resulting in my inability to grow any kind of substantial beard (although I have managed to grow a halfway-decent moustache). Attempts to grow out my facial hair have resulted in pathetic little patches which make me look rather like a nuclear accident victim. So, clean-shaven but for the moustache it is.

  11. Phil Endecott

    "Educational resource"

    > And what a great educational resource so that people can understand

    > how computers work


    Well let's start by turning what we've already got i.e. the Difference Engine in the science museum and the reconstructed Bombe at Bletchley and the Manchester Baby at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry into "Educational resources". At present, these are just artefacts that you can look at. If you go to the book shops of those places you can no doubt pick up a 500-page book explaining stuff, but none of those things has the 5-minute video or 1000-word booklet describing how it works. Perhaps the problem is that the geeks who make the reconstructions are incapable of explaining how they work in less than 500 pages and the museum curators are incapable of explaining them at all. I've visited each one and found myself explaining stuff to other visitors, who are definitely capable of grasping stuff at the appropriate level.


  12. Swoop
    Thumb Up

    Computer of dreams

    Build it, and they will write the programs!

  13. SlabMan

    It should definitely be done

    Maybe with Lottery money - do you feel lucky, Steampunk?

    It makes me wonder, though. Imagine a parallel historical track where Babbage had built it, and electronic computers hadn't happened. How would the concept have developed, and what would a 21st century analytical engine look like?

    1. ArmanX

      I think...

      I think the electrical versions would have arrived sooner, actually; the original televisions were mechanical, after all. Interesting thought, that...

    2. A J Stiles

      Imagine a parallel historical track

      "It makes me wonder, though. Imagine a parallel historical track where Babbage had built it, and electronic computers hadn't happened."

      I think Bruce Sterling and William Gibson already did just that .....

  14. M7S
    Thumb Up

    If there was a proper fund

    I'd pledge some cash, on the basis that if they dont raise enough to start the project we can get it back. In these difficult economic times its probably the only way to do it. Any ideas as to total cost?

  15. Viv

    If built MS will file suit for infringement of their patents

    Obviously the only problem will be that Microsoft will file suit for infringing its intellectual property rights.

    1. Slartybardfast

      If Built

      If built Apple would build the magical wonderful amazing tech into their next product and claim that they had only just invented it and then patent it anyway.

  16. Paul 75

    It's all very well building the hardware...

    ...but who will implement the App Store for it?

  17. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Up

    Ten thousand towers...

    ... the cyclonic hum of a trillion twisting gears, all air gone earthquake-dark in a mist of oil, in the fractioned heat of intermeshing wheels. Black seamless pavements, uncounted tributary rivulets for the frantic travels of the punched-out lace of data, the ghosts of history loosed in this hot shining necropolis. Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye.

    - The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Graham Marsden

      "The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling"

      So much research

      So many characters.

      So much imagination.

      So little plot.


  18. Paul 25

    Would love to see it done, but which one would you build?

    I would really love to see this built, but wasn't part of the problem originally that Babbage, being terrible at just sticking to one thing and getting it done, ended up coming up with loads of half-finished designs?

    Also, I seem to remember that building the Difference Engine that lives in the Science Museum actually helped drive the engineering company that built it to bankruptcy.

    This is all based on what I remember from the book "The Cogwheel Brain" so I might have it wrong.

    I would be first in the cue to see a working AE though so I'm really hoping someone steps forward with the cash.

    1. Greg Paris

      Error! Error!

      I just want to know what happens when the machine encounters a divide by zero error. I'm sure those schoolchildren writing programs for it will generate those and many other gear stripping delights. Or somebody will do it on purpose just to see the crash.

      1. Ed 13


        A little plate pops up with the message "wrong" on it!

        1. Code Monkey


          That has made my afternoon. Tonight I will raise a glass of Mr Shepherd's ale to the memory of Mr Babbage!

      2. Lewis Mettler 1

        just spins

        Divide by zero would just cause the unit to spin like a gear without any teeth.

        Divide by zero is not illegal, just difficult to represent correctly. But, a spinning gear (just like a modern loop) would do fine.


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