When a person thinks about computers, they may focus on the fast and space-efficient designs of today. But computers have a long and interesting history, which is full of exciting facts about their evolution.

Thinking back to the origins of computers and the history they have, it is easy to discount everything that happened in the 20th century. The days of dial-up and bulky hardware seem ancient by comparison – but go back a few decades.

This was before the internet was a mainstream utility, and networking was in its infancy. Computers were extremely limited in the functions they could perform and the graphical interfaces they could display to users. Wait-times were higher, parts were more expensive, and the industry in general was going through those rough but necessary periods of growth that helped get us here today.

That means the modern computer could only be traced back to around the mid-1900s, right? Not quite – while it may look a lot different than what we see today, a general-purpose computer actually existed well before the mid-1900s. To be more accurate, it was over a century before that.

The Analytical Engine remains a major factor in the rise of interest regarding computers in a time where support networks for such inventions were virtually non-existent. Or, at the very least, there was little chance to make such a breakthrough invention catch on and show its worthiness to the general public.

But that’s what this creator did, and the impact it had on computing is massive. Here’s a bit about the Analytical Engine, it’s history, and how it has influenced the world of technology as it is today.

The Man Behind The Machine: Meet Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was born in London in 1791. The man who is known to some today as the father of the computer actually had the reputation of being a polymath – a person who is well-versed in multiple fields and uses their versatile array of insight to solve complex problems.

It was a time before the industrial revolution and advanced technologies had taken hold. Think of how computing functions today – it requires a lot of insight into mathematics, physics, and even more complex aspects of engineering for certain functions. Babbage’s expertise spanned from engineering to meteorology to cryptography – and he was determined to put his powerful mind to good use for the betterment of humanity. 

Given his skill when it came to understanding mechanical engineering, he created some of the world’s first mechanical computers, with various steam-powered units being some of the most impressive units to come for the next several decades. Truly ahead of his time, Babbage had one of his most impressive life achievements in 1837. The renowned inventor and mathematician published a paper about a mechanical computer that would later come to be known as the Analytical Engine

But what was the idea behind Babbage’s invention? And how did his machine serve as a predecessor to the modern computer? Given his understanding of mathematics on an advanced level, he would notice errors in lists of logarithms, many of which had been deemed correct by authorities of the time. Babbage had the idea to process tables of results automatically to help offer more consistency in terms of results.

It was a system that used punch cards, another function that would become crucial to the future of the developing computer. This would set Babbage up for a breakthrough creation. It wasn’t all easy – he had problems with some of those he worked with, and their inability to see eye-to-eye on the project arguably held things back to a significant degree.

There was also an issue with funding. Babbage, while highly intelligent, wasn’t an extremely wealthy man – or at the very least, he didn’t have the funding he needed to create the machine on the level he had potentially envisioned. Granted, his vision was the first of its kind – meaning he had little to go off of when it came to convincing lenders or investors to help him. 

However, had those lenders and investors had the necessary foresight, it would’ve been a great move for them to make. Babbage’s computer had all the components of those used today – he was onto something important, and modern research indicates that, with today’s equipment, Babbage’s machine in its final form would’ve worked.

The Predecessor To The Invention: The Difference Engine

Before Babbage would strike computing gold with the Analytical Engine, he created another mechanical computing unit beforehand. This would come to be known as the Difference-Engine, and had the design of a special-purpose device built for processing trigonometry problems.

Logarithms and functions could be determined with a small margin for error, using a simple system of punch cards which had gain prominence in various types of mill equipment. But the components used in Babbage’s original design had all the major components a person would find in today’s computers. This includes a type of processor (to read inputs and offer results), memory for handling multiple functions simultaneously, and a printer for providing tangible proof of results.

Ultimately, it was disagreements over the construction of the Difference Engine that led to its eventual demise. The clashing between Babbage and the project’s lead engineer caused the British government to end funding for the project, effectively stopping it. But Babbage hadn’t come up short – he had learned something. Namely, he had learned that a much simpler machine that performed more general functions was possible.

The Analytical Engine would have numerous characteristics we see in modern computers. For example, the processing unit would supply its own type of internal power, relying on a system of turning pegs and barrels. The unit would even have its own type of programming language, which would’ve been similar to modern assembly language once fleshed out to its logical endpoint.

Babbage did succeed in building the first part of his machine before his death in 1871. While some prominent scientists of the time had expressed interest in the unit, those who viewed the prototype (which wasn’t in its entirety) weren’t sure whether the unit would’ve functioned correctly in its final form. This was taken to be true as the conditions of the time offered no reliable testing procedure.

From Babbage To Turing: A Modern Test On An Old Machine?

Charles Babbage Had A Massive Impact On Computing In The 1800s. Move Forward 100 Years, And Alan Turing Was Another Name That Had Changed The Face Of Technology Forever. Among His Contributions Was A Set Of Testing Procedures Named After Him. A Computer Deemed “Turing-Compete” Can Theoretically Solve A Problem That Any Other Turing-Complete Machine Could Given The Right Amount Of Time And Resources.

This is often a method used of challenging people to make a determination about whether they’re talking to a human or a machine. Turing-complete machines can adapt and shift their algorithms to solve problems. This is, of course, taking into consideration that different computers have different levels of computing power related to their hardware.

Even AI today is only starting to produce unexpected results for the Turing test, showing how reliable of a metric it has become for modern technology. Here’s why the Analytical Engine, while an old machine, was so impressive and ahead of its time – it was capable of conditional branching and loops. This gave it the versatility necessary to pass as Turing-complete.

It takes a lot for a computer that is over a century-and-a-half old to pass a test that has only been around for several decades. But it shows how Babbage was on the right track with computing, and how the fundamental aspects of basic hardware and programming languages remain the centerpiece of technology, no matter how advanced it becomes.

​How Influential Has The Analytical Engine Been?

The Analytical Engine was one of the most impressive feats of computing in its time and even in the half-century that followed. It influenced how calculations are now used to make long-term and largescale determinations, allowing for more accuracy and less of a margin for error.

There was a brief period when Babbage’s work was lost and the plans he had made were not available. This coincided with a time when many electric computers were under construction in the 1930s and 1940s. It caused inventors to have to refocus their efforts on learning things Babbage had previously explained – but it also helped them gain a better appreciation for this work once it was rediscovered.

Many prominent computer scientists have praised Babbage for his work on the device, and have noted how important was to the overall interest in computing throughout the decades. Though the technology was somewhat slow to evolve because of skepticism and funding issues, it has now blossomed and has reached potential that perhaps even Babbage himself couldn’t have imagined.

The Analytical Engine may seem like something out of science fiction. However, it is a very real reminder that the technological conveniences we depend on find their origins not just decades, but centuries ago. 

Featured Image: Image via Flickr

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