History Mesh

The Analytical Engine (Mid 19th Century)

The analytical engine, an important step in the history of computers, was the design of a mechanical general-purpose computer by English mathematician Charles Babbage. In its logical design the machine was essentially modern, anticipating the first completed general-purpose computers by about 100 years.

It was first described in 1837. Babbage continued to refine the design until his death in 1871. Because of the complexity of the machine, the lack of project management science, the expense of its construction, and the difficulty of assessing its value by Parliament relative to other projects being lobbied for, the engine was never built.

Relation to Automatons:

While it was not an automaton – the Difference Engine was intended for serious calculations – it shares many of the same characteristics; it had many moving parts, required very fine tolerances for the machining, and, of course, was very expensive.

Still, it illustrates how the automata of the past laid the groundwork for the machines of the future – after all, the Difference Engine was part of the chain that leads to the development of the modern computer.

Relation to Computing:

Although not built in his lifetime, Babbage’s Analytical Engine was in many ways a modern computer, albeit mechanical rather than electronic. A development of his Difference Engine design, a special purpose calculator, the Analytical Engine would have used punch cards both for inputting data and for the operational program to be run, and would have had printing output devices much like some early electronic computers. Its internal functions, including data storage (memory) and an arithmetic unit, are conceptually similar to modern microprocessors, and various people who wrote about it influenced the development of computing in the first half of the 20th century, including Ada Lovelace’s translation of Luigi Menabrea’s description in Italian, where her extensive annotations including a way of calculating Bernoulli numbers are seen as the first example of deliberate computer programming.

Read more about the Analytical Engine on Wikipedia.