November 17, 2020

#08-011: Babbage's Analytical Engine

Model of part of Babbage's Analytical Engine

Note: I have mentioned the invention of the telephone (see #08-005). But the phone itself is the result of something that was invented at nearly the same time as the "heliograph" (#08-010). The 1837 "analytical engine" was the forerunner to today's computers.

Get Ready: Do you ever use a computer? If so, how often? What for? Have you ever thought about how complex the computer's "insides" are?

Charles Babbage was a bit of a character, often shaking a metaphorical finger at the most unusual "nuisances"--the amount of street noise caused by "organ grinders," for instance, or the rolling of hoops by boys (for sport) that led to equestrian accidents.

There were of course no electronics in Babbage's day. The "computers" that he invented were mechanical, analogous to the old calculators and cash registers that had to be activated by a hand crank. (Remember, the root of the word "computer" is "compute," meaning "to perform mathematical functions"--addition, subtraction, and so on.)

His first such device, the "difference engine," was meant to determine the values of polynomial functions. It was never completed, due to a falling out over costs with the engineer he hired to build it. If finished, the machine would have been nearly eight feet tall and weighed 30,000 pounds!

His next invention, the true ancestor of today's computers, was the more complex machine called the "analytical engine." This would use cards with holes strategically punched in them for the input of data--a strategy that was still widely used throughout much of the 20th century for data entry.

This device, like the difference engine, was never completed, though Babbage continued to tinker with his design until his death in 1871.

Invention seldom occurs in a vacuum. Modern historians give increased credit to the contributions of Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and the daughter of the renowned English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Lovelace saw the potential of the machine to go beyond mere calculation into other applications. She also published the first algorithm meant for use by such a machine. She is sometimes called "the first computer programmer," though there was as yet no such thing as a programming language!


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. algorithm
  2. character
  3. equestrian
  4. falling out
  5. forerunner
  6. metaphorical
  7. polynomial functions
  8. shaking a finger
  9. tinker
  10. vacuum

  1. an odd or unusual person
  2. involving horses
  3. an ordered set of instructions to transform data input into output
  4. fool around; work idly
  5. a mathematical expression such as, for example, f(x)=3x-2
  6. empty space
  7. something that led to something else
  8. disagreement; argument
  9. scolding
  10. figurative

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 17, 2020

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. a; 3. b; 4. h; 5. g; 6. j; 7. e; 8. i; 9. d; 10. f