The analytical engine – it’s not a flashy name, but this creation of the late 1800s would have been impressive, even to modern audiences. It would have been a metal monstrosity – a clattering, multi-ton behemoth needing a lot more space than a conventional small business server room. What this design really did, in essence, was to begin to bridge the gap between what existed then and what exists now, transforming science fiction into reality.
The analytical engine was an idea that a man named Charles Babbage worked on up into his death in 1871 – a machine that, although never fully built, led to the kinds of smart devices we now take for granted. The analytical engine has solidified the legacy of Charles Babbage as a visionary in the fields of information technology and artificial intelligence. Built on Babbage’s earlier work with logarithmic tables and automatic arithmetical function (and a mechanical "Difference Engine" able to perform similar basic calculations), the analytical engine was designed to use analog technology to, in theory, do some of what today’s digital machines do using technologies that, to the 19th century mind, would have resembled sorcery or magic.
If you want to know more about how this plan developed, check out any of the various online homages to Charles Babbage, or pick up the relatively obscure slim edition by Jeremy Bernstein, The Analytical Engine: Computers–Past, Present and Future. Bernstein goes into detail about the engine and its maker, documenting some of the essential data philosophies that started the long march forward. Bernstein’s book was written in the 1980s, as the digital computer was still rapidly evolving in relative infancy, yet the book still covers many of the design principles for which Babbage is now famous.
Core Computing Principles
In automating numerical calculation processes, Bernstein points out that Babbage was able to look into the future, in terms of eliminating the need for human operation of his engine. He notes that one of Babbage’s main disciples, Lady Lovelace, suggested its predominance within the technology world of that era: "This engine surpasses its predecessors," wrote Lovelace, "both in the extent of the calculations which it can perform, and the facility, certainty and accuracy with which it can effect them, and in the absence of all necessity for the intervention of human intelligence during the performance of its calculations."
Bernstein also recounts Babbage’s curious "order-up" handling of modern memory: "If a certain logarithm was needed, the machine was to ring a bell and display at a window a card that would sure which logarithm was needed. If the operator supplied the wrong value, the machine was to ring a louder bell."
In a nod to the sequential and iterative aspects of modern programming languages like C++, Babbage conceived what he called "the engine moving forward by eating its tail" to perform successive operations. He also worked out systems for conditional operations like modern "if" statements. Bernstein also goes into the core elements housed in Babbage’s theoretical numerical cylinders and other analog number handling pieces.
"All computers consist of four basic units." writes Bernstein. "In the first place, there must be some mechanism for getting data and instructions into the machine and for getting answers out – the link, that is, between the machine and the human programmer."
This and other books on IT’s progression through many decades show how increasingly sophisticated analog input mechanisms, like tape and punch cards, led to completely digital designs that now can much more capably shuttle information.
Second, Bernstein expounds on Babbage’s use of stored memory which – again – would be in analog containers. A computing machine also must have a kind of engine for programming, which Bernstein calls the "mill," and a comprehensive "control unit" must govern all of these operations.
"It is one of the triumphs of modern electronics that circuits that can do all these things have been designed and produced," writes Bernstein, "and it is a tribute to Babbage that he envisioned how the same things could have been done by a collection of gears and wheels and levers."
Substantial progress on Babbage’s theoretical designs wouldn’t be made until a few decades into the 1900s. Brownstein chronicles the emergence of machines like the Mark 1, developed in the 1940s, and the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator (ENIAC), which when unveiled in 1946, stunned the world with its sophisticated hardware and incredible processing power. In general, Bernstein narrates how, as an early IT landmark, the analytical engine eventually led to the mainframes that began powering major government systems in the mid-to-late 1900s, until gradually, hardware advances and corresponding programming developments expanded these sophisticated war machines into the massive consumer facing and individual-use World Wide Web (WWW) that we now rely on to look up Miley Cyrus twerking videos and comparing pizza restaurants.
Maybe it takes a true steampunk fan to appreciate the way that Babbage’s neatly spinning steel wheels and digit-printed cylinders would have cranked out the kinds of math operations that we can now do with even the most basic software programs on personal computers. However, as we continue to experiment with new hardware and new interfaces, it’s worth a look back to a truly impressive piece of infrastructure, a type of machine that would have dwarfed the looms, sewing machines and presses of its time as an almost mythological curiosity, and a precursor to a future bewildering modern age.