Today, we ask where an engine went. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
created them.

It's well known that the
first programmable computer was Babbage's
Analytical Engine. Babbage
was a 19th-century mathematician whose whole life
was devoted to automatic calculation. In 1821 he
made his Difference Engine -- a machine that
evaluated polynomials. It was used to grind out all
kinds of highly accurate mathematical tables.

The Royal Society gave Babbage a gold medal for the
Difference Engine. Then the British government quit
funding it just as he was working out a way to make
it print its results. That would've eliminated
errors of transcription. Much later, the Swedes
made one with a printout device. When America
bought the Swedish prototype, the British finally
decided to put money into the idea. But by then
they were thirty years too late.

Meanwhile, after his work on the Difference Engine
had been stopped, Babbage turned to a much grander
project -- to making his Analytical Engine. It had
all the basic elements of a modern computer. You
could feed it instructions that made it do
sequences of calculations. It could store
information and retrieve it.

Babbage began work on the Analytical Engine with
government support, but it also dried up. Then he
spent his own money on the project. He never could
quite finish it, though. Without binary arithmetic,
calculations were much more complicated than they
are on -- say -- your pocket calculator. And
without the electronic diodes (or switches) that do
binary arithmetic naturally, he had to use stacks
of gear trains.

Babbage called the arithmetic unit of his engine
its "mill," because the gears in it really did
grind away to produce a result. In the end, his
machine had too much friction. He foundered on the
mechanical problem of driving it. Nevertheless, he
had produced the full-blown ancestor of your
computer.

So what became of the machine itself? Babbage
offered it to the British Museum, and they rejected
it. So it was broken up and dispersed. Parts of it
turned up as his grandchildren's playthings.
Fragments have been found with Babbage's family in
New Zealand. And today museum curators will kill
for mere pieces of the full machine they rejected
over a century ago.

Babbage, of course, saw too far beyond his time. He
had to be forgotten and rediscovered. Yet I wonder
how the course of human history might have been
changed if the British Museum had accepted his gift
of the Analytical Engine -- if those wheels and
gears had sat on display where 19th-century
children could have gazed at them and wondered what
they meant.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
work.

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