Inventions are often preceded by prototypes that introduce new concepts, serving as models in which development will occur. Sometimes these prototypical ideas arise before they can be carried out in any practical way. Such is the case of the Analytical Engine, which may be considered the great-grandfather of the modern computer. The Analytical Engine is widely recognized as the first conceptual device that incorporated principles found in contemporary computing.
What makes the Analytical Engine so truly extraordinary is that it was conceptualized well before electricity was in use. In the early 1800s, mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871) conceived of the idea of a computational device that would store numbers and process them with mathematical accuracy. The first actual computer built in the United States, known as the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), was not in operation until the 1940s, some 120 years later. Still, Babbage's Analytical Engine set the blueprint for the modern computer.
The Analytical Engine was developed to meet the mathematical needs of the time, and it contained most of the features found in modern computers. There was a way to input data, a place for storing data, a place for processing data, a control unit to give directions, and a way to receive output. Babbage used punched cards for data input, which were also used for input into early electronic computers until the early 1970s. The punched card systems are actually derived from the textile industry; the Jacquard Loom of the early 1800s used punched cards to control color and pattern coordination in the weaving of textiles. Similarly, punched cards were employed in calculating machines of the nineteenth century, including the prototypical analytical engine.
Like modern computers, the Analytical Engine included programming capabilities. The first programmer was Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of English poet Lord George Gordon Byron. Using punched cards, she entered data in binary code to automate mathematical processes. The binary code reduces all computed equations, images, etc. to a code using only zeros (0) and ones (1). Data are coded onto the punched cards and entered into the computing device. In this way the processes are automated. For Babbage's machine, the process was "automated" by a series of clicks that were the equivalent of counting. Many of these processes are still used today, and binary code remains the groundwork of all programming.
The Analytical Engine was never made operational, although much of Babbage's life work revolved around the design and construction of calculating machines. The Analytical Engine was, in fact, a theoretical construct that coincided with the onset of the industrial revolution. Western society as a whole was moving away from a farming-based economy to one in which the sources of capital depended less on working the land and more on the manipulation of raw materials with machinery. Events in the late nineteenth century would give rise to full-scale industrialization with steel mills, railroads, and other mechanized means of production and delivery of goods. The historical significance of the analytical engine lies in the fact that it was a product of the industrial revolution, but a forerunner to the foundation of the information age, namely, the computer.
Babbage created several other calculating machines in addition to the Analytical Engine. Most of his machines did not actually work; however, this is probably because they, like Babbage and Lovelace, were ahead of their time. Quite simply, the Analytical Engine contained all the theoretical components of the modern computer, but the technology was not yet available to make it operational. Still, as the first attempt at a digitally computational device, the analytical engine is considered the great-grandfather of the computer of today.
see also Babbage, Charles; Lovelace, Ada Byron King, Countess of.
Babbage, Charles. The Works of Charles Babbage: The Analytical Engine and Mechanical Notation, Vol. 3. Edited by Martin Campbell-Kelly. New York: New York University Press, 1989.
Collier, Bruce. The Little Engines that Could've: The Calculating Machines of Charles Babbage. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
Jenkins, Richard A. Supercomputers of Today and Tomorrow: The Parallel Processing Revolution. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Tab Books, 1986.
McCormack, Marie L. "What Sex Is the Internet?" Futures 30, no. 9 (1998): 923–933.
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