Photo: Wikimedia Commons
British researchers are about to spend 10 years and millions of dollars to build a pretty crappy computer, reports the New York Times.The device is slow and humongous — the opposite of we would look for in a computer today.
But they aren’t chasing a more powerful or speedy design. This time the aim is out of reverence for history — they’re using nearly 200-year old plans to build a difference engine, commonly accepted to be the first computer ever.
Designed by mathematician Charles Babbage in the 1830s, the difference engine was a complex arrangement of gears and cranks that was “programmable” — it would accept input and dispense output. Babbage never lived long enough to see it built.
Considering all its gears and cranks, the difference engine might not look like a computer, but it functions in exactly the same way. Let’s take a closer look.
You have your computer plugged in, don't you? The difference engine will just sit there doing nothing until you turn the crank.
The same way you would type in numbers to solve maths problems on your home computer, there is a process to manually adjust the gears of the difference engine to solve new problems.
If the machine were larger, it could solve problems involving bigger numbers. But just like the RAM in your computer, it hits an upper limit eventually.
The turning gears are crunching numbers, just as your processor keeps track of the countless ones and zeroes that make computation possible.
In addition to printing the results on paper, the difference engine can also make an imprint in plates to 'store' the results.
The difference engine shows its output via a printing press once the computing is done. This is nothing more than a simpler version of a computer monitor.