Computer scientist John Graham-Cumming has begun a campaign to raise funds (more than £400,000) to build the Analytical Engine first proposed by Charles Babbage in 1837. The Analytical Engine, for those who may not know, was a Victorian-era mechanical computer—except that it was never built. Programmable computers of the type envisioned by Babbage were not built until over a hundred years later. The Analytical Engine is seen by some as one of the great what-ifs of history.
So, what does this have to do with nuclear fusion? Well, here is the justification Graham-Cummings gives for the project:
It might seem a folly to want to build a gigantic, relatively puny computer at great expense 170 years after its invention. But the message of a completed Analytical Engine is very clear: it’s possible to be 100 years ahead of your own time. With support, this type of “blue skies” thinking can result in fantastic changes to the lives of everyone. Just think of the impact of the computer and ask yourself how different the Victorian world would have been with Babbage Engines at its disposal.
What seemed like costly research that was unlikely to have any short-term value turned out to be the seed of one of the greatest revolutions mankind has seen. I hope that future generations of scientists will stand before the completed Analytical Engine, think of Babbage, and be inspired to work on their own 100-year leaps.
I often optimistically compare current fusion research to research in aeronautics at the dawn of the 20th century. The history of computing between Babbage and the Second World War, on the other hand, provides a cautionary tale. Of course, it’s not like work on calculating and tabulating machines completely stagnated in that era. The company that became IBM, for example, was founded in 1896. But progress would have been much faster if Parliament had understood the potential benefits of the Analytical Engine and decided to fund its construction.
There’s an interesting quote from Babbage here which illustrates some of the misconceptions surrounding his invention:
On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ In one case a member of the upper, and in the other a member of the lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
Sadly enough, despite the present ubiquity of computers, similar misconceptions about them still exist. I hope the various misconceptions regarding nuclear fusion are dispelled a bit more quickly.
(Note: Just to be clear, this is not a plug for project, which I see as interesting, but water under the bridge. I just think that fusion research is eminently applicable to Graham-Cummings’ “100-year leap”. I just hope it doesn’t take until 2051 for the first break-even reactor to be built.)
Yes, that’s the Difference Engine No. 2, also designed by Charles Babbage. The difference between the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine is like the difference between a calculator and a computer.