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Boffins step closer to steam-powered Babbage computer

Analytical Engine designs digitised by Science Museum for steampunk project

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A project to build British mathematician Charles Babbage's mechanical computer has won assistance from the Science Museum in London.

The museum has begun digitising Babbage's plans and notebooks so that John Graham-Cumming, the programmer and computer historian behind the project, and his team can begin work.

Babbage first described the Analytical Engine in 1837, which he came up while working on a way to automatically produce mathematical tables - 100 years before the first modern computers were conceived and built.

Only parts of the machine were built during his lifetime, with some parts made by HP Babbage from his father's designs after his death. But the entire steam-powered, brass and iron contraption has never been built.

A year ago, Graham-Cumming started Plan 28, the project to get the whole Analytical Engine built in Britain.

"What a marvel it would be to stand before this giant metal machine, powered by a steam engine, and running programs fed to it on a reel of punched cards. And what a great educational resource so that people can understand how computers work," he said when launching the project on his blog.

The Science Museum started work on the digitisation of Babbage's notes on 12 September and the Plan 28 team expects to start studying them early in October.

"This great first step on Plan 28 is, finally, underway. We are very, very grateful to The Science Museum and all we have worked with there for their support and for having undertaken this vital work that will benefit not only Plan 28 but all those who wish to study Charles Babbage's work wherever they are," Graham-Cumming said on his blog yesterday.

The digital copies will be made publicly available for research purposes in 2012, at a time to be announced by the museum. ®

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