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Building a 5-Ton Calculator From 19th-Century Plans

kdawson posted about 6 years ago | from the steampunk-on-steroids dept.

Math 218

alphadogg writes "Starting in May, many will have the opportunity to see computing done the old-fashioned way: with lots of gears, a big crank, and some muscle. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, will unveil a new construction, the first in the US, of the 19th-century British mathematician Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, an improved version of his earlier design for a mechanical digital calculator. It weighs in at two tons more than the Difference Engine built in 1991 at London's Science Museum. Microsoft millionaire Nathan Myhrvold commissioned and paid for the US model."

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218 comments

It's cool (4, Funny)

kampangptlk (1252914) | about 6 years ago | (#23072648)

But does it run linux?

Re:It's cool (5, Insightful)

Adambomb (118938) | about 6 years ago | (#23072688)

yes, and we can all imagine a beowolf cluster of them, comparisons with automobile tonnage, and how in soviet russia, 2 tonn calculator uses YOU.

yep.

Re:It's cool (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072872)

You forgot the hot grits! On Natalie Portman's naked, petrified body, of course.

Re:It's cool (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072700)

Can you image a Beowulf cluster of these?

We'll know about four years after it's completed (4, Funny)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about 6 years ago | (#23072728)

But does it run linux?

We'll know about four years after it's completed - when it gets done with the boot-up.

Re:We'll know about four years after it's complete (4, Informative)

Tablizer (95088) | about 6 years ago | (#23073544)

[But does it run linux?] We'll know about four years after it's completed - when it gets done with the boot-up

If that's all you want out of the experience, run Vista.
   

Re:It's cool (5, Funny)

Waffle Iron (339739) | about 6 years ago | (#23072994)

But does it run linux?

Yes, but first you have to figure out how to approximate Linux as a Taylor series.

Re:It's cool (1, Interesting)

thanatos_x (1086171) | about 6 years ago | (#23073016)

Well, it sounds like it's turning complete (the first machine to be), so in theory it can run any program runnable today.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babbage#Analytical_engine [wikipedia.org]

As a practical matter you may want to invent a time machine and perpetual power source first.

Re:It's cool (4, Insightful)

evanbd (210358) | about 6 years ago | (#23073244)

First, this is the Difference Engine No. 2, not the Analytical Engine. It's not Turing complete.

Second, the usual restriction on running something like Linux is lack of memory, not lack of a Turing-complete instruction set. Or, looked at another way, no one has ever or will ever build a Turing-complete machine, because they'll run into difficulty with the infinite tape.

Re:It's cool (1)

mikael (484) | about 6 years ago | (#23073294)

Yes, but you wouldn't believe how many punched cards it takes to store the kernel image.

Re:It's cool (1, Funny)

EEPROMS (889169) | about 6 years ago | (#23073312)

But does it run linux?

I heard they are porting Gentoo to the Babage platform (think its called Garbage), should be finished compiling the kernel in about 15 years.

frock (5, Funny)

Missing_dc (1074809) | about 6 years ago | (#23072654)

Does this mean as a sysadmin that I should start wearing my Frock and Tophat and subscribe to the local Victorian club???? :)

Re:frock (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072840)

Yes, if you respect tradition. And you will also refer to your electronic computers as "electric brains," ask how many bits there are defined per byte when somebody counts in bytes, and ask where the punch cards are stored when you need to write a new program--not to mention being generally surprised that the electric brains only need to see them once to run a program multiple times!

Why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072682)

Why?

Re:Why? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072914)

We do what we must

Because we can.

Re:Why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073004)

He was trying to decide which would impress his friends more--a giant mechanical computer or another bloody yacht. As geeks tend to cluster, the answer was obvious.

Hold on. (1)

The Ancients (626689) | about 6 years ago | (#23072720)

...an improved version of his earlier design for a mechanical digital calculator. It weighs in at two tons more than the Difference Engine built in 1991 at London's Science Museum.

Well - there goes Moore's Law then, I guess. Although, this was invented in the century before Moore himself was.

Microsoft millionaire Nathan Myhrvold commissioned and paid for the US model."
Hmm. Microsoft's upcoming answer to viruses, rootkits, worms, etc?

Re:Hold on. (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 6 years ago | (#23073284)

...an improved version of his earlier design for a mechanical digital calculator. It weighs in at two tons more than the Difference Engine built in 1991 at London's Science Museum.

Well - there goes Moore's Law then, I guess. Although, this was invented in the century before Moore himself was.

Being a Microsoft product it has to have one extra ton of DRM and another ton of UI tweaks.

Improved model? (5, Funny)

calebt3 (1098475) | about 6 years ago | (#23072744)

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, an improved version of his earlier design for a mechanical digital calculator
Hence the 2...

Re:Improved model? (4, Funny)

cyphercell (843398) | about 6 years ago | (#23072798)

were you expecting 1.9? I don't think they used the opensource versioning conventions en vogue today.

What if... (5, Funny)

DigitAl56K (805623) | about 6 years ago | (#23072752)

What happens when you divide by zero on a calculator using a physical engine?

Does it explode? Will it create a black hole? Could this be the next doomsday device?

Re:What if... (4, Funny)

jellomizer (103300) | about 6 years ago | (#23072886)

Being boring I would expect it would Jam. A gear may break off if you force it.

Can't. Sorry. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073026)

It is a difference engine. Add and subtract only. Sorry.

Re:What if... (4, Funny)

creimer (824291) | about 6 years ago | (#23073010)

Universe 1.0 will come to an end. God -- or the designated higher being of your choice -- will shake His divine head, and create Universe 2.0 with better error handling routines.

Re:What if... (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073012)

As I recall from some of the mechanical calulators I used several decades ago, division was performed by repeated subtraction. I don't remember trying to divide by zero, but my guess is that you'd have to keep turning the crank forever . . .

Re:What if... (1)

Whiteox (919863) | about 6 years ago | (#23073704)

On the old mechanical calculators, if you subtract 0, then it just whirs and shows you the same number.
EG National cash registers and even the solenoid powered electric adding machines with paper tape printing.
It's only microprocessors that can't handle div by 0 errors.

Re:What if... (5, Informative)

evanbd (210358) | about 6 years ago | (#23073020)

It's far more specialized than that. It basically computes values of a polynomial from a starting set (interpolate / extrapolate). It doesn't have an explicit fexible divide operation. Exactly what sort of error you get out is going to depend on how you carry out the division, but most likely you would do exp(log(a) - log(b)), which would produce a very large negative number for log(b) (an incorrect result, obviously), and a very large number for the result. It might or might not overflow, depending on the precision of your approximating polynomials for log and exp at the values of interest.

I've done that. (4, Interesting)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about 6 years ago | (#23073046)

What happens when you divide by zero on a calculator using a physical engine?

I've done that.

The particular calculator in question would spin madly, with the result digit dials working like a cross between an odometer and a clock movement, until you hit the button that aborts the process. (The abort apparently consisted of changing the divisor to a large number. It took close to a minute as the machine would do a trial subtraction, undo it, shift the register bar one to the left, and repeat until it got to the last digit.)

Re:What if... (5, Interesting)

Tenebrousedge (1226584) | about 6 years ago | (#23073190)

To start, a famous quote:

"On two occasions I have been asked, "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."


What truly happens to an impossible sum?

Does it dry up

like a slashdotter in the sun?

or does it fester like sco

and then run?

does it stink like an overused meme?

or crust and sugar o'er--

like a deferred dream?

maybe it just sags like a 5-ton calculating machine under a heavy load

or does it explode?

Re:What if... (1)

GospelHead821 (466923) | about 6 years ago | (#23073440)

Perhaps you've drawn excessively from the parent poem in your parody, but I liked this a lot. A fine fusion of literature and geekery. You've earned my admiration (and I've marked you as a friend.)

Re:What if... (1)

prestomation (583502) | about 6 years ago | (#23073468)

So I was in a first year programming course, and one kid in the back hadn't shown up in about 2 weeks. Our professor asked if anyone knew what happened to him, and some idiot in the back shouts "Maybe he divided by zero!" Maybe the missing kid knows the answer to your question?

RSOD (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073552)

Red Scream of Death.

I thought Microsoft already built this... (1)

MBC1977 (978793) | about 6 years ago | (#23072784)

Does this mean that they are re-releasing Vista? I mean most people consider it a oversized calclator anyway...

(Yes, even Microsoft users can poke fun at themselves too...)

Meh.... (4, Interesting)

mark-t (151149) | about 6 years ago | (#23072792)

When you can make an difference engine out of LEGO [woz.org], it really doesn't seem that impressive to build a five ton one. Babbage's analytical engine, however... that would be an interesting piece.

Re:Meh.... (2, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | about 6 years ago | (#23073612)

Article: Andrew Carol, an Apple software engineer who built a simpler difference engine, entirely of plastic LEGO pieces...

It appears Mr. Babbage should have invented Legos first.
       

Times likes these... (0, Redundant)

billy901 (1158761) | about 6 years ago | (#23072802)

It's times like these when I appreciate my my TI83 weighing in at about 12 ounces. It may be seemingly complicated to do graphs and hard fuctions, but it's damn smaller! (Plus, if you mod it enough, you can run Linux. A friend of mine actually did that!)

Re:Times likes these... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073038)

Your friend may have run something vaguely UNIX-like, but Linux it definitely was not.

Re:Times likes these... (1)

billy901 (1158761) | about 6 years ago | (#23073148)

It was actaully a very skimmed down version of Linux, you couldn't input any commands because he couldn't figure out how to get it working with the keys on the TI83, it just ran on the hardware. It took about a minute to start up, a minute to shutdown. It wasn't Linux, but it was very Linux like in terms of code, so I just considered it to be Linux. Overall, it was a waste of $120 CAD to ruin a calculator and get no credit of this feat. :(

Re:Times likes these... (1)

hunterkll (949515) | about 6 years ago | (#23073316)

I would love to know how he did that, i've been programming TI calculators for YEARS, doing work with the 84+ and it's USB as of recent, and i'd love to hear about this z80 port of linux that runs in 1MB ram, :)

Sure it can perform arithmetic .... (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23072810)

but can it run Linux?

Re:Sure it can perform arithmetic .... (1)

jellomizer (103300) | about 6 years ago | (#23072950)

No it is sponsored by Microsoft. There are probably 500 lbs of DRM to prevent such actions to take place. Beside this could be the most stable Microsoft product yet. I think it is on at least 4 legs.

Re:Sure it can perform arithmetic .... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073464)

You managed to regurgitate about 4 posts from this discussion at once! Very nice. If I had mod points (meaning if I hated myself enough to volunteer for moderation), I'd seriously give you a +20. And I'm not just talking thac0 here.

Wasted energy? (-1, Troll)

bogaboga (793279) | about 6 years ago | (#23072874)

It's my thought that all this is "wasted energy." Surely, wouldn't this effort be better utilized caring for those less fortunate in these United States?

Re:Wasted energy? (1)

Nullav (1053766) | about 6 years ago | (#23073064)

Awesome idea! We could pay poor people to live in a giant metal box and read punch cards all day.

150 years makes quite a difference (1)

publicopinion5 (1262126) | about 6 years ago | (#23072892)

Quite impressive that in 150 years we can do with less than a gram of silicon what they tried to do with tons of gears and cranks. Makes you wonder what they're gonna be doing in 150 years from now.

Re:150 years makes quite a difference (2, Insightful)

gardyloo (512791) | about 6 years ago | (#23072968)

I don't know, but you can bet there will be "bad car analogies" analogies, mentions of some hot chick and grits, and complains about moderators.

Only the difference engine? (4, Interesting)

jdb2 (800046) | about 6 years ago | (#23072906)

With the money this guy has surely he could afford to build a version of the Analytical Engine. It's not a giant leap for the machinists involved in such a project, given that the fine specifications for the various gears, wheels and cogs is a no-brainer for today's technology -- all the parts could be laser cut by a robot. It would be truly awe-inspiring to see the first computer functioning in all its glory, for indeed it is Turing complete and lays out many of the concepts used in modern digital computers.

Here are some links :

[fourmilab.ch]http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/ [fourmilab.ch]

The obligatory 99-bottles-of-beer-on-the-wall in punched card Analytical Engine assembly language :

[99-bottles-of-beer.net]http://99-bottles-of-beer.net/language-babbage's-analytical-machine-79.html [99-bottles-of-beer.net]

Hmmm, I dare say that's shorter than the C# version, if you remove the comments. Oh and it will run Linux, if you have enough coal and are willing to wait a few years for X to load. ;) (it does have a graphical output device) As for a beowulf cluster, that might help performance, although your interconnect mechanism would probably be pneumatic ie. tubes (that's what the Internet is made of anyway right?) and the cluster size would require a few tens of millions of units. ;)

jdb2

Re:Only the difference engine? (1)

calebt3 (1098475) | about 6 years ago | (#23072940)

Could some explain what Turing-complete is? I don't find Wikipedia very clear on this.

Re:Only the difference engine? (4, Funny)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | about 6 years ago | (#23073068)

In a nutshell, it's just an old way of saying "it runs programs".

Before we had the formal concept of "programs" (as defined and refined by Backus and Naur), computation machines calculated numbers based on information fed into them on paper tape. A full set of instructions on paper-tape was called a "tour", and while the program was running the computation machine was said to be "touring" or "turing" (Fr). When the end of the tape was reached, the computation machine was said to be in the "turing complete" state (i.e. the tour was complete).

The term "turing complete" came to mean any computer which could run any program fed into it to completion (assuming correct input, of course). We use the term "program" and "run" to talk about computer input nowadays, but we still use the term "turing complete" to describe our general purpose computation devices (computers).

Re:Only the difference engine? (3, Informative)

setagllib (753300) | about 6 years ago | (#23073256)

Err, what, it's not at all named after Alan Turing, one of the fathers of fundamental computation theory? Or is this a really bad joke?

Re:Only the difference engine? (3, Informative)

flosofl (626809) | about 6 years ago | (#23073258)

Before we had the formal concept of "programs" (as defined and refined by Backus and Naur), computation machines calculated numbers based on information fed into them on paper tape. A full set of instructions on paper-tape was called a "tour", and while the program was running the computation machine was said to be "touring" or "turing" (Fr). When the end of the tape was reached, the computation machine was said to be in the "turing complete" state (i.e. the tour was complete).
Um...What?

No. Turing Completeness describes a Universal Turing Machine that can emulate every possible computing device ever built. It was not named as such for "touring", but the Church-Turning thesis. As in Alan Turing.

Babbage's Analytical Engine design would have pretty much met the definition of a Turing Complete machine.

Re:Only the difference engine? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073446)

How can you not realize he was joking?

Re:Only the difference engine? (1)

flonker (526111) | about 6 years ago | (#23073634)

Strictly speaking turing complete refers to the fact that any computer that is turing complete can simulate any other machine that is turing complete.

Turing completeness makes no claims to represent "every possible computing device". I think some analog computers aren't, but I don't remember the details.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_completeness [wikipedia.org]

Re:Turing complete (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073126)

It means the absolute minimum to be a universal computer. Universal means it can, with enough time and memory, calculate any function. Speed and storage capacity are the only real distinctions between computers. Yes, that means if you give it enough memory it can run Linux. Just not very fast as others have pointed out ;)

Re:Only the difference engine? (1)

Nullav (1053766) | about 6 years ago | (#23073184)

It basically means that it can compute anything that should be computable (regardless of how long it takes). A good example would be one system emulating another.

Gear jam of death (1)

EEPROMS (889169) | about 6 years ago | (#23073170)

[a manager grumpily storms into a room full of smoke and dust with gaping holes in the walls and light fittings hanging from the ceiling]
Manager "What happened here I heard this unearthly explosion ? "
[a pallid skinned, slightly chubby man is sitting in the corner wearing shredded clothes and has black burn marks on his face]
BOFH "I tried to port Quake II to the Babage machine and I needed to over clock it a bit and well one of the gears on the number 5 stack jammed when it reached 24,000 rpm"

The login screen (5, Funny)

Nimey (114278) | about 6 years ago | (#23073224)


    WELCOME TO THE BABBAGE ANALYTICAL TIMESHARING SERVICE

    PLEASE NOTE THAT THE INTEGRATOR IS CURRENTLY UNAVAILABLE
    DUE TO THE WEEKLY GREASING SCHEDULE. WOULD ALL USERS KINDLY
    RETURN ANY UNUSED PLUGBOARDS, AS THE PROGRAMMING TEAM ARE
    RUNNING LOW. DIVISION UNIT 3 WILL BE OUT OF ACTION UNTIL
    THURSDAY DUE TO EMERGENCY COG REPLACEMENT - PLEASE ENSURE
    THAT YOUR PROGRAM DOES NOT ATTEMPT TO DIVIDE BY ZERO AS
    THIS CAN CAUSE SEVERE DAMAGE (INCLUDING SHAFT BREAKAGES).
.
.
SYSTEM READY.
?

My god why?! (1)

erroneus (253617) | about 6 years ago | (#23073280)

I get the "nostalgia" and "historical interest" thing, but don't waste 5 tons of material doing it! If anything, miniaturize it. It'd be just as cool. Even better? Make an OpenGL version of it and turn it into a screensaver.

Re:My god why?! (2, Interesting)

Jerry Smith (806480) | about 6 years ago | (#23073696)

I get the "nostalgia" and "historical interest" thing, but don't waste 5 tons of material doing it! If anything, miniaturize it. It'd be just as cool. Even better? Make an OpenGL version of it and turn it into a screensaver.
Personally I'd think it's 5 tons of material well-spent. It was things like these that made me think "How does it work?" when I was a wee lad.

Left out of the summary (1, Offtopic)

OMNIpotusCOM (1230884) | about 6 years ago | (#23073320)

...this replaces the previously most expensive, heavy as hell, worthless piece of shit on Earth. Rosie O'Donnell could not be reached for comment.

Re:Left out of the summary (1)

calebt3 (1098475) | about 6 years ago | (#23073352)

Remember, Earth itself is really a giant computer. Although to be honest, it isn't really useless. Just Mostly Harmless.

Guess that's why (4, Funny)

Fnord666 (889225) | about 6 years ago | (#23073324)

From the FA:

Carol gives the example of multiplying 5 by successive numbers, such as 6, 7, 8. "In simple terms, the method of differences is based on the observation that if the work has already been done to multiply 5 by 5, [then] that work can be reused to multiple 5 by 7 with the addition of another 5 into the previous total," he writes.
I guess that's why the author went into journalism instead of computers.

An idle question... (1)

Black Sabbath (118110) | about 6 years ago | (#23073336)

I don't know how the engine works, but assuming it has the equivalent of adders, registers and some boolean bit-ops, might it be possible to extrapolate the size/weight of a machine such as this that emulates some simple RISC processor of today?

I have visions of a multi-storied, block-sized, brass behemoth, with hundreds of workers scurrying around its innards "de-bugging" (and de-ratting) it, and keeping it lubricated.

Just interested to hear peoples guesses.

Lucky the USA is still using obsolete units! (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073364)

They can use the original plans as they are, without that hassle of converting to metric! Bonus!

Actual Information - GASP! (5, Interesting)

chmguy (1273222) | about 6 years ago | (#23073388)

I'm am one of the Docents for the Difference Engine #2, and although the team making it work is WAAAAY more competent to comment, lemme put out a few FACTS, at the risk of "flame wars of death"... The Engine is a single function calculator that can iterate the values of a 7th order polynomial approximation to an arbitrary mathematical function. After about an hour of VERY careful setup, any set of coefficients could be entered, allowing almost any function to realized. It uses a technique called "finite differences" that allows the calculation to be performed using only addition (and 10's compliment coefficients to represent negative numbers). Our working plan is to set it up to do a table of logarithms, much like Babbage's own table, produced well before he thought of Difference Engine #2. The polynomial approximation for logarithms is quite accurate over the space from 1.0 to 1.6, 6000 iterations of the Engine. (It takes four turns of the crank or about 6 sec. per iteration.)
The calculation section has about 4,000 parts, and a very elaborate printer mechanism has another 4,000, and was designed to produce sterotype molds of a complete page of a book of tables.
It is a WONDEROUS device to behold! There are 52 distinct stages in it's control graph (EXACTLY like a modern timing diagram, just vertical...) An elaborate nest of 14 cams control the complex sequence of events to do an iteration, which is !pipelined!. The sinuous ripple carry mechanisms on the back side are HYPNOTIC, as are the forward and backward movements of the intra-column sector gears.
Avoid CHM on May 10, it's gonna be a madhouse! But this is pretty close to the top of the list of "1000 Geeky Things to See Before You Die", oh, and by the way, there's all the other ABSOLUTELY WAY COOL stuff at CHM, wanna see an Apple I signed by "the Woz"...
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS! chmguy

Slapping himself right now (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 6 years ago | (#23073490)

Charles could have probably finished it if he had used binary digits instead of decimal (with a results translator), which would have made the machine simpler. The first mechanical computer (Turing Complete) was built in WW2 by a German scientist. It was easier to construct because it used binary.

Then again, Charles was known for feature-creep (which is partly why he never finished), so he would probably try to make it run Linux or something if he thought he had more resources, and thus still miss the mark.
           

Theif! (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 6 years ago | (#23073558)

Microsoft millionaire Nathan Myhrvold commissioned and paid for the US model.

Now that MS is done stealing all Apple's ideas, they have to reach further back.
     

Seriously, WTF?!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23073632)

Doesn't the patent Troll Nathan have anything better to do with our US $s than spend on obsolete machinary from Europe? Does it progress science or technology? Is it art? Frankly I am seriously fed up with these retro bastards. I am fed up with ex-MS aholes spending money squeezed from us on cars, boats, and now mechanical calculators. Why can't these morons be more like Richard Branson? OK!
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