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History of Computers

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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Charles Babbage invented the analytical engine, a computing device.

The dawn of the computer age begins with the invention of the analytical engine. This mechanical 19th century computer had a processing unit inventor Charles Babbage called the "mill" that could store number programs. Data was inputted using punch cards then Babbage's computer would solve the problem and provide a printed answer.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage developed the analytical engine project after an earlier computing project the difference engine that Babbage started in 1822. The difference engine could solve polynomial equations using a numerical method called the "method of differences". However, the analytical engine was the first general computational device, with the ability to solve different types of equations. The use of punch cards to record a program was inspired by the Jacquard loom, which used similar punch cards to control the pattern being woven by the loom.

Being mechanical rather than electrical, the analytical engine worked by a series of gears and levers. Charles Babbage started building his analytical engine in 1833 and continued to tinker with the machine until the day he died.

Charles Babbage's motive for inventing the difference engine and analytical engine was the desire to create absolutely accurate mathematical tables.

Impact of the Analytical Engine

During a public lecture on Charles Babbage held at the University of Witwatersrand, historian Philip Machanick stated, "What made the analytical engine such a feat of engineering was that it was built before the discovery of electronics, and was entirely mechanical. Its memory consisted of gears, while the processing unit, or mill, consisted of cams, clutches, cranks and gears."

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