Steampunk computer to be made of brass and powered by steam

A major project has begun to provide funding for what will prove to be an extraordinary feat of engineering and an example of steampunk in its truest form – a Victorian computer made of brass components and powered entirely by steam.

John Graham-Cumming is attempting to build what is regarded as the world’s first computer, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  Designed in 1837 the engine was the brainchild of the former Lucasian Professor of Cambridge University who was unable to attract necessary funding from Parliament during his lifetime. The computer has since remained un-built, though it is known to be the first example of a functioning computer system.

“I have always hoped someone would build it. I wanted to see it working since it is the very earliest example of a working computer, though of course it was never actually constructed.  As no-one has succeeded in doing so since it was designed, I felt that it would be great to actually have it functioning, and this has meant that I have had to try to get the money together myself,” Graham-Cumming said.

Graham-Cumming hopes that that the massive computer will be built in the Science Museum once he succeeds in raising enough through donations to fund the project.  Once it is completed it is expected that the engine will be considerably bigger than a modern computer.

“Aesthetically the engine will be very impressive.  It will be a mass of brass parts around the size of a Ford Transit van and powered by a steam engine.  In terms of processing power it will have roughly as much memory as Sinclair ZX81 although about 13,000 times slower,” Graham-Cumming told Techeye.

The computer has three major components. The memory, which consists of a rod attached to a number of wheels each numbered from 0 through to 9, and the CPU, which is referred in Babbage’s project as The Mill, performing basic arithmetic and comparison operations. Graham-Cumming notes that the fact it is able to access its own memory to make decisions is what makes it a computer. 

“Then there is the program which is stored on punchcards which are fed into the machine as inspired by contemporary mechanical looms.”

Prior to construction commencing it will be necessary to construct a 3D computer image of the engine.

“Before manufacturing the first year will consist of research as we decide which of Babbage’s many designs of the machine we will actually use.  Once decided on a specific plan we will produce a simulation which will give people a real impression of what the engine will look like and how it will work.”

The actual manufacturing will involve a team of expert volunteers who will have to manufacture each individual part.  there has been another attempt at building a similarly unusual machine, the Difference Engine, another of Babbage’s designs completed in 1991 at a cost of around £400,000. This build was considered substantially easier as it was constructed from complete designs by Babbage.  With this in mind it is expected that the Analytical Engine, larger and more complex, will cost at least £500,000. 

“We will hopefully be able to build in the Science Museum as I will most likely be too difficult to actually move once building is completed.”

“I believe that people should donate to this project as it is a fantastic engineering achievement and will provide an insight into how a computer actually works since you will be able to see all the moving parts, unlike in a modern machine. It will be a very impressive, and educational feat of engineering.”

For the project to reach the next stage Graham-Cumming will require 50,000 donations, which can be made through his site.