Babbage builders turn down Kickstarter

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Charles Babbage's plan for the analytical engine
Image caption,
The most complete of Charles Babbage's plans for the analytical engine is known as Plan 28

An ambitious 10-year project to build the world's first computer, the Analytical Engine, will rely on donations via the website JustGiving.

Although Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, is about to launch in the UK, the team say the 10% commission it charges for its service is too high.

It will cost £250,000 to build the steam-powered machine.

It was designed by Charles Babbage in the 1800s, and Ada Lovelace wrote mathematical "programmes" for it.

The project is named Plan 28 after the most complete of the 100 plans drawn up by Mr Babbage - although one single complete plan does not exist.

It has been registered as a charity, said John Graham-Cumming, who came up with the idea.

"We were going to use Kickstarter but the fees are high if you're a charity," he told the BBC and said that Gift Aid, where a charity can reclaim tax from a donation from a tax payer, was important to the project.

Mr Graham-Cumming said he was not planning to approach the government for funding.

During Mr Babbage's time he was given the equivalent of "two battleships" worth of funding from the government of the day to build the predecessor to the Analytical Engine, which he called the Difference Engine - but he failed to complete that either, much to the annoyance of officials.

"That didn't work out so well last time around," said Mr Graham-Cumming.

"You could say it was the first failed government IT project."

Historical artefact

Babbage's handwritten notes and plans, which span thousands of pages, have now been fully digitised by the Science Museum in London.

The next step is to build a working 3D simulation of the machine, which is designed to be the size of a steam locomotive.

It will probably take up to three years to complete, said Mr Graham-Cumming.

"By then we might just be able to 3D print it," he said.

The value of building the Analytical Engines lies in its fundamental contribution to computer science, according to Mr Graham-Cumming.

"We are building an historical artefact," he said.

"We're not building it to try to compute on it - it is less powerful than the ZX81 [Sinclair computer from 1981]."

Other members of the team include Tim Robinson, who built a model of the machine out of Meccano pieces, and computer historian Dr Doran Swade.

But would Charles Babbage have approved?

"I can't decide whether he would be happy or exasperated that it has taken so long," said Mr Graham-Cumming.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.