Victorian Steampunk Machines

by Fred Ray on October 17, 2010 · 4 comments

I mentioned steampunk submarines in a previous post, but there’s more. T’was an elegant age in which designers were not afraid to make things beautiful as well as functional.

There is a movement afoot in Britain to finally build Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Babbage, one of the age’s greatest geniuses, designed but never completed a steam-powered mechanical analog computer as early as 1837, but it remained unfinished at his death in 1871. One of the workmen engaged in its construction was a young man named Joseph Whitworth.

“It’s an inspirational piece of equipment,” said Mr Graham-Cumming, author of the Geek Atlas.

“A hundred years ago, before computers were available, Babbage had envisaged this machine.

“What you realise when you read Babbage’s papers is that this was the first real computer.

“It had expandable memory, a CPU, microcode, a printer, a plotter and was programmable with punch cards.

“It was the size of a small lorry and powered by steam but it was recognisable as a computer.”

As mentioned in the article it brings up in the intriguing concept of a Victorian Information Age. How big would a period “laptop” have been?

Another machine that appeared about the same time was the typewriter. Conceived as early as 1829, the first workable models appeared at about the end of the Civil War in 1865, including an elegant model by Rasmus Malling-Hansen called the Writing Ball.

While not terribly practical it was a lovely piece of gear and presaged the workable models of the future. If you look through a lot of old Civil War era manuscripts you’ll see a transition from hand-written records to typewritten ones about 1900 or so.  Follow the link for lots more of them.

UPDATE: I am remiss in failing to mention that Lady Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) wrote what is now recognized as the first computer language i.e. a set of instructions to tell Babbage’s machine how to do its business.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

EarthTone October 17, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Babbage’s Analytical Engine has been built. You can see it on Youtube:


Fred Ray October 18, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for the link, Earthtone. However, the Difference Engine at the link is a mere calculator as opposed to the Analytical Engine which was much larger, more complex, and a true computer.

Brief BBC description at:


Dick Stanley October 20, 2010 at 10:41 am

I’m for it. Build the biggie.


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