Edge of Innovation

From Babbage to Curie: Incredible shrinking computing machines


Back in the 1820s, Charles Babbage invented a mechanical calculating machine known as the ‘Difference Engine’. Had Babbage finished it, the Engine would have incorporated over 25,000 parts and weighed 15 tonnes, while its elegant columns of gears and numbered wheels would have stood eight feet high.

Babbage didn’t complete his Difference Engine because he came up with a far better idea – a general purpose computational machine that he dubbed the ‘Analytical Engine’. Again, Babbage never built it. But the revolutionary design, which included an arithmetic logic unit and internal memory, paved the way for computers of the future.

A computer that was seven feet high, 17 feet wide and weighed five tonnes

Big computers. Bletchley Park’s Colossus (1943) was designed to decrypt coded messages between Hitler and his generals. It’s acknowledged to be the world’s first electronic programmable computer, a computer with 2,500 valves and 10,000 resistors that was seven feet high, 17 feet wide and weighed five tonnes.

Still, that’s 10 tonnes lighter and a foot shorter than Babbage’s Difference Engine. Computers could only get smaller.

Fast forward to 1965 and the Olivetti Programma 101 was the size of a bloated typewriter. This was followed by the slightly slimmer Commodore Pet (1977) and the first IBM PC (1981), powered by Intel’s 8088 microprocessor.

A close-up of the numbered wheels on Babbage's Difference Engine
Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine featured over 25,000 parts, including eight-foot high towers of brass wheels and gears. Image © Tim Jenner

Computers continued to shrink. My first PC was an Intel 386 system – the size of a big desk drawer and the weight of a fully-packed holiday suitcase.

I have fond memories of my first laptop too – a 486-powered AcerNote 730 (1989) with an imprecise trackball and a monochrome LCD. Laptops seemed small and lightweight until I got my hands on a Psion 7 (2000), which condensed computing power into an even smaller plastic shell.

Compared to those early room-filling computers, today’s technology is already impossibly tiny. Desktop PCs have shrunk down into thin and lightweight laptops, which in turn have slimmed down into tablets, phablets and smartphones – computers that fit in your pocket.

The new ‘Curie’ module is no bigger than a button

Smaller? Last year Intel announced the ‘Edison’ platform, a dual-core Intel Atom CPU, 4GB of memory, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth squeezed into a module only slightly bigger and thicker than an SD card. This year, Intel has compressed its computing technology (a Quark SE SoC with a 6-axis accelerometer and gyroscope) into a new ‘Curie’ module that’s no bigger than a button.

Don’t underestimate its importance. Or its potential. Curie technology isn’t just aimed at the next generation of wearables. But it’s perfect for connecting other small devices to the web, an interconnectivity often described as the ‘Internet of Things’.

“As computer technology gets smaller and smaller, it gets lower physical size, lower cost, and importantly, lower power consumption,” says Steve Brown, Chief Futurist & Strategist at Intel. “This allows you to turn anything into a computer, whether it’s your shoes, a coffee cup, our bodies can become computers. That is the breakthrough point that we’re looking at.”


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