If someone up and asked you “who invented the computer,” how would you respond? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Al Gore? Or say you’re more historically savvy, might you venture Alan Turing? Perhaps Konrad Zuse? Turing is the guy who, in the 1930s, laid the groundwork for computational science, while Zuse, around the same time, created something called the “Z1,” generally credited as “the first freely programmable computer.”
And yet all of the above could prove wrong, depending on what a British research team and millions of dollars turn up over the next decade.
(PHOTOS: A Brief History of the Computer)
The team’s question, as posed by the New York Times: “Did an eccentric mathematician named Charles Babbage conceive of the first programmable computer in the 1830s, a hundred years before the idea was put forth in its modern form by Alan Turing?”
You know, Charles Babbage? Born in 1791, died in 1871? Who attempted to build something called a “Difference Engine” during the first half of the nineteenth-century, a kind of mechanical calculator designed to compute various sets of numbers? Some argue that he, not Turing or Zuse, is the true father of the modern computer.
I worked for a company named after the guy back in 1994. You know, Babbages, the mall-based chain that eventually merged with Software Etc. before its parent company went bankrupt, was picked up by Barnes & Noble’s Leonard Riggio, and eventually folded into the existing GameStop chain. I remember our store had a silver plaque on the frontside of the cash-wrap with an etching of Babbages and a brief overview explaining who he was and why the odd-sounding name fit a store that, at the time, sold mostly PC-based products.
Babbage never built his Difference Engine—a mechanical calculator with thousands of parts—because of cost overruns and political disagreements, but the inventor passed on plans for its completion, and in 1991, the Science Museum in London actually built it (the printing component was finished in 2000). As suspected, it actually works.
But the Difference Engine could only do rote calculations and was incapable of checking its results to alter course. Babbage thus had bigger plans to construct something called an “Analytical Engine,” a monster-machine the size of a room with its own CPU, memory and capable of being programmed with punch cards, that he’d imagined but never had the wherewithal to build, beyond a trial piece, before his death. The problem: Where the Difference Engine’s plans were complete, the Analytical Engine’s were a work-in-progress.
Enter the Science Museum of London, which plans to build Babbage’s Analytical Engine a century-and-a-half later, and remedy the work-in-progress hurdle by putting the plans online next year and inviting passerby to weigh in. One of the central questions the project’s designed to answer is whether Babbage would have been able to actually build it at all.
If the answer’s ultimately “yes, he could have,” it could challenge the prevailing academic belief that Alan Turing, not Babbage, designed the first general purpose computer. And while the question today is purely academic, the machine’s construction, assuming it really is doable, should prove fascinating to watch.
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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.