Charles Babbages Analytical Engine (circa 1838) never executed a program, but it probably could have. Although Babbage pushed metallurgy and machining to new precision, he was too far ahead of his time to build his pioneering designs—affordably.
In "The Difference Engine," Doron Swade, head of collections at Londons Science Museum, tells the story in clear, satisfying detail.
Babbage, frustrated with error-laden tables used for science and commerce, exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam." The "computers" that generated these tables in 1821 were human (often moonlighting hairdressers), and their imperfect results led Babbage to spend his life designing the first automated computers.
With the Analytical Engine, comprising punch card programs, a CPU called "the mill," memory called "the store" and automatic plate creation for print output, Charles Babbage pioneered the elements of modern computing.
The book is due in September from Viking Press.