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Computer History Museum and Babbage

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I went to the Computer History Museum today – it was a lot more fun than I imagined.  I was with The South Bay Photography Meetup Group.  I will post more pictures later, but this one was from my favorite exhibit – Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No 2.  I included info about the machine below.  Fascinating.  I am impressed beyond words.  I also shot a short video but I’ll need to edit it before uploading – I don’t want it to suck! smiley See previous post on How to Shoot Video's That Don't Suck.

Difference engine

In Babbage's time, numerical tables were calculated by humans who were called 'computers', meaning "one who computes", much as a conductor is "one who conducts". At Cambridge, he saw the high error-rate of this human-driven process and started his life's work of trying to calculate the tables mechanically. He began in 1822 with what he called the difference engine, made to compute values of polynomial functions. Unlike similar efforts of the time, Babbage's difference engine was created to calculate a series of values automatically. By using the method of finite differences, it was possible to avoid the need for multiplication and division.

At the beginning of the 1820s, Babbage worked on a prototype of his first difference engine. Some parts of it still survive in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This prototype evolved into the "first difference engine." It remained unfinished and the finished portion is located at the Science Museum in London. This first difference engine would have been composed of around 25,000 parts, weigh fifteen tons (13,600 kg), and would have been 8 ft. (2.4 m) tall. Although Babbage received ample funding for the project, it was never completed. He later designed an improved version, “Difference Engine No. 2", which was not constructed until 1989–91, using his plans and 19th century manufacturing tolerances. It performed its first calculation at the London Science Museum returning results to 31 digits, far more than the average modern pocket calculator.

Completed models

The London Science Museum has constructed two Difference Engines according to Babbage's plans for the Difference Engine No 2. One is owned by the museum. The other, owned by the technology multimillionaire Nathan Myhrvold, went on exhibition at the Computer History Museum  on 10 May 2008. The two models that have been constructed are not replicas; Myhrvold's engine is the first design by Babbage, and the London Science Museum's is a later model.

I was honored that I got to experience this machine.  So thankful to Mr. Myhrvold for allowing it to be shared!  

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