Babbage’s Difference Machine No. 1

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

This is not going to be the only post dedicated to Babbage in the Science Museum. I’ve visited this museum in my birthday and I am going to write some posts about the mathematical section. However, the first thing that I saw after the exhibition about Turing is this Babbage’s Difference Machine No. 1.

This trial portion of the Difference Engine is one of the earliest automatic calculators and is a celebrated icon in the prehistory of the computer.

Charles Babbage was a brillant thinker and mathematician. He divised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured 1500 pounds from the government and shortly afterwards he hired the engineer Joseph Clement.

The Difference Engine was designed to perform fixed operations automatically. During its development Babbage’s mind leapt forward to the design of the Analytical Engine, which using punched cards could be programmed to calculate almost any function. This design embodied almost all the conceptual elements of the modern electronic computer.

The project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over 17.000 pounds to build the machine -equivalent to the price of two warships. The collapse of the venture was traumatic for Babbage and, in old age, he became embittered and disillusioned.

Historians have suggested that the design was beyond the capability of contemporany technology and would have required greater accuracy than contemporany engineering could have provided. However, recent research has shown that Clement’s work was adequate to create a functioning machine. In fact, the scheme founderer on issues of economics, politics, Babbage’s temperament and his style of directing the enterprise.

 LocationScience Museum in London (map)

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One response

  1. […] Joseph Clement completed only about a seventh of Babbage’s original mechanism, which is on display in the ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery on the ground floor. Known as Difference […]

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