Babbage in the Science Museum

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

My last post about the Science Museum is about Charles Babbage. We’ve seen that there is a difference machine in the groundfloor of the museum but in the mathematical section there is a special space dedicated to him and his machines:

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is widely regarded as the first computer pioneer and the great ancestral figure in the history of computing. Babbage excelled in a variety of scientific and philosophical subjects though his present-day reputation rests largely on the invention and design of his vast mechanical calculating engines. His Analytical Engine conceived in 1834 is one of the startling intellectual feats of the nineteenth century. The design of this machine possesses all the essential logical features of the modern general purpose computer. However, there is no direct line of descent from Babbage’s work to the modern electronic computer invented by the pioneers of the electronic age in the late 1930s and early 1940s largely in ignorance of the detail of Babbage’s work.

Apart of his portrait from 1860, we can see in the exhibition the right sagittal section with cerebellum of his brain. Babbage’s son donated it for research to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England. There also are extracts from his diary (1844):

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine in 1821 but never built a full example. The only complete Difference Engine built during Babbage’s lifetime was made by Swedish engineers George and Edvard Scheutz. Inspired in Babbage’s ideas, and encouraged by Babbage himself, they printed the first ever mathematical tables calculated by machine. The Scheutz brothers went on to sell two further Difference Engines of which this is the second:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Practical and finantial problems meant that Babbage and his engineer 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 Engine No. 1, it is one of the finest examples of precision egineering from 19th-century England.

The world’s first mechanical computer was also invented by Babbage in 1834. He never saw his Analytical Machine finished and this small section was under construction when he died:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

There is also a model of the Difference Engine No. 2:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Charles Babbage designed this mechanical calculating machine, called Difference Engine No. 2, between 1847 and 1849. He aimed to print mathematical tables that were much more accurate than the hand-produced versions available to Victorian engineers, scientists and navigators.

Babbage called his machine a Difference Engine because it calculated tables of sums automatically using ‘the method of finite differences’. This mathematical method involves only addition and subtraction, and avoids multiplication and division, which are more difficult to mechanise.

I have a picture in front of this machine with my students from our visit to the museum in February 2012:

Who took this picture for us?

Who took this picture for us?

Nowadays, the machine is part of this section dedicated exclusively to Babbage.

I am going to visit the Science Museum again next February and I am sure that another post will be written because there are a lot of pictures and things that I don’t have time now to share with you!

LocationScience Museum in London (map)

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