Feeds

Babbage's Difference Engine hits Silicon Valley

Wafers? Nah. How about bronze and wood?

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

Silicon Valley got its first look at the true roots of the digital age this week, with the arrival of a five-ton calculator made from the designs of the Victorian-age mathematician and Londoner, Charles Babbage.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California is hosting the second replica of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2.

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2

The difference engine is astoundingly complex, housing more than 8,000 parts made of steel, bronze, iron and wood. So ambitious and ahead of his time was his design that Babbage was never able to complete the device, due in part to the unsophisticated engineering processes of the 19th century and a withdrawal of lavish funding from the British government.

Babbage's machine, using no electronic parts, adds with numbers up to 31 digits long to calculate polynomials up to the seventh order. It's capable of cranking out — literally cranking out — polynomials at the rate of one per six seconds.

Get yer' hand-cranked polynomials here

A view from the side

Looking close at the decimal columns

Although it was never built in his time, Babbage's engine is now considered the first known example of a automatic computational machine. The device also included plans for a printing device that would have been the first automated typesetter, capable of text wrap, two font sizes, and could be directed to print different column widths and line spacing.

But when Babbage died in 1871, he left behind only 20 pages of drawings and instructions on the device, and his hope for vindication from future generations.

Babbage, the original steampunk

Ye Olde PC Load Letter? What the...?

"Another age must be the judge," he wrote.

The first working model of Babbage's difference engine began construction in 1991 — some 142 years later than intended — by the Science Museum in London. Using his original design notes and materials that would have been available to Babbage at the time, the builders proved his astounding machine would have worked exactly as planned.

There on display, the completed device caught the eye of former Microsoft chief technical officer and millionaire, Nathan Myhrvold, who in 2002 commissioned a second difference engine of his own.

Only finished last month, the second difference engine replica will be on display at the Computer History Museum until May 2009. After that, it will be moved to Myhrvold's home in the Seattle area. And if this monster isn't a convenient conversation starter, we don't know what is. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Kate Bush: Don't make me HAVE CONTACT with your iPHONE
Can't face sea of wobbling fondle implements. What happened to lighters, eh?
Apple takes blade to 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
Shaves price, not screen on mid-2014 model
iPhone 6 flip tip slips in Aussie's clip: Apple's 'reversible USB' leaks
New plug not compatible with official Type-C, according to fresh rumors
The agony and ecstasy of SteamOS: WHERE ARE MY GAMES?
And yes it does need a fat HDD (or SSD, it's cool with either)
Steve Jobs had BETTER BALLS than Atari, says Apple mouse designer
Xerox? Pff, not even in the same league as His Jobsiness
TV transport tech, part 1: From server to sofa at the touch of a button
You won't believe how much goes into today's telly tech
Apple analyst: fruity firm set to shift 75 million iPhones
We'll have some of whatever he's having please
Apple to build WORLD'S BIGGEST iStore in Dubai
It's not the size of your shiny-shiny...
NVIDIA claims first 64-bit ARMv8 SoC for Androids
Mile-High 'Denver' Tegra K1 successor said to rival PC performance
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.