Sunday, December 13, 2009

HoS Micropost: Charles Babbage’s “Difference Engine” at NPR

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/13 at 12:45 PM

Thursday on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Laura Sydell examined the history of Charles Babbage’s “Difference Machine,” often referred to as the first calculator. Headed by Doron Swade, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, a group of engineers have reconstructed Babbage’s machine “using nothing but materials that would have been available to Babbage in the 1840s.”1

Swade’s reconstruction is massive. At 5 tons of cast iron, steel, bronze and wood, and made from 8,000 parts, the difference engine fills half a gallery.

Babbage’s Difference Machine (Source: Computer History Museum)

The story sounds remarkably like many accounts of Leonardo da Vinci. Babbage is held up as the father of modern computing, an eccentric man whose designs were well ahead of their time (One person quoted in the NPR article claims: “He was so far ahead of his time in his thinking that many people opposed what he was trying to do on the grounds that they just didn’t understand.”). More importantly for this narrative, although he wasn’t able to construct his device, now that we have we can tell that it would have worked: “the machine produces accurate results.”

Swade’s reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Machine is currently on display in the Computer History Museum (along with a fuller account of its production).

The NPR article is here
You can here the broadcast here (using NPR’s media player)
There is a YouTube video of Swade talking about Babbage’s machine and demonstrating its operation found here

1The Science Museum in London seems to have no shortage of former curators who have since turned to reconstructing historical devices, using only materials that were available to the original maker. Michael Wright has adopted a similar approach to his reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism. See my earlier comments on device here and more recently here. Michael did not, as I understand it, avail himself of engineers.

Tags: charles babbage, history of computing, museum exhibitions, npr, science museum, london