Hands-on with Babbage's Difference Engine

You think the MacBook Air is a beautiful computer? It's got nothing on this five-ton, Victorian-era beast.

Last week, I spent a couple of hours at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., which for a small-time collector of tech artifacts is like Charlie getting into the chocolate factory.

The highlight of the visit was a personal tour by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who wandered among the displays and explained how some of the products had influenced his understanding and passion for technology, which culminated in the creation of the first Apple computer. You can see several videos of Wozniak, who was very generous with his time despite nursing a sore throat, here.

My relatively short visit also yielded another fabulous event: witnessing the operation of Difference Engine No. 2.

Looking like something taken from the final chapter of Myst, the Difference Engine, in short, is a computer and printer that was designed by Charles Babbage in the 1840s to solve the problem of notoriously inaccurate printed numerical tables. Intended to be powered by steam, Babbage envisioned a machine that would eliminate human errors in making calculations and getting those calculations into print (to be used, for example, by ship captains sailing around the world).

Babbage's engine, however, was never built in his lifetime. Indeed, it wasn't until 1991 that the calculating portion was actually built and proven to work, while the printing portion took another 11 years to complete. That first engine is on display at the Science Museum in London. The duplicate at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View was actually built for Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft and a collector of computing artifacts. (Thanks, Nathan, for not hiding it in your shed!)

You can learn more about Babbage and his remarkable invention at the Computer History Museum Web site and you can read CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman's account of the day the engine was delivered here. Check out my video of the engine "running" here (apologies for the shakiness at the start) and I've also included some photos of this beautiful and remarkable machine in the photo gallery above.

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