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babbage


Introduction

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.

Babbage failed to build a complete machine. The most widely accepted reason for this failure is that Victorian mechanical engineering were not sufficiently developed to produce parts with sufficient precision.

In 1985 the Science Museum launched a project to build a complete Babbage Engine to original designs to explore the practical viability of Babbage’s schemes. The Engine chosen was Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 designed between 1847 and 1849. The calculating section of the Engine, which weighs 2.6 tonnes and consists of 4,000 separate parts, was completed and working in November 1991, one month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth.

Portion of the calculating mechanism of Difference Engine 2. Made by the Science Museum to verify the design of the basic adding element.
Portion of the calculating mechanism of Difference Engine 2. Made by the Science Museum to verify the design of the basic adding element.
© Science & Society Picture Library

The Science Museum has a special relationship with Babbage which predates the construction of the Difference Engine No. 2 . Its collections contain the seminal objects that are the material legacy of Babbage’s endeavours, and its archives hold the most comprehensive set of original manuscripts and design drawings.