Friday, January 30, 2009

The Difference Engine

I saw a nice hour-long film tonight, about the development in the early 1800s of two interesting machines, both designed by Charles Babbage. The first was called the Difference Engine, and it was partly built when he developed another, more complex device (an Analysis Engine) which was never actually built, but whose plans were dusted off in the mid-20th century and used to create the first true computer. Ada Lovelace, daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron (though she never knew him; her parents separated when she was an infant and her father left England) and an intelligent, educated mother, was trained in mathematics. She, far more than Charles Babbage, grasped the enormous possibilities of the more complex machine, and "got" the idea that the numbers that were calculated could represent non-numeric values (think ASCII code, for instance). She also considered the workings of electricity. But she died while still young (at age 36, I believe) of illness, knowing she was leaving behind notes and published articles that others would use to pursue her ideas.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, currently has a model of the Difference Engine on display, so here's a rather dark and dramatic photo of it. The machine stands about 7 feet tall and occupies a footprint approx 3 feet by 6 feet.

Link to better photos, more info:

-- Rachel

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