The Difference Engine
April 26, 2006 3:15 AM   Subscribe

Charles Babbage's Difference Engines. One built in 1853. A subsequent design completed in 1991. And again in Lego. Both designs recreated in Meccano parts. [more inside]
posted by slimepuppy (11 comments total)
Additional stuff:
Be sure to check out the videos at the bottom of this page, to see the Meccano Difference Engine #2 operating. There's hypnotic beauty in the cogs shifting and turning.

The MAD project (a bit thin on details, so not really front page worthy) has some good images of the Engine in the Science Museum.

They also recently (in 2000) got Babbage's printer up and running with the Difference Engine.

All of this brought was on by having the pleasure of seeing the impressive Difference Engine #2 at the Science Museum last week. Apparently they are building a new one and planning on shipping it to the US, but I couldn't find any information about it online.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:16 AM on April 26, 2006

The Difference Engines, the first precursors to the computer, are true works of mechanical art. Was Ada Byron mentioned? If not, she was the daughter of Lord Byron, who wrote instructions for Babbage's machines and is thus considered the world's first computer programmer.

On a recent trip to CERN, seeing the computers that still handle much of the WWW's fundamental information, seeing these old predecessors is quite charming.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 3:41 AM on April 26, 2006

Yeah, read the last part of the second link ('Babbage's') for an account about Byron's and Babbage's relationship. He called her his "his beloved interpretress" because of her understanding of his work and her ability to translate these somewhat abstract mathematical concepts to laymen.

The story of Babbage is crying out to be told in a film...
posted by slimepuppy at 4:00 AM on April 26, 2006

Agh. Was actually someone else who referred to Byron as Babbage's 'beloved interpretress.'
posted by slimepuppy at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2006

Those things are still cool.

One of my favourite quotes ever, is from Babbage when he was asked if, in the event of incorrect information being fed in to the engine, correct results would come out: "I am unable to apprehend the confusion of ideas that could give rise to such a question."
posted by veedubya at 4:03 AM on April 26, 2006

I'm just amazed to find that meccano still exists! Although it doesn't look like the meccano of my youth. But then, neither does Lego, I guess.
posted by Jimbob at 5:06 AM on April 26, 2006

Gibson and Sterling are so going to buy one on eBay
posted by matteo at 6:52 AM on April 26, 2006

This reminds me; in Sydney right now the Powerhouse museum has the astonishing logic piano built by William Stanley Jevons in 1869. It's another mechanical computer, but this one lets you calculate inference on logical statements. Very cool.
posted by Nelson at 8:09 AM on April 26, 2006

posted by mazola at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2006

Real computer geeks drive heavy metal (from the Science Museum article):
The design specification for the full size Difference Engine No. 1 required an estimated 25,000 parts which would have had a combined weight of some fifteen tonnes. The Engine, if completed would have stood eight feet high, seven feet long and three feet in depth.
Imagine one of the upgrades (No. 2) in every cubicle. Arrr!!!
posted by cenoxo at 9:38 PM on April 26, 2006

I like the personal organizer versions better.
posted by flabdablet at 10:08 PM on April 26, 2006

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