The Difference Engine

BabbageDifferenceEngine.jpgThe first of these devices was conceived in 1786 by J.H. Müller but it was never built.

We've chosen the difference engine as the title for our category about technology. Okay, difference engines may have been brought to our attention in 1996 when authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaborated on a retro-sci-fi book set in Victorian England titled "The Difference Engine" but it was Babbage's original machine that really inspired us.

From Wikipedia:

Difference engines were forgotten and then rediscovered in 1822 by Charles Babbage, who proposed it in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society on 14 June entitled "Note on the application of machinery to the computation of very big mathematical tables." [1] This machine used the decimal number system and was powered by cranking a handle. The British government initially financed the project, but withdrew funding when Babbage repeatedly asked for more money whilst making no apparent progress on building the machine. Babbage went on to design his much more general analytical engine but later produced an improved difference engine design (his "Difference Engine No. 2") between 1847 and 1849. Inspired by Babbage's difference engine plans, Per Georg Scheutz built several difference engines from 1855 onwards; one was sold to the British government in 1859. Martin Wiberg improved Scheutz's construction but used his device only for producing and publishing printed logarithmic tables.

Based on Babbage's original plans, the London Science Museum constructed a working Difference Engine No. 2 from 1989 to 1991, under Doron Swade, the then Curator of Computing. This was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. In 2000, the printer which Babbage originally designed for the difference engine was also completed. The conversion of the original design drawings into drawings suitable for engineering manufacturers' use revealed some minor errors in Babbage's design (introduced as a protection in case the plans were stolen)[citation needed], which had to be corrected. Once completed, both the engine and its printer worked flawlessly, and still do. The difference engine and printer were constructed to tolerances achievable with 19th century technology, resolving a long-standing debate whether Babbage's design would actually have worked. (One of the reasons formerly advanced for the non-completion of Babbage's engines had been that engineering methods were insufficiently developed in the Victorian era.)

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