19th Century Mechanical Computer is Finaly Built

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the first general purpose electronic computer of the 20th Century.1 Before ENIAC and the electronic computer, there was the mechanical computer.  An obscure concept that is difficult to embrace in the 21st Century, but before the laptop powered by the lithium-ion battery, before the days of Edison Electric Light Company, or electricity itself, there existed mechanical computers.

Source: Computer History Museum

Source: Computer History Museum

The work of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the father of computing, has been resurrected and is temporarily on display at the Computer History Museum.  A pioneer in computing theory, Charles Babbage designed the first machine able to automatically compute numbers.  While Babbage innovated and conceived of the concept of the automatic computing machine, his prickly personality and financial difficulties resulted in the father of computing never actually building a computer.

Exacerbated by inaccuracy in printed tables, Babbage wanted to remove fallible humans from the process by developing a machine that could automatically compute numbers. In Victorian times such a machine would have made creating tables for navigation, mathematics, and many other subjects an error free process.

Over the course of several decades, Babbage developed three machines for just this purpose. The first was the Difference Engine No. 1.  This machine had 25,000 precision machined parts.  Only partially built, Babbage moved on to design the Analytical Engine. This machine was a programmable computing machine (through the use of punch cards) that separated “the memory (the ‘Store’) from the central processor (the ‘Mill’)”.2 Babbage’s final machine was Difference Engine No. 2.

Do to technological limitations and political difficulties, these machines were never built during Babbage’s life.  A century-and–a-half after Babbage conceived of his machine, a team of experts built it. After seventeen years of work,  Difference Engine No. 2 exists.  There are two copies currently in existence. One is at the Science Museum in London and the other is currently on display at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.3

  1. Scott. McCartney, Eniac, the Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer (New York: Walker, 1999).
  2. “The Babbage Engine.” Computer History Museum. Available at: http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/ (Accessed December 11, 2009).
  3. Sydell, L., “A 19th-Century Mathematician Finally Proves Himself.” National Public Radio. Available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121206408&ft=1&f=1019 (Accessed December 11, 2009).