1822 – Babbage designs a mechanical computer

We continue our brief excursion in History of Computers. Next in line – Charles Babbage. Since 1812 Charles Babbage was seized by the idea that the labors of the unskilled workers could be taken over completely by machinery making processes  quicker and more reliable, and in 1822 Babbage, among others, designed his first mechanical machine  with basic architecture very similar to a modern computer.

In his machine, the data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction-based, the control unit could make conditional jumps, and in included it’s own separate input/output unit.  For more than ten years he received government funding for his project, but such long time period and Babbage’s personality issues eventually had the Treasury lose confidence in Babbage. As history goes, lack of financing and Bubbage’s own personality quirks interfered with machines being fully completed, however, he directed the building of some successfully implemented steam-powered machines, with mechanical calculations.

Difference Engine constructed by the Science Museum based on the plans for Charles Babbage's Difference Engine
A photo of the Difference Engine constructed by the Science Museum based on the plans for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. Photo by geni

At the beginning of the 1820s, Babbage worked on a prototype of his first difference engine. Some parts of it still survive in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This prototype evolved into the “first difference engine.” It remained unfinished and the finished portion is located at the Science Museum in London.  Babbage later designed an improved version,”Difference Engine No. 2″, which was not constructed until 1989–91, using his plans and 19th century manufacturing tolerances. It performed its first calculation at the London Science Museum returning results to 31 digits, far more than the average modern pocket calculator.

The first complete Babbage Engine was completed in London in 2002, 153 years after it was designed. Difference Engine No. 2, built faithfully to the original drawings, consists of 8,000 parts, weighs five tons, and measures 11 feet long.

Here is a great video about Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine #2

Video by the Computer History Museum on YouTube.

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