Digital journalism would be impossible without the computer. But before the computer came the digital calculator and before the calculator came a whole host of early mechanical calculating machines. One of the most groundbreaking and beautiful was Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. Vanessa Edwards has been to London’s Science Museum to discover what made it so special.
The Science Museum is packed with the most astounding scientific and technical achievements.
From early satellites, through the invention of the television and mobile phone, all of them have had a massive impact on the practice and consumption of journalism. But walking through the exhibitions, the power and beauty of the Difference Engine Number Two really caught my eye.
It’s size and complexity are arresting. It is an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.
In layman’s terms, it could produce the long tables of figures which many Gen X and Baby Boomers used in school and work to calculate important figures. The most common was the logarithm.
The London Science Museum engine
The difference engine on display at the Science Museum is actually the third Babbage designed and was only built and tested after his death.
His difference and the subsequent analytical engine, along with a number of other mechanical calculating machines of different designs provided the core concepts of computing.
Babbage’s own development of the analytical engine from the difference engine saw a genuine move from simple calculation to the more complex general computation.
The video below shows a little bit more of the Science Museum difference engine:
Why the Difference Engine was a computing breakthrough
Although Babbage’s machine worked in decimal (ten digits), he did also consider using the binary system used by modern digital computers.
Perhaps most striking, according to the Computer History Museum website: “The logical structure of the Analytical Engine was essentially the same as that which has dominated computer design in the electronic era – the separation of the memory from the central processor using a ‘fetch-execute cycle’, and facilities for inputting and outputting data and instructions.”
“Calling Babbage ‘the first computer pioneer’ is not a casual tribute.”
Click below to hear my impressions of the Difference Engine Number Two at the Science Museum: