Rather aptly located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum will open its doors to the Charles Babbage Difference Engine Number 2 on May 10th. One of only two such working devices in existence, the first being housed within the Science Museum in London, the Babbage Engine holds a priveleged position as being the first truly automatic computing engine design in the world. Babbage (1791-1871) himself failed to build a complete working model of his design, through a lack of money and the sheer scope of the project, hardly surprising when we are talking about Victorian times here after all. It took 150 years after he drew up the designs for them to be constructed for the first time, with the first engine being completed in London during 2002.
It has taken historical engineers at the London Science Museum some three and a half years to construct this fully working example which weighs in at five tons and contains no less than 8000 component parts. Commissioned by Nathan Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures and former CTO of Microsoft, the Babbage Engine Number 2 will be on display for one year and visitors to the Computer History Museum will have the unprecedented opportunity to see and hear the mechanical Engine working.
“Babbage died embittered and unacknowledged” said Doron D. Swade, Director of the Babbage Project and curator of the Babbage Engine Exhibit “This Engine memorializes the first computer pioneer, and closes an anguished chapter in the history of computing.” Swade led the engineering teams for both construction projects, a monumental task in terms of its logical conception, physical size, and intricacy. Difference Engine No. 2 consists of 8,000 parts of bronze, cast iron, and steel. It weighs some five tons and measures 11 feet long and 7 feet high. The Engine, cranked by hand, automatically calculates and prints tables of polynomial functions to 31 decimal places.
“This Difference Engine has taken many years of passionate hard work to create,” said Len Shustek, Chairman of the Computer History Museum’s Board of Trustees. “This is an exciting milestone for all those involved with the Museum. We’re thrilled to be the institution bringing this historically significant exhibit to the American public with the help of Nathan and our other generous donors.”
The Computer History Museum’s Babbage Engine Exhibit will launch with an Open House on May 10, 2008. This Victorian-themed event will feature live demonstrations of the Engine; a presentation by Swade to provide an overview on Babbage; screenings of “To Dream Tomorrow,” a film about Ada Lovelace, a key figure during Babbage’s time; and complimentary refreshments. The Open House is from 12 noon until 5 p.m. Admission is free.