History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search

Narratives

Special Exhibition Label: 'Geek is Good' (15 May - 2 November 2014)

Computing Power

Dissatisfied with the accuracy of printed mathematical tables, the English polymath Charles Babbage designed a machine to both calculate and print tables with complete reliability. Work on his "Difference Engine" began in 1822 and Babbage successfully raised finance from the British government. But the project failed after relations between Babbage and his chief engineer broke down.

The small structure shown here is one of several assembled from parts long afterwards, and is not a working device. Babbage was vindicated in the 1990s when the Science Museum in London successfully constructed a full-size machine from Babbage's revised and improved plans.

Before the failure of the Difference Engine project, Babbage had already moved on to begin designing a more advanced machine the "Analytical Engine". Conceptually much closer to modern computers, only a trial piece was built before his death in 1871. Digital computers were implemented in the 20th century using electronics rather than mechanical gearing. The components here are modules from a 1950s Ferranti Pegasus, one of the early commercial computers based on valve technology.

MHS inv. 94229 (Babbage)
MHS inv. 91744 (Pegasus)

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