[AI] Victorian Super computer Is Reborn
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Mon May 12 04:32:56 EDT 2008
BBC NEWS | Technology | Victorian 'supercomputer' is
Victorian 'supercomputer' is reborn
By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, Silicon Valley
The world of computing could have been very different
to that of today had a machine that was designed over
150 years ago been built at the time.
That is the view of Doron Swade, the man who is behind
realising the creation of the famed Difference Engine
No 2 which has just gone on display in Silicon
The reason the machine is so highly regarded is
because it is seen as the first attempt at automated
computing and viewed as something of a missing link
in technology history.
Designed by the 19th Century computer pioneer Charles
Babbage, the Difference Engine No 2 is a piece of
Victorian technology meant to compute mathematical
expressions called polynomials and return results to
more than 31 digits, knocking the socks off your
souped up pocket calculator.
Added to that it has a printer which stamps the
results of its calculations on paper and on a plaster
"You can stand in front of this monster of a machine
as a Victorian would have done and still have the
sense of wonder a Victorian would have had at that
time," marvels Mr Swade.
"It takes you back 150 years to a branching point in
history and allows you to speculate what might have
been had this engine been built."
Regardless of the obvious beauty of the machine,
Babbage's vision for it was very practical. To
eliminate human error in tabulation.
Everyone from financiers to scientists and from
engineers to astronomers "relied on printed
mathematical tables and the fear was that these tables
riddled with errors because they were produced by
humans and by hand," explains Mr Swade.
Despite Babbage's reputation and government backing,
the machine was never manufactured.
The plans were consigned to the dustbin of history
until they were fished out by Mr Swade when he was
working at the Science Museum in London. While there
he went on to create the world's first Difference
Engine No 2. which was completed in 1991.
He says he was driven by a personal mission.
"Babbage failed because of the limitations of the
technology of the time," he says.
"I was staggered to discover that no-one ever tried to
prove it could work and I became plagued with the
questions, could he have built it then and had
he, would it have worked?"
100 dark years
Mr Swade believes Babbage's failure was a great loss
to the world.
It is a calculator by modern standards but in
Babbage's day it would have been called a computer
"Had Charles Babbage been able to build this machine
and had he been able to convey this extraordinary
vision to his contemporaries, they would have been
inspired not to drop the ball," he says.
"There would not have been what has been called the
100 dark years between his death and the beginning of
the electronic era in the 1930s where pioneers
of the electronic computer age reinvented all the
essential principles of computing largely in ignorance
of Babbage's designs."
The second Difference Engine No 2 took six years to
build, weighs five tonnes and uses 8,000 bronze, iron
and steel parts.
When cranked by hand, it performs a balletic symphony
as the various bronze columns crunch the numbers.
There is some debate as to whether or not it is a
supercomputer or a super calculator.
Mr Swade does nothing to quell the controversy.
"It is a calculator by modern standards but in
Babbage's day it would have been called a computer.
"In his time a human was called a computer. The people
who did the low-level repetitive arithmetic operations
were called computers and this machine was
designed to replace that labour."
Early tech industry
The project was bankrolled by Microsoft's former chief
technology officer Nathan Mhyrvold for an unconfirmed
As an avid collector of old computers , Mr Mhyrvold
says he hopes the Difference Engine No 2 will provide
the technology industry with a sense of history.
"It is the intellectual origin of the industry I've
been in and the way I've made all my money."
"Silicon Valley is a society that drives without rear
view mirrors," he claims. "There's an obsession with
speed and moving forward and moving fast. There's
a feeling there's no point in looking backwards. I
think that is wrong."
For the next year, the Difference Engine No 2 will be
on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain
After that it will reside in Mr Mhyrvold's home along
with his other computer artefacts and a dinosaur.
And even though Babbage failed to realise what some
describe as his greatest invention, he did not sit
back and throw in the towel.
This 19th Century pioneer has left his mark on the
world in a myriad of other ways.
He is also credited with inventing the dynamometer,
standard railroad gauge, the heliograph
ophthalmoscope, occulting lights for lighthouses,
rates, Greenwich time signals and the cowcatcher,
which was mounted on the front of locomotives to push
cows off the tracks to help prevent trains being
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