While modern computers are a fairly recent innovation, the concept of the computer is far from unique. The idea of a ‘thinking machine’ has been around for over 200 years. Some of the roots of modern computing can be found in the idea and designs for ‘thinking machines’ known as difference engines dating back to 1786. J.H. Muller was an engineer in the Hessian army who conceived the idea of a difference engine in a book published in 1786. Muller was never able to acquire funding to research or develop his concept, but the idea persisted. Thirty-six years later inventor Charles Babbage proposed the use of such a machine in a paper to the Royal Astromical Society. The machine proposed by Babbage used the decimal number system and was operated by cranking a handle. Babbage was able to secure funding to begin work on the project, but the British government withdrew their support after Babbage made no progress, but continued to ask for more money. Undaunted, Babbage continued to work on his designs and produced a design for the “Difference Engine No. 2” sometime between 1847 and 1849. This design was never realized in Babbage’s lifetime.
The concept of the ‘thinking machine’ or ‘difference engine’ has influenced science, both actual and physical’ for the past 150 years, and continues to do so through speculative fiction such as Steampunk. Real world interest in the Difference Engine has waned with the advent of computers and the Internet, until recently when the Computer History Museum in Mountain Veiw, CA built the Difference Engine No. 2 under the direction of guest curator Doron Swade.
Click the link below for more information about the Museum’s Difference Engine, including a slideshow.
Link: Difference Engine No. 2