June 14, 1822 (a Friday)

Photo of the 1832 Fragment of a Difference Engine

On this date, British mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage announced completion of his first “difference engine” in a paper entitled Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables read to the Royal Astronomical Society. Difference engines are strictly calculators. They crunch numbers the only way they know how – by repeated addition according to the method of finite differences. Babbage had embarked on an ambitious venture to design and build mechanical “computers” (a term in those days that referred to humans employed to perform calculations by hand) – vast machines of unprecedented size and intricacy – to eliminate the risk of human error.

On 13 July 1823, Babbage received a gold medal from the Astronomical Society for his development of the difference engine. He then met the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seek public funds for the construction of a large difference engine. His initial grant was for £1500 and he began work on a large difference engine which he believed he could complete in three years.

In 1834, work on the difference engine stopped because the government could not decide whether to continue to fund the project; eight years later, in 1842, it finally decided not to proceed.

By 1834 Babbage’s work on the difference engine had led him to a much more sophisticated idea; he had completed the first drawings of the “analytical engine”. The Analytical Engine is much more than a calculator and marks the progression from the mechanized arithmetic of calculation to fully-fledged general-purpose computation – the forerunner of the modern electronic computer. Although the analytic engine never progressed beyond detailed drawings, it is remarkably similar in logical components to a present day computer.

Babbage ultimately failed to build a complete machine despite independent wealth, social position, government funding, a decade of design and development, and the best of British engineering. The reasons are still debated and the cocktail of considerations is a rich one. Babbage was a prickly character, highly principled, easily offended and given to virulent public criticism of those he took to be his enemies. Runaway costs, high precision, a disastrous dispute with his engineer, fitful financing, political instability, accusations of personal vendettas, delays, failing credibility and the cultural divide between pure and applied science, were all factors.

[My favorite Babbage quote – Ed.:]

The whole of the developments and operations of analysis are now capable of being executed by machinery. … As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of the science.

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, ch. 8 “Of the Analytical Engine” (London 1864)

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