Computer Museum bids farewell to Babbage engine

Hulking proto-computer headed for private Seattle display

The Mountain View Computer History Museum is saying goodbye to one of its unique exhibits, if not also its most priceless.

This computer might seem an awkward technological marvel -- it doesn't run on electricity; it weighs upward of 5 tons, and its total memory is far short of a single kilobyte. But the towering steel and brass contraption known as the Babbage Difference Engine for nearly eight years has been one of the museum's main attractions.

As designed by British engineer Charles Babbage in the 1840s, the Victorian-era machine works as a mechanical calculator that can determine polynomial functions. Today, his designs are hailed as the first working computer.

The museum's difference engine isn't an original built 160 years ago by Babbage, but rather it is a working model painstakingly designed and assembled in the 1990s.

Around the time when modern computers began garnering the world's attention, historians and computer buffs rediscovered the significance of Babbage's achievement as well as that of his contemporary Ada Lovelace (considered the first computer programmer).

To mark the 200-year anniversary of Babbage's birth, the Science Museum of London decided to build a working model of what is known as the Difference Engine No. 2, a design never built by Babbage that existed only in his plans and sketches. Fully constructing the machine took 17 years, about 8,000 custom-built parts and a seven-figure sum to complete.

The London Science Museum keeps one Babbage Engine on display, but its design team also assembled a second model for a private benefactor who financed the project. That donor, Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, originally loaned his Babbage Engine to the Mountain View Computer History Museum in 2008 with the idea to exhibit it for just six months.

That deadline has been extended year after year, said Jim Somers, the museum's services manager. Over that time, museum officials estimate about 500,000 visitors have seen the machine and its regular demonstrations. But in recent months, Myhrvold informed the museum he wanted ship the machine to Seattle to put it on private display.

On Monday evening, a small crowd of the museum's employees held an after-hours party to swap stories and celebrate their last days with the machine.

"It's kind of sad for those of us who have seen it here for all these years," said Somers. "It's like a small child leaving the family. It's really been something special."

Sunday, Jan. 31, will be the last day to see the Babbage Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum, located at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd. For museum hours and information, go to the museum's website.

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9 people like this
Posted by Madeline Bernard
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 29, 2016 at 4:16 pm

That's a pity. I hope he sends it back to the CHM in a few years. I feel sorry for the machinists who gave the demos, they seemed to have a real connection with it.

3 people like this
Posted by Ricardo Bánffy
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2016 at 5:17 pm

It'd be awesome if you could make it print the lyrics for Daisy Bell before it's shipped. I know it can print numbers. Can it print words too?

I guess bit-mapped graphics are not an option ;-)

5 people like this
Posted by Dennis Feick
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2016 at 11:03 am

I am sure they will revise the container in which it was initially shipped.
At one of the demonstrations I was told that when it arrived all the parts
were oxidized from the changes in temperature and humidity during the flight
and it had to be taken apart, all the parts polished and then reassembled.

It should have been shipped in a nitrogen filled enclosure.

I took many pictures if it during the demonstration and have shared them
with many of my hi-tech friends.

Viewing it in operation is a once in a lifetime event

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