Page last updated at 15:26 GMT, Saturday, 10 May 2008 16:26 UK

Victorian 'supercomputer' is reborn

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, Silicon Valley

Doron Swade with the babbage machine
Doron Swade is behind the creation of the famed Difference Engine No 2

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 Valley.

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 tray.

"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."

Personal mission

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 were riddled with errors because they were produced by humans and by hand," explains Mr Swade.

Doron Swade with the babbage machine
The machine is viewed as something of a missing link in technology history

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
Doron Swade

"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 $1m.

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 View, California.

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, uniform postal 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 derailed.

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