By Cate Watson, Content Developer on the Babbage gallery
Plans for a Victorian computer and a giant calculator are going on display in the Science Museum next week.
Charles Babbage, the Victorian mathematician and inventor spent much of his life designing calculating machines, first the Difference Engine, and then in later years, the Analytical Engine that bear so much resemblance to modern computers. Unfortunately, Babbage never got to see any of his machines built. After quarrelling with the government his funding dried up and he couldn’t afford the costs of construction. All Babbage could do was endlessly refine his plans for the engines.
Apart from a few test models, which are on display in the Science Museum, technical plans are all Babbage left of his inventions. The Museum – which holds the Babbage archive, the most complete collection of Babbage’s technical drawings and notebooks in the world – used these plans to build Difference Engine no. 2 in 1991, proving that the engine would have worked. Visitors will now be able to compare Babbage’s own drawings to the modern model of the Difference Engine in the Computing gallery.
The plans of the Analytical Engines show the many similarities between it and our electrical computers although it was designed over 170 years ago. The engine has a memory, a central processor, an input device in the form of punched cards that could program the engine and a printer. Instead of modern day circuit boards and silicon chips, a combination of cams, clutches, cranks and gears would have worked out calculations.
The most iconic plans of the Difference and Analytical Engines will be on display in the Computing Gallery from Thursday 24th January. This is the first time these drawings have been on show, complete with an annotated breakdown of how the engines would have worked.