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What a difference the Difference Engine made: from Charles Babbage's calculator emerged today's computer

The incredible world of computers was born some 150 years ago, with a clunky machine dreamed up by a calculating genius named Charles Babbage

The Scheutz Difference Engine also links us with the early days of the Smithsonian. Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Institution, visited Babbage in 1837 and wrote: "He, more, perhaps, than any man who ever lived, narrowed the chasm [separating] science and practical mechanics." A mild assessment. Judging Babbage today, as computers whir all around us, making possible a life experience that extends from spaceflight to the Internet, it is hard not to regard this 19th-century prophet with bewildered awe.

By Edwards Park


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