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

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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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