Difference Engine Charles Babbage

December 9, 2013 by  

Difference Engine Charles Babbage, A difference engine is an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions. The name derives from the method of divided differences, a way to interpolate or tabulate functions by using a small set of polynomial coefficients. Both logarithmic and trigonometric functions, functions commonly used by both navigators and scientists, can be approximated by polynomials, so a difference engine can compute many useful sets of numbers.

The historical difficulty in producing error free tables by teams of mathematicians and human “computers” spurred Charles Babbage’s desire to build a mechanism to automate the process.

J. H. Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, conceived of the idea of a difference machine. This was described in a book published in 1786, but Müller was unable to obtain funding to progress with the idea.

On June 14 1822 Charles Babbage proposed the use of such a machine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society, entitled “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”.

In 1823, the British government gave Babbage £1700 to start work on the project. Although Babbage’s design was technically feasible, no one had built a mechanical device to such exacting standards before, so the engine proved to be much more expensive than anticipated. By the time the government killed the project in 1842, they had given Babbage over £17,000, without receiving a working engine. What Babbage did not, or was unwilling to, recognize was that the government was interested in economically produced tables, not the engine itself. The other issue that undermined the government’s confidence in the difference engine was Babbage had moved on to an analytical engine. By developing something better, Babbage had rendered the difference engine useless in the eyes of the government.

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