Just off Highway 101 at 1401 North Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View, California, the Computer History Museum has 3 objectives; to be a cool, people-pleasing museum, to appeal to tech professionals who love their work, and to help people comprehend the technological world we live in. It succeeds at all 3. I especially liked how in a couple of hours it helped me understand what actually happened during my rotary to iPhone lifetime. CHM is a genuine 5 Compass mind expander.
Luckily, Ruth & I arrived at exactly 1 pm. CHM isn’t usually opened on Monday or Tuesday, but it was Presidents’ Day. Every afternoon at 1 pm and twice on Saturdays, volunteers like Allen Rosenzweig & David Stein talk about and demonstrate the Babbage Difference Engine #2.
Computer History Museum carefully promotes this exhibit as “The Story of the First Computer Pioneer”. Note that it doesn’t say the story of the first computer. The Babbage isn’t that. It’s a 19th century sequential adding machine that looks like a mechanical contraption developed in a mad scientist’s lab. Babbage claimed his machine would eliminate human computational error. Rosenzweig explained that the Babbage was the 1st calculator to do tables and make printing plates to correct errors in math. So Charles Babbage advanced science and earned a place in computer history with a machine he never saw in operation.
Described as a critical, argumentative geek/engineer by Rosenzweig, Englishman Babbage received considerable funding from The Crown and drew up plans between 1847 & 1849. The BDE he designed was to have 25,000 moving parts, but more than likely due to his personality & its complexity, it wasn’t built and became largely forgotten.
Segue to 1985 when a British museum made the first real attempt to build a Babbage. The one you see in the Computer History Museum, #2, was completed in 2008 at the Science Museum, London. Of the world’s 2 BDEs, only the one in California is used for demonstrations. A special crew cleans and lubricates it once a month so that it can do exactly what Charles Babbage, a genius ahead of his time who “died embittered”, said it would do. Weighing 5 tons, the machine that took about 150 years to build has 8,000 parts and is only one of a thousand+ reasons to travel to the Computer History Museum.
It’s a total thrill to see Babbage’s baby in full operation, something he never experienced. Expect to be part of an awed crowd.