One Last Thing...
This device is the incarnation of Charles Babbage’s plans for
the Difference Engine No. 2, a calculating machine designed in the mid-19th
century that is considered an ancestor of the modern computer. The machine
weighs 5 tons, stands 7 feet high, contains about 8,000 parts, and is fully
functional. Babbage, an English inventor, worked on the Difference Engine No. 2
(a second, refined version of the device he designed in 1821) from 1847 to 1849.
Three years later, he offered the plans to the British government, which had
underwritten the never-completed earlier version. The prime minister’s office
declined Babbage’s petition, and the engine existed only as plans on paper until
the late 20th century.
Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash., company that acquires and invests in patents. From
1986 to 2000, Myhrvold served as chief technology officer for Microsoft. He
holds a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton
University, and he did postdoctoral research with Stephen Hawking at the
University of Cambridge. "I don’t consider myself a hard-core collector," says
Myhrvold. "I love to collect what I want. I’m not a comprehensive collector who
feels that I’ve got to have everything."
Myhrvold agreed to fund the Science Museum’s construction of
Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 if the London institution would make a second
one for him. The museum completed the first in 1991, in time for the 200th
anniversary of Babbage’s birth; it finished Myhrvold’s machine this summer. "The
museum asked me if they could build it on display because people wanted to see
it being built," he says. "It went slower, but it was kind of cool." The
Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., expected to receive the
machine in August and intends to place the machine on display for a year
beginning in September. When the exhibit concludes, the Babbage engine will be
delivered to Myhrvold’s home near Seattle. "It’s easier to move it once," he
says. "If I put it in my house, I wouldn’t want to move it out again, so it’s
going to the museum first."
The replica settled a long-standing debate among computer
scientists. "Doron Swade, who has since left the museum, wanted to see if it
would have been possible for Babbage to build his machine with the technology of
the time," Myhrvold says. "Most said it would not have been possible, that
Babbage was ahead of his time. The museum and Doron showed that it was perfectly
feasible to build it in the 19th century. The thing works fine. It’s a testimony
that Babbage’s ideas were right. It’s a shame that he never lived to see it
operate, like I will."
Myhrvold owns several vintage supercomputers and a
16-foot-high, 45-foot-long casting of the bones of Stan, a Tyrannosaurus rex
skeleton that was discovered near Buffalo, S.D., two decades ago. He had his
house designed to accommodate these items, because, as he notes, "It’s very hard
to retrofit a dinosaur."