One Last Thing...

<< Back to Robb Report, September 2007
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

 

The ItemThis 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.

Its Owner
Nathan Myhrvold, 48, is the founder and CEO of Intellectual

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."

The Acquisition
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."

Its Significance
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."

The Collection
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."

 

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