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One Last Thing…

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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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