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The History of Difference Engines

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The History of Difference Engines

Key Points

  • Charles Babbage designed several versions of the difference engine, none of which were constructed.
  • Babbage’s work on the difference engine lead him to design the analytical engine, a mechanical device that would have included all of the logical functions of today’s computers. This device was never constructed, either.
  • Inspired by Babbage’s work, several inventors managed to design and build difference engines.
  • Babbage is considered to be the “father of digital computing.”

Innovation stems from the minds of individuals who recognize a need and strive to develop a new way to fill it. One such innovation was the difference engine, an automatic mechanical calculator designed in the 1820s by English polymath Charles Babbage. He designed this programmable device, to tabulate polynomial functions. The term “difference engine” comes from the algorithm of divided differences that are used to tabulate logarithms and trigonometric functions.

Black and white photo of Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage is widely recognized as the father of digital computing.

Did the Difference Engine Work?

Babbage created several iterations of the difference engine, none of which were completed or used. His work on the difference engine lead him to invent the analytical engine, a device that, in theory, would have included all of the logical functions of modern computers, albeit in mechanical, not digital form. Despite the fact that this machine was never constructed, either, Babbage is considered to be the father of digital computing.

Close-up view of the Difference Engine
While Babbage never managed to build a difference engine, his work inspired others to invent and create their own. This is a closeup of a difference engine. Image: Purplexsu, Shutterstock

Next Difference Engines

Inspired by the Babbage’s difference engine, the following inventors tried and managed to construct workable difference engines:

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