© Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library
This trial portion of the Difference Engine is one of the earliest automatic calculators and is a celebrated icon in the pre-history of the computer.
Charles Babbage was a brilliant thinker and mathematician. He devised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured £1500 from the government and shortly afterwards he hired the engineer Joseph Clement.
The Difference Engine was designed to perform fixed operations automatically. During its development Babbage's mind leapt forward to the design of the Analytical Engine, which using punched cards could be programmed to calculate almost any function. This design embodied almost all the conceptual elements of the modern electronic computer.
The project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over £17,000 to build the machine - equivalent to the price of two warships. The collapse of the venture was traumatic for Babbage and, in old age, he became embittered and disillusioned.
Historians have suggested that the design was beyond the capability of contemporary technology and would have required greater accuracy than contemporary engineering could have provided. However, recent research has shown that Clement's work was adequate to create a functioning machine. In fact, the scheme foundered on issues of economics, politics, Babbage's temperament and his style of directing the enterprise.