The Babbage Engine: More family fun Silicon Valley style

Ahh sunny California, where weekends are for beach picnics and hikes among the redwoods and rides on cable cars fighting crowds to see strange mechanical and electronic contraptions in operation. The first weekend in May I packed my kids into the car and headed off to the Maker Faire in San Mateo, where, after an hour sitting in traffic behind other geek families, we repeatedly watched a life-sized recreation of the game of Mousetrap go through its paces. Last weekend the big draw was the opening of the Babbage Exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, where the five-ton 8000-part Difference Engine cranks through polynomial calculations.

Charles Babbage designed the Difference Engine, a.k.a. the Babbage Engine, in the 1800s, but never successfully built a version that worked. The working Engine displayed at the Computer History Machine is the second full-size working Difference Engine built (small models and virtual versions also exist); the first, completed in 2002, is on display at the Science Museum, London. Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and now CEO of Intellectual Ventures, commissioned the project.

In a world in which computers are getting smaller and smaller, with little electrons whizzing around invisibly, thereâ''s something satisfying about seeing technology thatâ''s

gigantic and obvious: the bowling ball of the Mousetrap game lumber down its track (photo below), the numbered wheels of the Babbage Machine turn with satisfying precision (see video above).

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The Babbage Machine will be on display for a year, and then it will become part of Myhrvoldâ''s private collection.

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