Charles Babbage is cited as the father of modern computing — although perhaps “uncle” would be more accurate, since his designs never actually saw completion and computing is based on totally different principles. But his idea of a “difference engine,” a hand-cranked device that could solve mathematical problems, is essentially the first instance of a computer in human history.
Unfortunately, the device, designed to tackle the huge amount of calculation involved in tracking the British navy, was never completed. After 10 years of tinkering, the project was aborted and the prototype melted down. But Babbage’s plans and a few pieces of the Difference Engine remained, and just recently someone decided they’d finish what he started.
Now there is a complete and working Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum down in Mountain View. It was put together by Doron Swade, a former curator at London’s Science Museum, and a team he assembled over the last two decades. There is another working Difference Engine being kept at that museum, and this one will only remain in Mountain View for a year before it heads out to Seattle to enter a “private collection.” I’m guessing Ballmer’s (actually, Nathan Myhrvold, former MS CTO. Close, though). So go see it while you can, startup guys!
There’s more info at NPR, where you can, as always, have it narrated to you. I love that. I’m going to make some coffee and listen to it again.
Update: A commenter at NPR notes that the Harvard Mark I was a functioning difference engine, but relied on electricity rather than clockwork. It was completed in 1944.