The Perplexity of Complexity

PMI United Kingdom Chapter

Ian Whittingham, PMP is a Program Manager in the Business Transformation group of a leading global news and information company. The views expressed here are his own. You may contact the author directly at ian.whittingham@thomsonreuters.com.

They are emblematic of the challenges of creating massive computational power, of visionary ambition thwarted by technological insufficiency. Debates over why they were never constructed and assembled during their designer’s lifetime break between the limits of manufacturing competency and the novel intricacy of their technical design. But in the end, it was a lack of sponsorship and the withdrawal of government funding that relegated an innovative turning point in the history of computing to a tantalizing “What if…?
 
Today, however, if you are anywhere in the vicinity of Mountain View, California, you have a unique opportunity to see for yourself what might have been. For over 100 years, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine--those legendary computational machines of mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage--existed as nothing more than blueprints and engineering drawings.
 
A combination of political, financial, engineering and legal issues are generally held to have been responsible for preventing Babbage--apparently a difficult man to work with--from constructing those steam age ancestors of today’s silicon chip computers. But through the sponsorship of another computer visionary (Nathan Myhrvold), a working version of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 has now been fully realized and is on exhibit …

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