Roger Whitson, “The Difference Engine: 1832, 1855, 1876, 1991, 2002, 2008”


The difference engine is a case study in what media archaeologists see as a diversity of temporalities entangling the production and functionality of technological media. Only an unfinished prototype, what was called “Babbage’s beautiful fragment” existed of Babbage’s designs during his lifetime. Even so, many machinists created their own variations of the difference engine after Babbage’s death. This phenomenon, and the many troubles Babbage himself ran into regarding the materials used to create the difference engine, demonstrates that the machine’s functionality exceeded its inventor’s intentions and awareness.

The 2008 film Babbage features a dinner-party between many of the important figures in the life of the inventor Charles Babbage: his collaborator Ada Lovelace, his father Benjamin, his mother Betsy, his friend John Herschel, and his wife Georgiana. Babbage’s designs for programmable computing influenced Alan Turing’s work on computer cryptography and artificial intelligence.[1] The film takes Babbage’s preeminence in computing history as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of human agency in history. We soon learn through the course of Babbage’s 15-minute run time that the dinner depicted in the film never happened, that the entire sequence occurred in Babbage’s imagination, and that each of Babbage’s guests are now dead. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Babbage explains. “Many of them never even met, never spoke. How I would have enjoyed their company during my latter years. But alas, it was not to be.” The conversation in the film is focused most explicitly on how Babbage’s work would be regarded by history. One of the more telling exchanges comes when Georgiana exclaims that Babbage’s “work will change the course of history!” To which his skeptical father Benjamin responds, “History indeed? I cannot imagine that an idea from a single man like this can change life so readily” (Barker).[2]

Referenced only once in the film, and never visually depicted at all is the difference engine, the actual machine Babbage is most famous for inventing. A 1968 film by Charles and Ray Eames titled Babbage’s Calculating Machine or Difference Engine depicts a very different approach to representing computing history by focusing almost exclusively on the machine’s mechanics. The Eames film starts with a voice-over monotonously listing off the facts of Babbage’s life, while the camera glides over a model of the difference engine exhibited at the map iconNational Science Museum in London. The film shows close-ups of a hand manipulating gold-plated number wheels and pulling a loud crank that sets the calculating engine in motion. Gears spin as the engine’s handle is turned, and the voice fades away completely at mid-sentence while describing the government giving Babbage a grant. For almost a third of the film’s 3-minute, 34-second run time we gaze simply at the workings of the machine: clicking, clanking cogs rotating in unison carry propagators transferring rotation from one number wheel to another. When the voice returns, it narrates not Babbage’s biography but the technical specifications of the difference engine from an article by Babbage’s son Benjamin Herschel Babbage. The narrator reads a description of the operation of the machine as “[f]our half turns of the handle, two backwards and two forwards, are required for each calculation. And the words ‘calculation complete’ come ‘round upon a wheel at the top of the central column to show when this is done.”

Figure 1: Claire Barker, director. “Babbage.” Frame on Frame, 2008. YouTube, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Figure 2: Charles Eames, director. “Babbage’s Calculating Machine or Difference Engine.” Charles and Ray Eames Office, 1968. Youtube, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Taken together, these films exemplify the difficulty of contextualizing the difference engine within history. On the one hand, the film Babbage focuses on human memory and celebrity within human history, and it does so to the point of dramatizing the ghosts that presumably haunted Babbage late in his life. Moreover, the difference engine is depicted as something that was produced primarily by a human agent. The Eames film, on the other hand, depicts time in a much colder or non-human sense. We see this non-human perspective in the fading in and out of the voice-over, the rejection of Babbage’s biography for a description of the various parts of the machine, and the minute attention to the sounds and movements of the engine. All of these elements of the Eames film shift attention away from the social meaning of the difference engine to its inner workings as a machine.

As the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst argues, computers are not just artifacts to be contextualized within a linear cultural history, but they are also to be understood in their algorithmic and technological functionality. At a mechanical level, computers are time machines. In Chronopoetics: The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media, Ernst explains that time is often considered as a noun but it “can also be an action, such as the verb to time, timing.” What Ernst calls “time-criticality,” or the decisive or critical action taken by media with very specific forms of timing functions, explores media temporality in three different ways: “firstly the infra-temporal domain of the smallest moments, secondly the human window of perception for ‘the present,’ and finally gradual ongoing transformations that are not noticed by people at all due to their slowness” (9). Algorithms represented spatially and numerically for human users are processed by computers as discrete units of electricity and timing, much like the meaningful messages put into Morse code are translated into electrical signals when processed by a telegraph. These timed units of electricity are often much quicker than human beings can physiologically perceive, and yet they are manipulated by software to form the temporal infrastructure for tasks that—at a much higher level of abstraction—are used in the act of running games, transmitting emails, marking events on calendars, or posting comments on social media. As Liam Cole Young explains in his introduction to Ernst’s book Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity, Ernst radicalizes the notion that media extend or condition human perception, showing that “they also delineate cultural data such as history and memory—because media measure, process, and thus structure time, they are the true archivists of pasts both human and non-human” (11).

Further, when cultural documents are digitized, this process of computer timing “allows for all kinds of time axis manipulation that disrupts its ‘temporal indexicality’ in favor of the mathematical archive” (Chronopoetics 35).[3] Time axis manipulation is the spatial representation of timed algorithmic functions. The manipulation of these spatial representations can fundamentally alter all aspects of how a digitized file appears to human users. Sound files can be looped or remixed. Image files can be copied, pasted, digitally edited, or even made into animations. Texts can be fed into Markov-chain programs, analyzed for authorial style, and made to generate lines of poetry that “sound” like William Blake or William Wordsworth—even though neither Blake nor Wordsworth ever wrote those lines.[4] If Walter Benjamin demonstrated that the rise of mechanical reproduction transformed the aura of the art work—once culturally defined by its unique space and place—into a question of the reception, transmission, and politics of how art is circulated, Ernst shows how timing-mechanisms involved in the archiving and transmission of information help construct a technologically mediated critical functionality of time that increasingly processes our sense of history.[5] Time is not simply recorded and replayed in a digital file, but is made dependent upon the outcomes of other functions, repeated until certain conditions are met, or divided into micro-units only to be added into other algorithmic processes. Cultural history is never an a priori given in media archaeology, but is an effect of media timing, built upon an infrastructure of techniques and materials used in measuring, recording, automating, and transforming time.

Appropriately, this article will trace out the media archaeological temporalities of the difference engine as a machine. While I spend a good amount of the article outlining Babbage’s social theories of labor and temporality that were applied to his designs of the difference engine, this article is primarily concerned with how timed mechanisms in the machine and the longer reception history of the device construct a multiplicity of temporalities that complicate the cultural histories often told regarding Babbage’s invention. The difference engine has a life, a functionality, and a temporality that exceeds the intentions and awareness of its famous inventor.

Mediating Labor

Time for Babbage is a regulatory mechanism used to extract surplus value from industrial labor. Babbage’s On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures describes the use of machines to check against “the inattention, the idleness, or the dishonesty of human agents” (111). His most immediate example of this regulatory check is the pedometer, which counts steps to measure walking distance. Yet, Babbage quickly moves to describing a mechanism called a “tell-tale clock”: a device used to determine whether someone on the city watch had fallen asleep during overnight work hours. Edward Wood’s 1886 book Curiosities of Clocks and Watches: From the Earliest Times explains that the tell-tale clock included “a number of pins sticking up round the dial, one for every quarter of an hour; and it is the duty of the watchman on the premises where such a clock is kept to go to it every quarter of an hour, and push in the proper pin, to show his employers the next morning that he has not been negligent of his duty” (197). In the examples of the pedometer and the tell-tale clock, timing mechanisms work against the poor memory and negligence of the worker, determining with precision the value that can be extracted from a given amount of time and labor.[6]

More generally, Babbage’s focus on the clock as a tool for disciplining labor follows Lewis Mumford’s famous argument in Technics and Civilization that “[t]he clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age” (14). In On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures, Babbage increasingly uses the phrase “the economy of time” to describe the temporality of labor techniques: an idea he applies with regards to the use of “tin tubes” by supervisors communicating with workers; the purchase of gunpowder with “a few days labor” in order to save labor removing rocks; and the construction of a distillery scale to keep track of liquor and to surveil people who have “access to the vessels during the absence of the inspectors or principals” (45, 18, 114). Babbage uses “the economy of time” to theorize what is later described by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford as assembly line labor by arguing that workers could be more economic with their time if, instead of learning all the processes of making a commodity, their “attention be confined to one operation, the portion of time consumed unprofitably at the commencement of [their] apprenticeship will be small” (291). He even suggests that managers can produce a “tabular view of the time occupied by each process, and its cost, as well as the sums which can be earned by the persons who confine themselves solely to each process” (310). For Babbage, time is a form of surveillance; its regularity and granularity helps to pinpoint precisely where inefficiencies occur in the labor process.

A desire to eliminate waste and inefficiency by creating discrete units of time and space also motivated Babbage’s efforts when designing the difference engine. Babbage was primarily interested in the calculation of functions for star positions used by commercial sailors to navigate their ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The tables had previously been completed by hand to ensure that changes in these patterns would not lead ships astray. Unfortunately, shipping tables were extremely time-consuming to produce and frequently had many errors. In his book Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Babbage recalls sitting “in the rooms of the Analytical Society at map iconCambridge, my head leaning forward on the table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a Table of logarithms lying open before me.” When asked by another member of the society what he might be dreaming about, Babbage responds “I am thinking that all these tables (pointing to the logarithms) might be calculated by machinery” (42). In another account, this one mentioned by the biographers Harry Buxton and Anthony Hyman, Babbage is depicted in a conversation with the astronomer John Herschel. At one point, in exasperation at the lack of precision in the astronomical tables both are referencing, Babbage exclaims “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!” (46).

The difference engine uses the algorithmic method of dividing differences to derive Isaac Newton’s interpolation polynomial: a set of number coordinates that express the best approximation of a curved line. Babbage’s immediate concern was finding curved lines to chart the safest and quickest routes for ships delivering goods to and from Britain. Yet, he also extrapolated the functions of the difference engine for more ambitious purposes. In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Babbage uses the machine to deliver a philosophical proof of God’s existence. He argues that “the most extensive laws that we have hitherto attained converge to some few and general principles, but with which the whole of the material universe is sustained, and from which its infinitely varied phenomena emerge as the necessary consequences” (32). For Babbage, mathematics didn’t express a mediating principle but a fundamental physical law explaining labor, time, and reality. What he described in On the Economy of Machines and Manufactures as a regulatory “check” on the laziness of human workers becomes evidence of a logical and metaphysical proof. Yet each of the sums derived by Babbage in both books are based upon a very particular machine logic epitomized in the calculating actions of the difference engine. This machine logic acts with the mechanical processes of the difference engine to homogenize the diverse temporal experiences of various media into Babbage’s understanding that all time is labor time.

Many of Babbage’s reflections regarding labor and time were mediated through physically interacting with what he called his “beautiful fragment,” a partial prototype of a single number column designated the Difference Engine No. 1. Executed by machinist Joseph Clement in 1832, this machine presented about one seventh of Babbage’s original design. Archibald Williams, in The Wonders of Mechanical Ingenuity, remarks that this “half-finished invention” cost over £14,000, and “had been designed to calculate as far as twenty figures, but was completed only sufficiently to go to five figures” (44-45). Babbage carried the no. 1 engine with him whenever attempting to secure more funding for his work. Its over 2,000 parts included the number wheels, the toothed-cogs, the crank, and the carry-propagators (Figure 3).

Engraving of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1.

Figure 3: Benjamin Herschel Babbage. “Engraving of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1.” _Harper’s New Monthly Magazine_. 30 (175). In the Public Domain.

Babbage admitted many times that this prototype profoundly influenced his thinking. The preface of On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacture mentions that its conclusions are “one of the consequences that have resulted from the calculating engine, the construction of which I have been so long superintending” (13). In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Babbage describes Nature as, in the words of James Brooke-Smith, “the product of a single mathematical law that contained within itself nested layers of emergent complexity.” Brooke-Smith continues that mathematics serves as an analogy within his “media-less media studies,” yet Babbage’s dependence upon numbers for both labor management and metaphysics also exposes his fundamental dependence on the difference engine when conceptualizing these mathematical solutions. Babbage argues in the treatise that his use of the difference engine as a tool is justified since “my own views respecting the extent of the laws of Nature were greatly enlarged by considering it, and because it incidentally presents matter for reflection on the subject of inductive reasoning” (33-34). Seeing the engine as enabling his reasoning, Babbage nevertheless does not recognize the degree to which the mechanical functions of the difference engine also mediate his thinking. Instead, he aligns the processes of the difference engine with a form of temporality that he sees as ultimately homogeneous: a time that exists only for the exchange of commodities and value.

Functional Timing

To understand how Babbage uses the difference engine to homogenize time, let’s look at a few functions of the machine. Babbage based the processes of the difference engine on the mechanism of oscillating escapement found in clocks. He introduces the device in On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures as “three clocks, placed on a table side by side, each having only one hand, and each having a thousand divisions instead of twelve hours marked on the face” (198). For Wolfgang Ernst, oscillating escapement emancipated “mechanical time from astronomical time” and modeled “nature on technical mechanisms instead of modelling technology on organic archetypes” (“From Media History” 140). Such emancipations enabled the granular regulation of time and space and the extraction of ever greater value from labor, since the regularity of escapement could be deployed in very different scales and contexts. In clocks that use oscillating escapement, seconds are marked by the motion of a weighted pendulum swinging back and forth. This swinging is regulated by a toothed gear train, which catches the pendulum as it swings to the left. Then, swinging to the right, the pendulum slows slightly due to the acute angle of a second tooth to the right. Slipping past that tooth, it hits a third tooth, clicks, swings back to the left to the second tooth, and clicks again. Oscillation is the regular swing of the pendulum. Escapement is measured by the fixed amount the pendulum “escapes” the acute angles of the teeth on the clock’s gear train.

Animation of Anchor Escapement, Widely Used in Pendulum Clocks

Figure 4: Chetvorno, “Animation of Anchor Escapement, Widely Used in Pendulum Clocks.” _Wikimedia_. Work is available under a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication License.

Each “escape” is registered on the clock’s face by the ticking seconds, whose sounds are the arms of the pendulum on the left and the right hitting the teeth of the train. In this way, oscillating mechanisms are one of the simplest digital forms of technology, since the indexical relationship of the pendulum to gravity is interrupted by teeth spaced at regular intervals when they are manufactured. In other words, seconds measured by oscillating escapement are not continuous with physical phenomena, but separated by a timed regularity produced by the gear trains. By contrast, sun dials have an analogue relationship with time, because it is the casting of the sun directly on the dial that determines the time. It is this constructed separation of a signal into discrete yet uniform clicks that creates the accuracy Babbage mentions as fundamental to his sense of temporality.

Babbage envisioned several mechanisms for the difference engine in order to leverage the regulatory power of oscillating escapement. Functioning mechanisms connecting the three clocks described in On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures enabled each of them to turn and advance one another in a regular temporal succession. Even though Babbage’s number wheels had ten teeth instead of the sixty on a regular gear train for pendulum clocks, the fundamental logic of oscillating escapement was foundational to his device. When looking at the no. 1 machine, Babbage designed these escapement mechanisms in several columns with twenty number wheels on each column and ten teeth on each wheel. As clicks on a second hand represent seconds, the teeth on the difference engine’s gear train represent individual decimals. This video by Sydney Padua shows how the mechanism worked (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Sydney Padua, director. “Difference Engine Carry Mechanism with Explanation.” 26 Dec. 2014. YouTube. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Padua’s video gives a visual sense of how the difference engine adds two numbers together. Her example in the video includes three decimals places. As she explains, the engine takes a number of mechanical steps to add numbers together. When adding “224” and “276,” the carry propagator turns from left to right, slowly carrying the necessary numbers to form the solution “500” on the left number column. The machine was designed to add in stages. First, it adds without carrying any numbers.

Calculation without "carrying" numbers

The difference engine solution without carrying the two mechanical 1s.

As you can see, the correct solution of “500” is only formed if two 1s are mechanically carried from the right to the left on the machine. Without those carries, the solution is “490.” For the next step, each of the carry propagators are engaged, and they mechanically carry the one for each column by zeroing out one number wheel as it adds one to the next number wheel. The propagator on the second number wheel moves first, then the propagator on the top number wheel. The one on the bottom stays the same.

The carry mechanism makes the turning of number wheels for each calculation possible. As Padua explains in the video, the carry mechanism first moves each of the top number wheels on the left and the right two places, respectively. Since they are positioned to turn in opposite directions, adding two to the left number wheel means subtracting two to the right number wheel. The movement itself is determined by the number of clicks registered when the carry mechanism is turned by the crank. The same is true for the middle and the bottom number wheels; each of them subtracts a number from the right column, then adds it to the left column. Next, carries are generated by two carry columns behind the number column: one has arms and interacts directly with the number column, while the other has a series of rippling flags that engage the armed column. The engagement of the armed-carry column with the rippled-flag-carry column would cause the latter to move in the opposite direction—pushing the armed-carry column further and priming it to engage with the number wheel. As this happens, the armed-carry column moves up, which causes it to yet again come into contact with the rippled-flag-carry column, which again moves in the opposite direction—priming it to move up once more. These movements create what Padua calls a cascade that carries the “number” from the bottom of the number column to the top. To be sure, as Padua argues in a footnote to her book The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, the machine “was not intended to figure out a specific result, but to produce a series of iterations of one type of addition […], and ultimately to print out the enormous books of tables” used for shipping, but the example here is meant to focus in on one specific function and show how that function derived an actionable iteration that could be displayed on one of the printed tables (23).

Babbage designed even more intricate mechanisms in his designs for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computer that included functionality like conditional branching. Conditional branching is often represented in computer code as “if/then” statements. As an example, consider this simple Python program designed to run a game.

g = input(“I’m thinking of a number between 1-100. What’s the number?:”)
guess = int(g)
if guess == 55:
print(“Hope You Had Fun!”)[7]

Here, the program starts with “Welcome,” users are asked to pick a number “between 1 and 100,” and if that number is “55,” it says “Yes!” and “Hope You Had Fun!” If any number other than “55” is inputted, the computer returns with a “No” message. Babbage designed the Analytical Engine to execute these kinds of functions using a run-up lever that would switch from a “down” to an “up” position based upon whether the number wheel fulfilled a programmed condition following a specific calculation. In each of the examples I’ve explored in this section, the timing of mechanisms creates a set of tasks that are often and necessarily ignored by the computer’s human user. Several mechanical clicks in the difference engine push cascades of rippled-flag and armed-carry columns to carry a number and derive a correct solution. This simple process is much more complicated in modern computing systems, but runs on the same logic. As Andrea Laue describes, oscillation in computer systems is based upon quartz crystals and atomic frequencies, which have much greater precision when determining seconds and move much more quickly than escapement gear trains but are also based on the timed regularity of a specific vibration: “[t]he original definition of ‘second’ was 1/86,400 of a mean solar day; in 1967 the natural frequency of the cesium atom—9,192,631,770 oscillations of the atom’s resonant frequency—was declared the international unit of time” (154). Not only did oscillating escapement shape the way Babbage encouraged his colleagues in industry to extract more efficiency and value from their workers, it also provided an algorithmic logic connecting number, time, and branching processes that proved essential in the early production of consumer electronics. As we consider how other engineers took up and modified Babbage’s designs, it is worth considering how the non-human processing of time continues to impact our time-pieces, our calendars, and our sense of history.

Machines and Variants

While Babbage’s theory of industrialized time is connected to the mediation of oscillating escapement, the appropriation of his designs by later engineers in their own versions of the difference engine manipulated Babbage’s industrialized moments with greater complexity and granularity. Father and son duo Georg and Edvard Scheutz, for instance, relied primarily on Dionysus Lardner’s 1834 article “Babbage’s Calculating Engine” to create their own prototype of the machine. While, as Michael Lindgren explains, Lardner’s article was the first to truly pay attention to the mathematical principles involved in Babbage’s designs, the article nevertheless was so vague in its description of the difference engine’s mechanisms that “it would have been possible to design and build ten engines, all quite different yet all perfectly consistent with Lardner’s description” (112). This meant that the mechanisms of the Scheutz engine were as often based upon the mechanical problems caused by Lardner’s summation as any design principles derived from Babbage.

The Scheutz engine was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1854, the map iconParis World’s Fair in 1855, and was eventually bought by the map iconDudley Observatory in New York only later to be relocated to the Smithsonian. As the Scheutzes explain in their book Specimens of Tables, Calculated, Stereomolded, and Printed Machinery, their engine calculates only three decimal points instead of the seven processed by Babbage’s machine. Further, the machine’s size is “about that of a small pianoforte” and consists of a series of fifteen upright steel axes, passing down the middle of five horizontal rows of silver-coated numbering rings, fifteen in each row, each ring being supported by, and turning concentrically on its own small brass shelf” (xv). As the woodcut of the device produced for the Illustrated London News shows, the resulting machine looked quite different from the Babbage engine (Figure 6).

Scheutz Difference Engine, 1855.

Figure 6: “Scheutz Difference Engine, 1855.” _The Illustrated London News_. 30 June 1855. In the public domain.

One of the more obvious mechanical differences between the Babbage and the Scheutz engine was the latter’s method for effecting carries. While the Babbage machine used a system of rippled-flag and armed-carry columns to push number wheels in the appropriate direction, the Scheutz machine used what was called a “catch and trap” system. An article on the Scheutz machine from Georgi Dalakov’s History of Computers website explains in detail the process of the system:

There was an upward catch, attached to the upper part of the wheel, the corresponding trap to the central axis surrounded by that wheel, at a point approximately midway between it and the wheel above it. As the axes rotated, the traps revolved within the rotating wheels. Each trap had an arm which touched the catch of the wheel below as the trap revolved. Depending on the direction of the rotation of this revolution, it either pressed down a portion of the catch and passed it freely, or was caught by it and raised. When the trap was raised, it engaged the number wheel above it, thereby turning it.

As Dalakov explains, carries were enacted by studs built between the 9 and 0 teeth on the wheel. These studs pushed a lever behind the number wheels that struck an upright pillar, which, in turn, pushed the next wheel forward. The Scheutzes’s engineering solution for carries was elegant, considering that Lardner gave them no detailed access to how Babbage’s rippled flag design worked, but it also meant that a huge upright pillar conspicuously glides down the length of the machine whenever it is operating. Watching the film produced by the Dudley Observatory for the Scheutz Difference Engine highlights this gliding arm (Figure 7).

Figure 7:  Dudley Observatory Media. “Scheutz Difference Engine, Undated.” YouTube. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

While the rippling flags of Babbage’s engine elegantly twirl up like a double-helix on a DNA strand, the Scheutz engine reduces the operation of all of the flags to a single, giant mechanism. The Scheutz difference engine is the most famous of the Difference Engine variants, since it was quickly celebrated by the British government, bought by a prominent American museum, and used in the famous cholera statistician William Farr’s 1859 book on British life tables and mortality rates. Yet other engineers also produced their own variants of Babbage’s device. Swiss Engineer Martin Wiberg’s difference engine appeared in 1876. It operated much like the Scheutz engine, but was famous for the elegance of its printed tables. American industrialist George Bernard Grant created a difference engine based upon linear number wheels, as opposed to the horizontal ones in the Babbage and Scheutz designs. His 1871 article for the American Journal of Science describes the wheels as “all turning on the same axis D, in the same direction independently of each other, the axis being stationary” (115). The Grant Difference Engine also appeared in the Centennial Exhibition in map iconLondon Science museum started construction on its own—and the first fully produced—model of the #2 Babbage engine in 1985. It was not completed until 17 years later in 2002, but its partial construction was displayed at the museum for Babbage’s 200th birthday on December 26, 1991. Project lead Doron Swade noted contradictions in Babbage’s original designs and the inability to exactly reproduce the working conditions Babbage would have had during his life, including the lack of standardized parts in the early nineteenth century. Such difficulties created historical problems as well as mechanical ones. If the prototype didn’t work, it wasn’t a workable machine. If it did work, then it wasn’t a faithful replication of Babbage’s design. Swade responded with “the realization that it was a mistake to view Babbage’s design as sacrosanct and unimpeachably perfect…. The project was more in the nature of a resumption of a practical engineering project that had been arrested in 1848” (76). Even as a practical engineering project, however, the costs of producing the device were astronomical. While the final price for the model was never disclosed, a 2008 article in the technology news magazine Engadget reported that a copy produced for Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold cost over $1 million to manufacture.[8] Further, a CNET article on the construction of the Myrhvold engine noted that engineering mistakes created several delays in production and numerous expenses. In particular, malformed cams that control the engine’s drums were subjected to the wrong heat treatment and a company contracted to create many of the components of the engine went into liquidation. Consequently, the metals and engineering conservator of the map iconComputer Science Museum Richard Horton had to participate in making the components himself. As the article reports, none of the 248 figure wheels fit properly. “Every one had to be done by hand,” Horton says in the article. “If there was any tightness on any of the 248, the friction would be massive” (qtd. in Terdiman).

Non-Human Resistance

Such calamities highlight the irony of Babbage’s notion of a medium-free time. For an industrialist so obsessed with efficiency and the easy extraction of value from temporality, it seems Babbage kept confronting what digital humanities scholar Bethany Nowviskie calls “resistance in the material.” Nowviskie appropriates the phrase William Morris uses when discussing his disdain for the typewriter, which replaces the pleasant resistance normally felt when a pencil glides upon the surface of paper with a mechanized form of textual production. Yet she also notes Morris’s “plaint of the passive tool user” when confronted with a sticking or jammed typewriter. How much of the digital humanities reproduces this passivity? Instead of a complex medium with a mathematical logic that often does not mirror our experience of the world, too often we see technology as a passive tool that enables the easy extraction of scholarly value.

Yet, as media archaeology reminds us, the temporal complexities of computation do not easily map onto our all-too-human needs as late-capitalist scholars faced with the exponential need to produce more and more value. Why spend the time to learn command-line programming or Linux when we can simply use Apple’s iOS? In this understandable scenario, computing in the humanities is too often reduced to what Lori Emerson calls the “ideology of the user friendly,” in which the sense of a medium-less interface “distorts reality” by “celebrat[ing] the device as closed off both to the user and to any understanding of it via a glossy interface” (xi). Such glossy interfaces masking complex media timing seem very similar to the way historians also commodify time. By reducing complex interactions to a book, a person, or a single number, history instills a certain passivity in the materials used to make up time by prioritizing the moment or the period over process. When we consider how technological development occurs, it’s worth considering that these moments and inventors are entangled with one another. We engineer machines with materials that are formed over millions of years, while we also manipulate electrical signals that take only microseconds to loop and branch. Victorian history is never simply human.

published September 2017

Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University, where he also teaches in the Digital Technology and Culture Program. He is author of Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories (Routledge 2016) and co-author, with Jason Whittaker, of William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge 2012), in addition to several articles on Blake, steampunk, the digital humanities, and media archaeology.


Whitson, Roger. “The Difference Engine: 1832, 1855, 1876, 1991, 2002, 2008.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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—. On the Economies of Machinery and Manufactures. London, John Murray, 1846.

—. Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. London, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864.

Babbage, Benjamin Herschel. “Engraving of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 30, no. 175.

Barker, Claire, director. Babbage. Frame on Frame, 2008. Youtube, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings et al., Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2008, pp. 19-55.

Brooke-Smith, James. “Number, Medium, Nature: Wordsworth and Babbage Compose the Universe.” Romantic Circles: Praxis Series, Apr. 2013, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

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[1] Fully exploring the biography and contribution of Ada Lovelace is beyond the scope of this paper, since her work is associated with Babbage’s second machine called “the analytical engine.” Yet, given the widespread erasure of women from the history of computing, it is worth briefly mentioning some of her accomplishments. Lovelace not only translated Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s designs for the analytical engine, she contributed notes that were over three times the length of the original article and saw implications for the machine that even Babbage himself did not understand. In particular, she is credited by many scholars for writing the first computer program: an algorithm that automatically generated Bernouli numbers. For more information on Ada Lovelace’s contributions, see Jay Clayton’s reading of Ada Lovelace in the context of her and Charles Babbage’s appearance in Gibson and Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine, as well as Betty Elizabeth Toole’s biography Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers, and my own piece on Lovelace’s reading of Menabrea and her contribution to the digital humanities in “Critical Making in the Digital Humanities.”

[2] This article expands upon work published in chapter 1 “Difference Engines,” in Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories  (Routledge 2012). While that chapter also includes a media archaeological reading of Babbage, this article changes direction by exploring the functionalities of the difference engine.

[3] Friedrich Kittler was the first in media studies to describe time-axis manipulation, which “presupposes (to the horror of philosophers) that time-serial data be referred to spatial coordinates.” Kittler historicizes time-axis manipulation by mentioning the “classical depiction of physical and thus time-invariant processes by using a Cartesian system of coordinates” but argues that a “simple illustration in physics” is different than “informatics realiz[ing] it in the shape of an actual circuit” (5-6). Sybille Krämer elucidates Kittler’s work by describing time-axis manipulation as “strategies of spatialization [that] enable one to manipulate the order of things that progress in time” and are “only possible when the things that occupy a place in time and space are not only seen as singular events but as reproducible data” (106).

[4] For more information on how Markov-Chain programs can manipulate writing and literature, see my article “There is No William Blake: @autoblake’s Algorithmic Condition.”

[5] For more information about Benjamin’s argument regarding technology and art, see “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.”

[6] Seb Franklin’s book Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic shows how Babbage’s vision of universal capitalist time foreshadowed our current world of flexible labor. He recounts a story from 1827 in which Babbage sent his two eldest sons, Herschel and Charles, to map iconBruce Castle school, a utilitarian project in which students gained credit in the form of counters in exchange for “work of any description, done at any time,” with the intention that boys would be driven to self-government through the valorization of a wide range of activities. (26)

[7] Programming code is placed in Courier New to distinguish it from the rest of the article.

[8] Swade lists an estimated cost for the parts as going up in May 1990 “from an estimated £201,000 to £246,000” (77). However, Swade’s figure is limited to the manufacturing of the parts alone and does not, for instance, include labor and transportation fees among many other costs.