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A difference engine is an automatic, mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.
The name derives from the method of divided differences, a way to interpolate or tabulate functions by using a small set of polynomial coefficients. Both logarithmic and trigonometric functions, functions commonly used by both navigators and scientists, can be approximated by polynomials, so a difference engine can compute many useful sets of numbers.
The historical difficulty in producing error free tables by teams of mathematicians and human "computers" spurred Charles Babbage's desire to build a mechanism to automate the process.
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