The Life of Charles Babbage

The Life of Charles Babbage

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The Life of Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage

Born December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth, Devonshire UK, Charles Babbage was known as the “Father of Computing” for his contributions to the basic design of the computer through his Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was the earliest expression of an all-purpose, programmable computer. His previous Difference Engine was a special purpose device intended for the production of tables. Both the Difference and Analytical Engines were the earliest direct progenitors of modern computers.

Even as a little boy, he always tinkered with little mechanical things. He loved to take apart and dissect things. Eventually, Babbage was put in the care of a church school near Exeter, where the minister was told by his family to make sure that he was healthy, rather than well educated. Because of this concern, the minister didn't give Babbage enough work to keep him interested and occupied. Superstitious, despite a thorough Protestant upbringing, he developed an obsession with the Devil. He asked his classmates to tell him every folk tales they knew about what forms the Devil appeared in.

In 1812, he began his formal education at Trinity College and the University of Cambridge where he discovered his ability and interest in mathematics history. During that same year, he helped found the Analytical Society, whose object was to introduce developments from the European continent into English mathematics. He graduated from Peterhouse in 1814. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1816 and was active in the founding of the Royal Astronomical and the Statistical societies. He received his Masters in 1817 and began working as a mathematician, concentrating in calculating functions. It was his work with these complex calculations that led him to his most significant inventions: The Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. By previous standards, these engines were monumental in conception, size, and complexity.

In 1821, Babbage began the task of mechanizing the production of tables. In 1822, he proposed to build a machine called the Difference Engine to automatically calculate mathematical tables. The idea was to invent a calculating machine that could not only calculate without error but also automatically print the results. Difference engines were designed to calculate using the method of finite differences, a well-used principle of the time. It was only partially completed when he conceived the idea of a more sophisticated machine called the Analytical Engine.

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Some texts refer to this machine as an Analytical Steam Engine because Babbage intended that it would be powered by steam.
Beginning in 1828, Babbage occupied the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge University. It was 1833 when he began his work on the Analytical Engine. It was intended to use loops of Jacquard’s punched cards to control an automatic calculator that could make decisions based on the results of previous computations. This machine was also intended to employ several features subsequently used in modern computers including sequential control, branching, and looping. In 1839, he resigned his professorship to devote his full attention to this project. Working with Babbage was Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron. Ada, who was a splendid mathematician and one of the few people who fully understood Babbage's vision, created a program for the Analytical Engine. Had the Analytical Engine ever actually worked, Ada's program would have been able to compute a mathematical sequence known as Bernoulli numbers. Based on this work, Ada is now credited as being the first computer programmer and in 1979, a modern programming language was named ADA in her honor.

Babbage’s talents and interests were wide-ranging. He was a prolific inventor, a mathematician, scientist, politician, critic of the scientific establishment and political economist. Babbage pioneered lighthouse signaling, proposed “black box” recorders for monitoring the conditions preceding railway catastrophes, and advocated decimal currency and the use of tidal power once coal reserves were exhausted. He favored and campaigned for the introduction of Continental theories to the mathematics curriculum and highlighted the neglect of science and the status of scientists.
Babbage worked on his Analytical Engine until his death in 1871. Sadly, it was never completed and few ended up knowing who he was. It was often said that Babbage was a hundred years ahead of his time and that the technology of his day was inadequate for the task. It is interesting to contemplate the effect on history if Babbage had realized that a stored program computer could be made using relays. The parts of the Difference Engine that had seemed possible of completion in 1830 gathered dust in the Museum of King's College. His vision of a massive brass, steam-powered, general-purpose, mechanical computer inspired some of the great minds of the nineteenth century but failed to persuade any backer to provide the funds to actually construct it.

If Babbage would have been taken more seriously, a computer could have been built in the 1800's, and would have advanced the use of the modern computers by almost a century.
By the 1880's, Babbage was known primarily for his reform of mathematics at Cambridge. In 1899, the magazine Temple Bar reported that "the present generation appears to have forgotten Babbage and his calculating machine". It was only after the first electromechanical and later, electronic computers had been built in the twentieth century, that designers of those machines discovered the extent to which Babbage had anticipated almost every aspect of their work. Babbage faced significant problems with mechanical techniques. He had to invent the tools for his engine. His thought is so thoroughly modern that we wonder why he did not pursue electromechanical methods for his engines. Because he was a visionary who saw too far ahead of his time, he had fallen out of favor with the British government. He was an eccentric whose ideas were perhaps too revolutionary for his time. His love of mathematics and numbers and his trust in mathematical prediction caused him to want to quantify everything. He recorded all kinds of data with the hopes of statistically predicting and explaining every single natural phenomenon. He even explained and rationalized Christian dogma with statistics and logic.

Although he was very accomplished, he died a disappointed man. He was never able to construct his calculating machines mainly because of the failure of the government to support his efforts with funding. He would not be appreciated for nearly one hundred years.


1. Anthony Hyman, Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer, Princeton/Oxford
University Press, 1982.

2. Marguerite Zientara, The History of Computing, CW Communications, Inc., 1981.

3. F. Gareth Ashurst, Pioneers of Computing, Frederick Muller Limited, 1983.

4. Maboth Moseley, Irascible Genius: The Life of Charles Babbage, Henry Regnery
Company, 1970.

5. Anthony Hyman, Science and Reform, Selected Works of Charles Babbage, Cambridge
University Press, 1989.

6. Dorothy Stein, Ada, A Life and a Legacy, MIT, 1984.

7. Betty Alexandra Toole, Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, Strawberry Press, 1992.

8. George Sarton, The Study of the History of Mathematics, Harvard, 1936.

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