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Charles Babbage - a short history

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Charles Babbage was one of the key figures of a great era of British history. Born as the industrial revolution was getting into its swing, by the time Babbage died Britain was by far the most industrialized country the world had ever seen. Babbage played a crucial role in the scientific and technical development of the period.

Early life

Charles Babbage grew up in London, the son of banker and merchant, Benjamin (Old Five Percent) Babbage and his wife Elizabeth Plumleigh Teape. His grandfather was Benjamin Babbage, mayor of Totnes in Cornwall. (Charles maintained close ties with that extraordinarily wealthy Totnes mining region throughout his life).

Charles showed an early interest in mathematics, teaching himself algebra. When he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1811 it is said he knew more about mathematics than his instructors. He received his undergraduate degree and married Georgiana Whitmore, from a well-to-do Shropshire family, in 1814. Her half brother, Wolryche Whitmore, was the MP who rose year after year in the House of Commons to move the repeal of the Corn Laws. He was also a leading member of the Political Economy Club, and played an important part in Babbage's life.

Academic superstar

For 25 years Charles Babbage was a leading figure in London society, and his glorious Saturday evening soirees, attended by two or three hundred people, were a meeting place for Europe's liberal intelligentsia. Babbage was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816, and graduated with his MA from Cambridge in 1817. He also played a prominent part in founding the Astronomical Society and The Analytical Society in 1820. By June of 1823, Babbage acquired the immense sum of 1,500 from the Royal Society to begin construction of his plan for a mechanical device for calculating and printing mathematical tables--the Difference Engine. Machinery to perform math became Babbage's consuming passion. He repeatedly spent his own money along with solicited funds for his projects.  Replacing his quest to build the Difference Engine with the Analytic Machine Babbage unsuccessful continued this pursuit throughout his life.

In 1828, Babbage was appointed the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. This position had in the past been held by Sir Isaac Newton, who invented differential calculus and formed the theory of gravity. Although he never delivered a lecture, Babbage held the Lucasian professorship for twelve years. The majority of Babbage's articles on mathematics and related fields were published during his academic career. He also helped found the Association for the Advancement of Science and the Statistical Society (later the Royal Statistical Society) during this time period.

In 1827, at the age of 35, Babbage's wife, Georgiana, died, leaving him with three surviving children, Benjamin Herschel, Henry Prevost, and Georgiana. 1827 was a year of tragedy for Babbage. His father, his wife and two of his children all died that year. He own health gave way and he was advised to travel on the Continent. After his travels he returned near the end of 1828. He never remarried.

In 1833, he met Lady Ada Lovelace when she wrote to him asking about a math tutor. Encouraged by her husband and her mother, Lovelace was inspired by Babbage to become his student of mathematics, very unusual for a woman in that age. She contributed funds to work toward building the Analytical Engine and worked on programs for the potential machine. Ada (Lord Byron's daughter) was nearly disgraced by her debts in helping to finance his Analytical Engine.

Father of computing...almost

Precursors to the modern computer, both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine designed by Charles Babbage were calculating machines.  After noticing the common errors in logarithm tables and in everyday mathematical transactions, Babbage conceived the idea of these machines as a means to make precise mathematical calculations mechanically. At first, the British government supported his efforts to eliminate costly computational errors.  It was hoped these machines would correct errors in navigational charts and prevent accounting mistakes.

Babbage was simply way ahead of his time. Of necessity the Difference Engine was a mechanical device of cogs and wheels. When a person turned the crank, it would compute simple mechanical calculations. The major problem with the Difference Engine was that all the pieces had to be in certain positions to start with or the answer would not be correct and the pieces had to be moved back to the starting position each time a new calculation was made.

Babbage was never able to complete his Difference Engine (see Note 1) because he ran out of money and at the same time became more interested in building the more advanced Analytical Engine.

The Analytical Engine was a non-electronic machine with an input device (punched cards), a memory device that Babbage called the store, a central processing unit called the mill, and an output device (a mechanical printer), designed to process all types of mathematical equations. The Analytical Engine used decimal math rather than binary math like modern computers and performed its computations using repeated addition or subtraction

His Analytical Engine was never built the government were unwilling to fund a new engine until the old one was complete, thanks in part to the machinations of our own Stamp Brooksbank (see Note 2). And the technological challenge was daunting- he had to invent the tools he needed to build his engine. Conventional mechanical drawing also proved inadequate to his needs causing Babbage to invent his own abstract notation. By 1851 Babbage had "given up all expectation of constructing the Analytic Engine."

Later life

In later life, Babbage was often incoherent when he spoke in public. His difficulty with verbal persuasion contributed both to his failure to raise sufficient funds to complete his Analytical Engine and to his twice unsuccessful bid as a Whig candidate for Parliament. By the time Babbage reached his mid fifties, he had switched from liberalism to conservatism and found capitalism and democracy incompatible.

At the end of his life, Charles Babbage was embittered by the changes made in London by the Industrial Revolution and disappointed by his failure to finance the building of the Analytic Engine.  When he died at home in 1871, the Royal Society did not print an obituary, and The Times made fun of him. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London in 1871 - the funeral attracting just one carriage. At his suggestion his brain had been removed and given to the Royal College of Surgeons for research.


1 A Difference Engine, using parts that would have been available to Babbage, was finally built in 1991 by the National Museum of Science and Technology in London using Babbage's plans. Weighing hundreds of pounds and operated by a hand crank it has never generated an incorrect answer.

2 It is often stated that Babbage spent a considerable part of his personal fortune on the project and that he was angry at the British Government for not rewarding him for this. This is just not true. It was the Government who provided nearly all the funds. Full details on this appears below. Between 1823 and 1834 they spent a total of 15,288-ls-4d on the engineering and development work and a further 2,190-13s-6d on the construction of buildings to house the completed engine, workshops and the adaptations to a house for the superintendent. Babbage only ever contributed a very small part of his own money on the project. The Treasury adopted a system of having the accounts formally reviewed by their own auditors, Messrs William Speer and Stamp Brooksbank. These two appear in the story told in the surviving Mss as a pair of veritable bureaucratic 'Rosencrantz and Guildensterns'. They seemed to have quibbled every penny spent by Babbage on the Engine, insisting on stamped and signed receipts etc.. They certainly did not indulge in any form of financial planning or management, tasks one might expect of professional auditors today. This system of auditing by the Treasury in fact slowed down the refunding of monies owed to Babbage and in consequence delayed the payments made to Clement, often by as much as an additional month or even more. This added to the time required to arbitrate the accounts in the first place did much to frustrate the project and possibly was the prime cause of the difference of opinion between Babbage and Clement which brought work on the project to an end. It can be seen from Speer and Brooksbank's reports, which still exist today in the Public Record Office at Kew, that they did little more than to "rubber stamp" what had already been approved by the arbitrators. <i>from Analysis of the Costs of and Government Expenditure on Babbage's 1st Difference Engine </i>by CJ.D. Roberts MA

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