Charles Babbage Biography (1791-1871)


Charles Babbage, the son of a wealthy English banker, was born in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. As that revolution progressed, he became one of its foremost--and most controversial--spokesmen. Because of his views on what the scientific method could do for industry and commerce (and a few other eccentricities), most of his contemporaries regarded his as a crank. Today, he is remembered as the brilliant mathematician who invented the prototypeof the digital computer .

Babbage entered Cambridge University at the age of 19, and it was there thathe thought of a computer first crossed his mind. One evening in 1812, as he sat gazing at a table of mathematical data, it occurred to him that a machinecould calculate such data faster than humans and without human error. In theincreasingly complex world in which he lived, errors in mathematical tables were becoming a matter of real concern; particularly serious--since they werethe cause of frequent shipwrecks--were inaccuracies in navigational tables. Babbage had occasion to return to his idea of a computing machine about 1820,when as a member of a learned society, he was given the task of verifying tables of astronomical data. The numerous errors he found in them led him to exclaim, "I wish God these calculations had been accomplished by steam." Babbagenever did see numbers calculated by a steam-powered machine, though he spentthe rest of his life and much of his fortune trying to build one.

In 1822 he completed a small working model of the Difference Engine, a machine that could compile and print mathematical tables. The next year, after convincing the British government to fund the project, he began building a full-scale version. Progress was slow and expensive, since machine tools for makingthe parts had to be custom-crafted. But Babbage's efforts, which included astudy of all mechanical devices that could be used in building his machine, had a profound effect on mechanical engineering. The ensuing improvements to machine tools and techniques were worth far more to the British industry thanthe £17,000 the government ultimately spent on the project. The government withdrew its support of the Difference Engine in 1834, but by then Babbagehad already conceived the idea for his Analytical Engine. A programmable automatic machine, the Analytical Engine was the direct ancestor of the modern digital computer.

Babbage's constant improvements and redrafting of plans may be one reason theAnalytical Engine was never finished. Another was the technology available to him. It would have been far simpler for him to implement his ideas with electromechanical devices than with mechanical ones, but it would be many yearsbefore electrical technology was reliable enough for Babbage's purposes. Babbage himself would have blamed the shortsightedness of the British governmentfor the failure of his machines ever to see practical application. But the real wonder is how he ever managed to get any government funding at all. The idea of a machine that seemed to perform human thought processes struck many ofhis contemporaries as ridiculous, if not sacrilegious.

Babbage tossed off ideas and designs for other devices with great abandon--among them, a cowcatcher for locomotives, a meter to reduce water waste, a device for recording earthquake shock waves, and a skeleton key . All these seemto have been of fleeting interest to him, obsessed as he was with his computing engines. Typically, credit for the ophthalmoscope that he invented in 1848went to Hermann von Helmholtz, who invented the same device in 1851; his multipurpose machine tool, which would have been very useful in small factories,was never built; and his lighthouse signalling system was pirated by a Russian naval officer (to whom he had gladly shown it) and later patented by an English admiral (who profited from it).

Had Babbage been born a few generations later, when technology was more advanced, the world might not have had to wait until the mid-twentieth century forthe digital computer, and Babbage might have died content. As it was, a friend who visited him before his death reported that he sounded as if he hated "mankind in general, Englishmen in particular, and the English government andorgan grinders most of all" (organ grinders and other street musicians have been among the few things that could distract him from his work). His hatred was, however, abstract; it melted away in the face of anyone with a hard-luckstory. he was, as one of his biographers characterized him, a lovable but "irascible genius."

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