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Happy Birthday, Charles Babbage, Inventor of the Difference Engine

December 26, 2009
by Liz Colville
A “gentleman of science” and holder of Cambridge University’s Lucasian chair, Charles Babbage was a wealthy amateur mathematician who is credited with numerous indispensible inventions, including the ophthalmoscope and proposals for two computer-like devices, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.

Charles Babbage's Early Days

Charles Babbage was born Dec. 26, 1791, in Walworth, Surrey, England. According to the Computer History Museum, he was the son of a banker, Benjamin Babbage, who had three other children. Babbage attended Trinity College at Cambridge University and studied mathematics. He graduated from Peterhouse College at Cambridge in 1814 and received a master's degree in 1817. He moved to London with his wife, Georgiana Whitmore, in 1815. They had eight children, though five died before they reached adulthood.

An obituary of Babbage in the Times of London on Oct. 23, 1871, indicates that facts surrounding his early life were hazy during his lifetime. “Little is known of Mr. Babbage’s parentage and early youth,” the article states. “During the whole of his long life, even when he had won for himself fame and reputation, he was always extremely reticent on that subject,” asserting that all necessary information about a living person could, or should, be found in a list of that individual’s publications. [note: the Times' obituary misstates Babbage's date of birth].

Babbage experienced extreme personal tragedy in 1827: His wife, two of his children and his father all died that year.

Babbage's Notable Accomplishments

Babbage became a fellow of the U.K.’s national academy of science, the Royal Society, in 1816. By 1829, he was appointed to the Lucasian chair at Cambridge University, and went on to hold the position for 10 years. (The Lucasian chair is the world’s most prestigious professorial chair in mathematics; its second representative was Sir Isaac Newton and the current chair is Stephen Hawking.)

Babbage had diverse interests in the fields of science, math and engineering. According to the Computer Museum, he “pioneered lighthouse signaling, invented the ophthalmoscope, proposed ‘black box’ recorders for monitoring the conditions preceding railway catastrophes, advocated decimal currency,” and suggested using tidal power “once coal reserves were exhausted.” He also “designed a cow-catcher for the front end of railway locomotives, failsafe quick release couplings for railway carriages, multi-colored theatre lighting, an altimeter, a seismic detector, a tugboat for winching vessels upstream, a ‘hydrofoil’ and an arcade game for members of the public to challenge in a game of tic-tac-toe.”

The University of Minnesota’s Charles Babbage Institute, which is dedicated to the history of IT, asserts that Babbage’s greatest contributions—of all his many inventions—were his designs for the computer-like Difference Engine, invented in 1821, and its successor, the Analytical Engine, invented in 1856. The first device was meant to “compile mathematical tables,” and the second was “intended as a general symbol manipulator” and “had some of the characteristics of today’s computers.” Ada Lovelace, a friend of Babbage's, translated a memoir written about the Analytical Engine and added notes on a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. She is credited with writing what is considered the first description of a computer and computer software.

Unfortunately, neither the technology nor the funding were available to successfully construct the two engines at the time. A Swedish printer did manage, however, to build a working Difference Engine in 1854, and both the British and American governments made use of its calculations.

London’s Science Museum built a working Difference Engine in 1985, to honor the bicentennial of Babbage’s birth. It “consists of 4000 parts and weighs over three metric tons.”

The Science Museum’s Web site provides pictures and information about the Difference Engine No. 2 and its printer, which was built in 2000.

The Rest of the Story

Charles Babbage died of unknown causes on Oct. 18, 1871, at the age of 79.

Anthony Hyman, Babbage scholar and author of the 1985 book “Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer,” notes that Babbage’s Difference Engine was his “great practical engineering project, vastly more complex than any previously conceived mechanical calculator.” Hyman added that because Babbage had his hand in so many subjects, including politics, economics and engineering, he “was constantly thinking of new applications for his beloved engines, and was beginning to open up perspectives which have come more fully into view with the development of the modern computer.”

Victorian Web states that Babbage also made contributions to philosophy, particularly with an 1837 work called “The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise,” which argued that “natural laws were capable of explaining so-called miracles.” Victorian Web’s page on Babbage links to several e-texts of his published works.

Anthony Hyman’s The Babbage Pages at the University of Exeter notes that Babbage was also influential as a political economist, even though his personality was often seen as combative in the political sphere. He “authoritatively placed the factory” at the center of discussions about a nation’s wealth, and can be said to have influenced the work of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.

Science fiction writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote a 1991 award-winning novel, “The Difference Engine,” depicting an alternate Victorian England powered by working models of Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

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