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Charles Babbage

Inventor of the first computer

Charles Babbage was a British mathematician, analytical philosopher, mechanical engineer, scientist, the inventor of the first programmable computer and professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Due to his influence on the subsequent development of science, he was called the “Father of Computers”. Parts of his incomplete mechanisms can be found in the Science Museum in London. In 1991, the difference engine was reconstructed on the basis of his drawings. Nine years later, with the reconstruction of the “Babbage Design”, the unbelievable complexity of the machine for the century of its invention was discovered. The name of Babbage’s wife was Georgiana and they had many children, only three of whom lived into old age.

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in London and died on October 18, 1871. His date and year of birth have been much debated. In The Times his date of birth was given as December 26, 1792, while one of his relatives claimed that he had been born one year earlier, namely in 1791. However, according to the parish register of the London church St. Mary’s Newington, he had been baptized on January 6, 1792. He lived with his mother Betsy and his father Benjamin, who was a wealthy banker. In 1808, the family moved into the old Rowdens house that was situated in East Teignmouth, where his father became the administrator of the local St. Michael’s Church.


His father’s wealth allowed Babbage to visit several schools and granted him the support of private teachers during his elementary education. At the age of eight, his parents sent him to a country school at Alpington, near Exeter, so that he could recover from a life-threatening fever. His parents demanded that “his brain was not to be taxed too much” and Babbage sensed that “this great idleness may have led to some of my childish reasonings”. Afterwards he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South Devon, for a very short time, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a while. He then enrolled at the 30-student Holmwood Academy in Baker Street, Enfield. The Academy possessed a well-equipped library, which prompted Babbage’s love of mathematics. He continued to study with two private tutors upon leaving the academy. About the first tutor, a clergyman near Cambridge, Babbage said: “I fear I did not derive from it all the advantages that I might have done”. The other one was an Oxford tutor, who imparted enough knowledge to Babbage for his admission to Cambridge.

He was admitted to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He intensively read Leibniz, Lagrange, Simpson and Lacroix. He was seriously disappointed in the mathematics tutoring available at Cambridge. As a response to that, he, John Herschel, George Peacock and some other friends founded the Analytical Society.

In 1812, he transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the best mathematician there, but did not succeed in graduating with honors. In 1914, Babbage received an honorary degree instead (a degree with honors for the best students), even without prior completion of his final paper.

On July 25, 1814, he married Georgiana Whitmore at St. Michael’s Church in Teignmouth, Devon. His father did not approve of the marriage since it lacked economic stability. They lived in Portland, London.

Charles and Georgiana had eight children, only three of whom – Benjamin Herschel, Georgiana Whitmore and Henry Frobes – reached adulthood. Georgiana died on September 1, 1827 – and in the same year, Babbage’s father and two sons died as well.

Computer development

In order to detect significant errors in the calculation of mathematical tables, Babbage wished to find a method allowing mechanical calculation, thus eliminating the possibility of human error. Three different factors influenced him:

1.He didn’t like disorder

2.He had experience in working with logarithmic tables

3.He found working with the calculating engines of Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz highly interesting.

His first written discussion of the principles of a calculating engine was sent to Sir Humphry Davy in a letter in 1822.

Babbage’s engines constitute the first computers – mechanical, but nevertheless real computers. Due to personal and financial problems, his engines were not finished. Babbage understood that machines can work better and more reliably than human beings. He initiated the construction of an engine that more or less did the job and he suggested a complete mechanization of the calculation process. Even if Babbage’s engines were huge, their structure was similar to today’s computers. Data and program memory were divided, and the operations were based on human instructions.

Difference engine

At that time, data was calculated by people called “computers”. At Cambridge, Babbage realized the great problems raised by human-caused errors and he devoted his lifework to attempting to make the mechanical calculation of tables possible, eliminating all human errors. In 1812, he realized that extended calculations, especially those needed for the calculation of mathematical tables, consist of a chain of already known actions. Thus, he had the idea to automatize the process.

In 1822, he developed a mechanical engine called the difference engine.

Babbage’s engine was designed for the automatic execution of several mathematical operations. Multiplication and division could be avoided thanks to the difference method. The first difference engine had 25,000 parts, it was 8 feet high, and weighed 15 tons. The machine was supposed to be steam-driven, automatically calculating polynomials up to degree six and being able to print out the results.

Despite having a considerable number of sponsors, Babbage was not able to finish the engine. He later invented an improved version of the difference engine, which he called “Difference Engine 2”. It was not finished during his lifetime, but it was reconstructed from 1989 to 1991. Its first calculation is displayed at the London Science Museum and it reached precisely to the 31st decimal, outperforming average modern pocket calculators.

Babbage also invented a printer for the machine that offered exceptional possibilities. It allowed for the formatting of rows and columns before printing.

Analytical engine

Soon after the unsuccessful attempt to create the difference engine, Babbage began to work on a different engine with a much greater complexity, the analytical engine. This was no simple physical machine, but a combination of various engine designs that he was occupied with until the end of his life. The main difference between these two engines was that the analytical engine could be programmed using punched cards – an idea ahead of its time. He realized that on the cards was no room for more programs and that a person creating the other programs needed to be present. The analytical engine was programmed to use punched cards adapted from the Jacquard loom, controlling the mechanical computer that was able to produce the next result of a calculation based on a formerly calculated result. The engine could also execute commands like the ones used in modern computers, including the sequence, selection and iteration being the foundation of structured programming. The engine designed in that way was the first Turing complete mechanical computer. It was supposed to be a digital calculator working with numbers of fifty digits and a memory capacity of a thousand such numbers, as well as being steam-driven, run by one attendant and showing high computational accuracy. The computational results were intended to be released by means of a typesetting machine. The analytical engine is a precursor of the modern computer.

Ada Augusta Lovelace (the daughter of the poet Byron), a very talented 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 been built, her program would have been able to calculate a numerical sequence known as the Bernoulli numbers.

Her documentary is considered the first computer program, and she is perceived as the first programmer. In 1979, the US Ministry of Defense named a programming language Ada, in her honor.

Shortly afterward, a satirical article by Tony Karp in the Datamation magazine described the Babbage programming language as the “language of the future”.

Other accomplishments

In 1824,Babbage won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society “for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables”.

From 1828 to 1839, Babbage was the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals as an editor, and was the main founder of the Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Statistical Society in 1834. Already at that time, he dreamed of designing mechanical calculating machines.


“.. I was sitting in the rooms of the Analytical Society, at Cambridge, my head leaning forward on the table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a table of logarithms lying open before me. Another member, coming into the room, and seeing me half asleep, called out, ‛Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?’ to which I replied ‛I am thinking that all these tables’ (pointing to the logarithms) ‛might be calculated by machinery’.”

In 1837, he published a book on applied technology, the Ninth Brodgewater Treatise. It incorporates extracts from correspondence he had been having with John Herschel on the subject.

In 1838, Babbage invented a piece of equipment for locomotives, called the cow-catcher. It constitutes a metal frame attached to the front of locomotives that clears the tracks of obstacles and is better known as the pilot. He constructed the dynamometer and also wrote several studies on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway in 1838. His elder son, Benjamin Herschel Babbage, worked as an engineer for Brunel’s Railway before he emigrated to Australia in 1850. Charles Babbage and Brunel are buried at the London cemetery (London’s Kensal Green Cemetery).

Babbage is also credited with the establishment of the modern postal system in England, the creation of the first reliable statistical tables and the invention of the standard railroad gauge, the ophthalmoscope and occulting lights for lighthouses.

Babbage once counted all the broken panes of glass in a factory, publishing in 1857 a Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows: 14 out of 464 were caused by “drunken men, women, or boys”. He tallied up 165 “nuisances” in a period of 80 days. He especially hated street music. Babbage was obsessed with fire, once baking himself in an oven at 265°F (130°C) for four minutes “without any great discomfort” to “see what would happen”.

“On two occasions I have been asked (by members of the Upper and Lower House),— ‛Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”