Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage (December 26 1791October 18 1871) was an English mathematician, analytical philosopher and (proto-) computer scientist who originated the idea of a programmable computer. Parts of his uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum. In 1991, working from Babbage's original plans, a Difference Engine was completed, and functioned perfectly. It was built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, indicating that Babbage's machine would have worked.



Charles was born in London on December 26, 1791, probably at 44 Crosby Row, Walworth Road, London. Charles' father, Benjamin Babbage was a banking partner of the Praeds who owned the Bitton Estate in Teignmouth. His mother was Betsy Plumleigh Babbage. In 1808 the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth, and Charles' father became a warden of the nearby St. Michael?s Church.


His father's money allowed Charles to receive instruction from several schools and tutors during the course of his elementary education. Around age eight he was sent to a country school to recover from a life-threatening fever. His parents ordered that his "brain was not to be taxed too much" and Babbage felt that "this great idleness may have led to some of my childish reasonings." He was sent to King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South Devon, a thriving comprehensive school still extant today, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a time. He then joined a 30-student academy under Reverend Stephen Freeman. The academy had a well-stocked library that prompted Charles' love of mathematics. He studied with two more private tutors after leaving the academy. Of the first, a clergyman near Cambridge, Charles said, "I fear I did not derive from it all the advantages that I might have done." The second was an Oxford tutor from whom Charles learned enough of the Classics to be accepted to Cambridge.

Charles arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1810. He had read extensively in Leibniz, Lagrange, Simpson, and Lacroix and was seriously disappointed in the mathematical instruction available at Cambridge. In response, he, John Herschel, George Peacock, and several other friends formed the Analytical Society.

In 1812 Charles transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the top mathematician at Peterhouse, but failed to graduate with honors. He instead received an honorary degree without examination in 1814.


On July 25, 1814, he married Georgiana Whitmore at St. Michael's Church in Teignmouth, Devon. Charles' father did not approve of the marriage. The couple lived happily at 5 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London. They had eight children, but only three lived to adulthood. Charles' father, his wife Georgiana Babbage, and one son died in 1827.


Design of computers

In recognition of the high error rate in the calculation of mathematical tables, Babbage sought to find a method by which they could be calculated mechanically, removing human sources of error. This idea may have come to him as early as 1812. Three different factors seem to have influenced him: a dislike of untidiness; his experience working on logarithmic tables; and existing work on calculating machines carried out by Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz. He first discussed the principles of a calculating engine in a letter to Sir Humphrey Davy in 1822.

Missing image
Part of Babbage's Difference engine, assembled after his death by Babbage's son, using parts found in his laboratory.

Difference engine

(See also Difference Engine)

Babbage presented a model of what he called a Difference Engine to the Royal Astronomical Society on June 14, 1822 and in a paper entitled "Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables."[1] ( It calculated polynomials using a numerical method called the differences method. The Society approved the idea, prompting the government to grant ?1500 for its construction in 1823.

Babbage converted one of the rooms in his home to a workshop and hired Joseph Clement to oversee the construction of the engine. Every part had to be formed by hand using custom machine tools, many of which Babbage himself designed. He took extensive tours of the industry to better understand manufacturing processes. Based on these trips and his experience with the Difference Engine, Babbage published On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacture[2] ( in 1832. It was the first publication on what we would now call operations research.

The death of Georgiana, Babbage's father, and an infant son interrupted construction in 1827. Work had already taxed Babbage heavily and he was on the edge of a breakdown. John Herschel and several other friends convinced Charles to take a trip to Europe to recuperate. He passed through Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy visiting universities and manufacturing facilities. In Italy he learned he had been named the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He initially wanted to turn down the position but several friends convinced him to accept.

He moved to 1 Dorset Street upon returning to England in 1828.

The engine had come under fire during Charles' absence. Rumors had spread that Charles had wasted the government's money; that the engine did not work; and that it had no practical value if it did. John Herschel and the Royal Society publicly defended the engine. The government continued its support, advancing ?1500 on April 29, 1829, ?3000 on December 3, and ?3000 on February 24, 1830. Work continued, but Charles would have continual difficulty getting money from the treasury.

Charles' problems with the treasury coincided with numerous disagreements with Clement. Babbage had built a two-storey, 50 foot long workshop behind his house. It had a glass roof for lighting, and a fireproof, dust-free room to contain the engine. Clement refused to move his operations to the new workshop and demanded more money for the difficulty of traveling across town to oversee construction. In response, Babbage suggested that Clement draw his pay directly from the treasury. Before then, Babbage would get money from the government that he would use to pay Clement. He often had to pay Clement out of his own pocket when the bureaucracy lagged behind Clement's pay schedule. Clement refused the request and stopped working.

Clement further refused to turn over the drawings and tools used to build the engine. After an investment of ?23000, including ?6000 of Babbage's own money, work on the unfinished Difference Engine ceased in 1834. Charles wrote, "The drawings and parts of the Engine are at length in a place of safety—I am almost worn out with disgust and annoyance at the whole affair." In 1842 the government officially abandoned the project.

Analytical engine

(see also: Analytical Engine)

While he was unwillingly separated from the Difference Engine, Babbage began to think about an improved calculating engine. Between 1833 and 1842 he tried to build a machine that would be programmable to do any kind of calculation, not just ones relating to polynomial equations. The first breakthrough came when he redirected the machine's output to the input for further equations. He described this as the machine "eating its own tail". It did not take much longer for him to define the main points of his Analytical Engine.

The mature Analytical Engine used punched cards adapted from the Jacquard loom to specify input and the calculations to perform. The engine consisted of two parts: the mill and the store. The mill, analogous to a modern computer's CPU, executed the operations on values retrieved from the store, which we would consider memory. It was the world's first general-purpose computer.

A design for this emerged by 1835. The scale of the work was truly incredible. Babbage and a handful of assistants created 500 large design drawings, 1000 sheets of mechanical notation, and 7000 sheets of scribbles. The completed mill would measure 15 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The 100 digit store would stretch to 25 feet long. Babbage constructed only small test parts for his new engine; a full engine was never completed. In 1842, following repeated failures to obtain funding from the First Lord of the Treasury, Babbage approached Sir Robert Peel for funding. Peel refused and offered Babbage a knighthood instead. Babbage refused. He would continue modifying and improving the design for many years to come.

In October 1842, Federico Luigi, Conte Menabrea, an Italian general and mathematician, published a paper on the Analytical Engine. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, a longtime friend of Babbage, translated the paper into English. Charles suggested that she add notes to accompany the paper. In a series of letters between 1842 and 1843, the pair collaborated on seven notes, the combined length of which was three times longer than the actual paper. In one note Ada prepared a table of execution for a program that Babbage wrote to calculate the Bernoulli numbers. In another, she wrote about a generalized algebra engine that could perform operations on symbols as well as numbers. She was perhaps the first to grasp the more general goals of Babbage's machine, and some consider her the world's first computer programmer. She began work on a book describing the Analytical Engine in more detail, but it was never finished.

Second difference engine

Between October 1846 and March 1849 Babbage started designing a second Difference Engine using knowledge gained from the Analytical Engine. It used only about 8000 parts, three times fewer than the first. It measured 11 feet long, 7 feet high and 18 inches deep. It was a marvel of mechanical engineering. Unlike the Analytical Engine that he continually tweaked and modified, he did not try to improve the second Difference Engine after completing the initial design. The 24 schematics remained in the Science Museum archives until a full-size replica was built in 1991 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Babbage?s birth.[3] (

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 Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Statistical Society in 1834.

In 1837, responding to the official eight Bridgewater Treatises "On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation", he published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise putting forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator, making laws (or programs) which then produced species at the appropriate times, rather than continually interfering with ad hoc miracles each time a new species was required. The book incorporated extracts from correspondence he had been having with John Herschel on the subject.

Charles Babbage also achieved notable results in cryptography. He broke Vigen貥's autokey cipher as well as the much weaker cipher that is called Vigen貥 cipher today. The autokey cipher was generally called "the undecipherable cipher", though owing to popular confusion, many thought that the weaker polyalphabetic cipher was the "undecipherable" one. Babbage's discovery was used to aid English military campaigns, and was not published until several years later; as a result credit for the development was instead given to Friedrich Kasiski, who made the same discovery some years after Babbage.

Babbage also invented the pilot (also called a cow-catcher), the metal frame attached to the front of locomotives that clears the tracks of obstacles in 1838. He also performed several studies on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway.

He only once endeavored to enter public life, when, in 1832, he stood unsuccessfully for the borough of Finsbury. He came in last in the polls.


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