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Fascinating facts about Charles Babbage inventor of the first mechanical computing machine in 1821.

Charles Babbage
AT A GLANCE:

Charles Babbage is often called the "father of computing" for his detailed plans for mechanical Calculating Engines, both the table-making Difference Engines (1821) and the far more ambitious Analytical Engines (1837), which were flexible and powerful, punched-card controlled general purpose calculators, embodying many features which later reappeared in the modern computer.
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Inventor: Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage image courtesy Charles Babbage Institute
Criteria: First to invent. Modern prototype.
Birth: December 26,1791 in London, England
Death: October 18,1871 in London, England
Nationality: British
Invention: mechanical computing machine
Difference Engine image courtesy Charles Babbage Institute
Function: noun / Difference Engine / Analytical Engine
Definition: The Difference Engine No. 1 and No. 2 were intended to compile and print mathematical tables. The Analytical Engine is intended to perform any mathematical task and to be programmed by punched cards.
Milestones:
1791 Charles Babbage was born December 26 in London, England
1811 entered Trinity College, Cambridge
1812 transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge
1814 received an honorary degree without examination from Peterhouse
1814 married Georgiana Whitmore, they had eight children, but only three lived to adulthood.
1816 elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and founded the Astronomical Society
1817 received MA from Cambridge
1820 founded the Analytical Society with John Herschel and George Peacock
1821 began work on the Difference Engine, intended to compile and print mathematical tables
1822 he first discussed the principles of a calculating engine in a letter to Sir Humphrey Davy
1827 published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000
1827 Babbage's father, his wife Georgiana Babbage, and one son all died
1828 appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge
1831 founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science
1832 a small portion of the Difference Engine, completed by Babbage's engineer, Joseph Clement
1832 the British government suspended funding for his Difference Engine
1832 published "Economy of Manufactures and Machinery"
1833 began work on the Analytical Engine, intended to perform any mathematical task
1833 Ada Augusta Lovelace begins documentation of Babbage's calculating machines
1834 founded the Statistical Society of London
1837 conceptual design for Analytical Engine completed
1842 begins work designing the Difference Engine No. 2
1842 "Sketch of the Analytical Engine" by Luigi F. Menabrea, published
1843 Luigi F. Menabrea paper is translated by Augusta Ada Lovelace and expands four fold
1843 In the "Notes", Ada described how the Analytical Engine could be programmed
1854 George Schertz, constructed a machine based on the designs for the Difference Engine
1856 design of the Analytical Engine completed, uses Jacquard's punch card idea for programming
1864 published "Passages from the Life of a Philosopher"
1871 Charles Babbage died October 18,1871 in London, England
1985 Science Museum of London launched a project to build a complete Babbage Engine
CAPs: Babbage, Charles Babbage, Calculating Engines, Difference Engine, Analytical Engine, Babbage Engine, John Herschel, George Peacock, Sir Humphrey Davy, Joseph Clement, Augusta Ada Lovelace, L. F. Menabrea, George Schertz, Joseph Jacquard, computer, mechanical computing machine, inventor, biography, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
STORY:
Charles Babbage is widely regarded as the first computer pioneer and the great ancestral figure in the history of computing. Babbage excelled in a variety of scientific and philosophical subjects though his present-day reputation rests largely on the invention and design of his vast mechanical calculating engines.

Charles Babbage was born in London on December 26, 1791, the son of Benjamin Babbage, a London banker. As a youth Babbage was his own instructor in algebra, of which he was passionately fond, and was well read in the continental mathematics of his day. Upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1811, he found himself far in advance of his tutors in mathematics. Babbage co-founded the Analytical Society for promoting continental mathematics and reforming the mathematics of Newton then taught at the university.

In his twenties Babbage worked as a mathematician, principally in the calculus of functions. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816 and played a prominent part in the foundation of the Astronomical Society (later Royal Astronomical Society) in 1820. It was about this time that Babbage first acquired the interest in calculating machinery that became his consuming passion for the remainder of his life.

In recognition of the high error rate in the calculation of mathematical tables, Babbage wanted to find a method by which they could be calculated mechanically, removing human sources of error. 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.

In the 1820s Babbage began developing his Difference Engine, a mechanical device that can perform simple mathematical calculations. Babbage started to build his Difference Engine, but was unable to complete it because of a lack of funding.

In the 1830s Babbage began developing his Analytical Engine, which was designed to carry out more complicated calculations, but this device was never built. Babbage's book Economy of Machines and Manufactures (1832) initiated the field of study known today as operational research.

Unfortunately, little remains of Babbage's prototype computing machines. Critical tolerances required by his machines exceeded the level of technology available at the time. And, though Babbage’s work was formally recognized by respected scientific institutions, the British government suspended funding for his Difference Engine in 1832.

In 1833 Ada Augusta Lovelace met Babbage and was fascinated with both him and his Engines. Later Ada became a competent student of mathematics, which was most unusual for a woman at the time. She translated a paper on Babbage's Engines by General Menabrea, later to be prime minister of the newly united Italy. Under Babbage's careful supervision Ada added extensive notes (c.f. Science and Reform, Selected Works of Charles Babbage, by Anthony Hyman) which constitute the best contemporary description of the Engines, and the best account we have of Babbage's views on the general powers of the Engines. It is often suggested that Ada was the world's first programmer. Ada Lovelace figures in the history of the Calculating Engines as Babbage's interpretress, his `fairy lady'. As such her achievement was remarkable.

There remain only fragments of Babbage's prototype Difference Engine, and though he devoted most of his time and large fortune towards construction of his Analytical Engine after 1856, he never succeeded in completing any of his several designs for it. George Scheutz, a Swedish printer, successfully constructed a machine based on the designs for Babbage's Difference Engine in 1854. This machine printed mathematical, astronomical and actuarial tables with unprecedented accuracy, and was used by the British and American governments. Though Babbage's work was continued by his son, Henry Prevost Babbage, after his death in 1871, the Analytical Engine was never successfully completed, and ran only a few "programs" with embarrassingly obvious errors.

Besides the Calculating Engines Babbage has an extraordinary range of achievements to his credit: he wrote a consumer guide to life assurance; pioneered lighthouse signaling; scattered technical ideas and inventions in magnificent profusion; developed mathematical code breaking.

Babbage was also an important political economist. Where Adam Smith thought agriculture was the foundation of a nation's wealth; where Ricardo's ideas were focused on corn: Babbage for the first time authoritatively placed the factory on centre stage. Babbage gave a highly original discussion of the division of labour, which was followed by John Stuart Mill. Babbage's discussion of the effect of the development of production technology on the size of factories was taken up by Marx, and was fundamental to Marxist theory of capitalist socio-economic development.

For twenty five years Charles Babbage was a leading figure in London society, and his glorious Saturday evening soirées, attended by two or three hundred people, were a meeting place for Europe's liberal intelligence.

Babbage's greatest achievement was his detailed plans for Calculating Engines, both the table-making Difference Engines and the far more ambitious Analytical Engines, which were flexible and powerful, punched-card controlled general purpose calculators, embodying many features which later reappeared in the modern stored program computer. These features included: punched card control; separate store and mill; a set of internal registers (the table axes); fast multiplier/divider; a range of peripherals; even array processing.

The calculating engines of Charles Babbage are among the most celebrated icons in the prehistory of computing. Babbage’s Difference Engine No.1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. Babbage is sometimes referred to as "father of computing." The Charles Babbage Foundation took his name to honor his intellectual contributions and their relation to modern computers.

Charles Babbage died at his home in London on October 18, 1871. Throughout his life Babbage worked in many intellectual fields typical of his day, and made contributions that would have assured his fame irrespective of the Difference and Analytical Engines.

Babbage's Difference Engine
Considered by many to be a direct forerunner of the modern computer, the Difference Engine was able to compute mathematical tables. Although the device did not have a memory, Babbage’s later idea for the Analytical Engine would have been a true, programmable computer if the technology of his time had been able to build it.

Charles Babbage's calculating engines are among the most celebrated icons in the prehistory of computing. His Difference Engine No. 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time.

A small portion was assembled in 1832 by Babbage's engineer, Joseph Clement. It consists of about 2000 parts and represents one-seventh of the complete engine. This 'finished portion of the unfinished engine' was demonstrated to some acclaim by Babbage, and functions impeccably to this day. The engine was never completed and most of the 12 000 parts manufactured were later melted for scrap. Parts of his uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum

It has often been asked whether Babbage's Engines would have worked if they had been built. This may not be an entirely meaningful question: much can go wrong during such a project, while on the other hand new solutions may be found to any problems which might appear during construction. However the question can be put slightly differently: would it have been technically feasible for, say, Babbage and Whitworth to construct an Analytical Engine during the 1850s?

In the late 20th Century, after a careful investigation, Anthony Hyman and the late Maurice Trask formed the opinion that construction of Babbage's Engines would have been quite possible. The problems were financial and organizational, but technically the project in itself was perfectly feasible. They proposed a plan. :first construct DE2 (the Second Difference Engine; then, if wished DE1, or a version of DE2 with `traveling platforms'; and finally a complete Analytical Engine, probably following plan 28A.

After much work by many people, and particularly by Dr. Allan Bromley, a team at the Science Museum led by Doron Swade built a complete version of DE2. In 1985, the Science Museum in London began construction of the Difference Engine No. 2 using Babbage's original designs. The calculating device was completed and working by 1991, just in time for the bicentennial of Babbage's birth.

The device consists of 4000 parts and weighs over three metric tons. The printer for the Difference Engine No. 2 was completed nine years later, in 2000. It has 4000 parts and weighs 2.5 metric tons. It was a triumphant success, vindicating Babbage's technical work. However, the far more ambitious task of constructing an Analytical Engine remains to be undertaken.

Babbage's Analytical Engine
His Analytical Engine conceived in 1834 is one of the startling intellectual feats of the nineteenth century. The design of this machine possesses all the essential logical features of the modern general purpose computer. However, there is no direct line of descent from Babbage’s work to the modern electronic computer invented by the pioneers of the electronic age in the late 1930s and early 1940s largely in ignorance of the detail of Babbage's work.

Babbage failed to build a complete machine. The most widely accepted reason for this failure is that Victorian mechanical engineering were not sufficiently developed to produce parts with sufficient precision.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Augusta Ada Lovelace Biography    from The Great Idea Finder
History of Computing    from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The History of Science and Technology
by Bryan Bunch, Alexander Hellemans / Hardcover: 768 pages / Houghton Mifflin Company; (2004)
Highly browsable yet richly detailed, expertly researched and indexed, The History of Science and Technology is the perfect desktop reference for both the science novice and the technologically advanced reader alike.
Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer
by Anthony Hyman / Paperback: 287 pages / Princeton University Press (January 1, 1985)
He was a man with a great deal of understanding of how English and western societies were changing and many of his fundamental ideas of computing were over a century ahead of his time. Given the enormous economic benefits of the computer, had all of his projects been funded to completion, England may have remained an industrial powerhouse well into the twentieth century.
Charles Babbage and the Engines of Perfection (Oxford Portraits in Science)
by Bruce Collier, James H. MacLachlan / Hardcover - 144 pages / Oxford Univ Press (Dec.1998)
Intertwining Babbage's personal life with his work as an inventor, this book tells the story of the mathematician's conception of and work on the first computers.
Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Late Charles Babbage, Esq. F.R.S.
by Anthony Hyman (Designer), H. W. Buxton / Hardcover - 401 pages / MIT Press (January 1988)
Written but never published during his lifetime, this memoir of the founding father of computing is an indispensable primary source of information about Babbage's personal character and work.
Glory and Failure:
The Difference Engines of Johann Muller, Charles Babbage, and Georg and Edvard Scheutz
by Michael Lindgren, Craig G. McKay (Translator) / Hardcover - 415 pages / MIT Press 2nd ed. (1990)
The story of Georg and Edvard Scheutz is a well written and entertaining scientific book. A young schoolboy, Edvard Scheutz, succeeds in his kitchen to construct a difference engine that works better then that of the famous Charles Babbage.
Engines of the Mind: The Evolution of the Computer from Mainframes to Microprocessors
by Joel N. Shurkin / Paperback: 363 pages / W. W. Norton & Company; Updated edition (Jan.1996)
Shurkin traces the history of the computer, starting with earlier groundbreaking advances in mechanics and mathematics and tracing the construction of the first computer at the University of Pennsylvania during WW II.
Mathmaticians are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians
by Luetta Reimer, Wilbert Reimer / Paperback: 152 pages / Dale Seymour Publications (June, 1993)
This Volume Two of two dramatizes the lives of Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein, Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and others. 15 illustrated vignettes per book introduce students to great mathematicians from various cultures.
The Difference Engine  (Limited Availability)
by Doron Swade, Charles Babbage / Hardcover: 352 pages / Viking Press (September 10, 2001)
The author is in a unique position to appreciate the technical difficulties of the time, as he led a team that built a working model of a Difference Engine, using contemporary materials, in time for Babbage's 1991 bicentenary.

ON THE SCREEN:
Computers
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
The incredible breakthroughs and refinements that have marked the development of the computer are so familiar that they have lost some of their power to amaze


ON THE WEB:

The Charles Babbage Institute
The Charles Babbage Institute of Computer History (CBI) is a research center at the University of Minnesota dedicated to promoting the study and preservation of the history of computing and information processing through historical research and archival activity.
Babbage's Calculating Engines 1832-1871
Charles Babbage's calculating engines are among the most celebrated icons in the prehistory of computing. His Difference Engine No. 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. The Science Museum of London has a working model of the Difference Engine Number 2 on display.
Science Museum - Charles Babbage
In 1985 the Science Museum launched a project to build a complete Babbage Engine to original designs to explore the practical viability of Babbage’s schemes.
Babbage, Charles
Reformer militant, mathematician, computer pioneer, economist, mechanical engineer, code-breaker, inventor, society figure, Site maintained by author Anthony Hyman.
The Analytical Engine
Charles Babbage's description, in 1837, of the Analytical Engine, a mechanical digital computer which, viewed with the benefit of a century and a half's hindsight, anticipated virtually every aspect of present-day computers.
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
Babbage Difference Engine 2 (1991)
By studying Babbage's original designs, engineers at the museum were able to build a complete calculating engine. It has 4,000 parts and weighs over 3 metric tons.
Babbage Printer Finally Runs (2000)
A computer printer that was originally designed more than 150 years ago has finally been built and will go on display at the Science Museum in London. Article by BBC News.
Babbage's Other Inventions
The cowcatcher, dynamometer, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, heliograph opthalmoscope. He also had an interest in cyphers and lock-picking. Article by J. A. N. Lee, September 1994
Charles Babbage
The construction of modern computers, logically similar to Babbage's design, have changed the whole of mathematics and it is even not an exaggeration to say that they have changed the whole world. Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland.
Babbage eBooks
Two of Charles Babbage's books have been made available at Project Gutenberg They are:On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (English) and Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (English).
Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine
The first device that might be considered to be a computer in the modern sense of the word was conceived by the eccentric British mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.
Charles Babbage Foundation
The Charles Babbage Foundation (CBF) is a nonprofit California corporation that provides financial and advisory support to organizations dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of the history of information technology.

WORDS OF WISDOM:
"One of Babbage's most serious flaws was his inability to stop tinkering. No sooner would he send a drawing to the machine shop than he would find a better way to perform the task and would order work stopped until he had finished pursuing the new line. By and large this flaw kept Babbage from ever finishing anything." - Joel Shurkin stated:in his book Engines of the Mind

HOW IT WORKS:
How the Analytical Engine works. This site is developed and maintained by John Walker, founder of Autodesk, Inc. and co-author of AutoCAD software.
In 1985 the Science Museum of London launched a project to build a complete Babbage Engine as originally designed, to explore the practical viability of Babbage’s schemes.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Around age eight Charles Babbage 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"
  • On the moon, there is a crater bearing Babbage's name.
  • The Charles Babbage Foundation is named in his honor in recognition of his intellectual contributions and their influence on the modern computing world.
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised May 4, 2006.
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