1791 - 1871)
Mathematician, philosopher and (proto-) computer scientist who
originated the idea of a programmable computer.
Bioraphy and Education
Charles Babbage was born in London Dec. 26, 1791, St. Stephan
day, in London. He was son of Benjamin Babbage, a banking
partner of the Praeds who owned the Bitton Estate in Teignmouth
and Betsy Plumleigh Babbage. It was about 1808 when the Babbage
family decided to move into the old Rowdens house, located in
East Teignmouth, and Benjamin Babbage became a warden of the
nearby church of St. Michael.
The father of Charles was a rich man, so it was possible for
Charles to receive instruction from several elite schools and
teachers during the course of his elementary education. He was
about eight when he had to move to a country school to recover
from a dangerous fever. His parents sentenced that his "brain
was not to be taxed too much"; Babbage wrote: "this great
idleness may have led to some of my childish reasonings."
Then, he joined King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South
Devon, a thriving comprehensive school that's still operative
today, but his fragile health status forced him back to private
teaching for a period. Then, he finally joined a 30-student
closed number academy managed by Reverend Stephen Freeman. The
academy had a big library, where Babbage used to study
mathematics by himself, and learned to love it. He had two more
personal tutors after leaving the academy. One was a clergyman
of Cambridge, and about him 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 teached Babbage the Classics,
so that he could be accepted to Cambridge.
Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1810.
He had a big culture - he knew Lagrange, Leibniz, Lacroix,
Simpson... and he was seriously disappointed about the math
programs available at Cambridge. So he, with J.Herschel,
G.Peacock, and other friends, decided to form the Analytical
When, in 1812, Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge, he
was the best mathematician; but he failed to graduate with
He received an honorary degree later, without even being
examinated, in 1814.
In 1814, Charles Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore at St.
Michael's Church in Teignmouth, Devon. His father, for some
reason, never gave his approvation. They lived in tranquility at
5 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London.
Only Three of their 8 children became adult.
Tragically, Charles' father, his wife and one of his sons all
died in 1827.
Design of computers
In Babbage's times there was a really high error rate in the
calculation of math tables, when Babbage planned to find a new
method that could be use to make it mechanically, removing the
human error factor. This idea started to tickle his brain very
early, in 1812.
Three different elements influenced him in this decision: he
disliked untidiness and unprecision; he was very able with
logarithmical tables; he was inspired from an existing work on
calculating machines produced by W. Schickard, B.Pascal, and G.
He discussed the main principles of a calculating engine in a
letter he wrote to Sir H. Davy in the early 1822.
Babbage presented something that he called "difference engine"
to the Royal Astronomical Society on Jun 14, 1822 and in a paper
entitled "Note on the application of machinery to the
computation of astronomical and mathematical tables."
It was able to calculate polynomials by using a numerical method
called the differences method.
The Society approved the idea, and the government granted him
?1500 to construct it, in 1823. Charles Babbage converted one of
the rooms in his home to a workshop and hired Joseph Clement to
oversee 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 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 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 Babbage to take a trip to Europe
to recuperate. He passed through the Netherlands, Belgium,
Germany, and Italy visiting universities and manufacturing
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 difference engine project had come under fire during
Babbage's absence. Rumours had spread that Babbage had wasted
the government's money; that the machine 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
Babbage would have continual difficulty getting money from the
Babbage's problems with the treasury coincided with numerous
disagreements with Clement. Babbage had built a two-story, 50
foot long workshop behind his house. It had a glass roof for
lighting, and a fireproof, dust-free room to contain the
machine. Clement refused to move his operations to the new
workshop and demanded more money for the difficulty of
travelling 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
Clement further refused to turn over the drawings and tools used
to build the difference engine. After an investment of ?23000,
including ?6000 of Babbage's own money, work on the unfinished
machine 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.
While he was 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
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
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. Lovelace 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
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 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. Babbage made no attempt to
actually construct the machine.
The 24 schematics remained in the Science Museum archives until
a full-size replica was built 1985-1991 to celebrate the 200th
anniversary of Babbage?s birth. It measured 11 feet long, 7 feet
high and 18 inches deep, and weighted 2.6 tonnes. The limits of
precision were restricted to those achievable by Babbage.
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
Charles Babbage also achieved notable results in cryptography.
He broke Vigen?re's autokey cipher as well as the much weaker
cipher that is called Vigen?re 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 endeavoured to enter public life, when, in 1832, he
stood unsuccessfully for the borough of Finsbury. He came in
last in the polls.
Parts of Babbage's uncompleted mechanisms are available for
visits in the London Science Museum. In 1991 a difference engine
was completed, starting from Babbage's original plans, and it
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This web page was last updated on:
08 December, 2008