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Charles Babbage

1791 - 1871

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was a polymath, who is most famous for his development of mechanical computational machines.

  • Nationality
  • English

  • Subject
  • Computing

  • Fields
  • Hardware, programmable computing, invention, philosophy

  • Distinctions
  • Charles Babbage is often known as the 'Father of Computing'.

    There is a crater on the Moon named after him.

    His name is used for computing departments and institutes, a computing programme, as well as many other cultural contexts (computer games, shop names, and as an iconic figure in steampunk literature).

  • Posts
  • Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1828 - 1839.

  • Publications
  • On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 1832, proposing reform to the organisation of industrial production, and a schematic classification of machines. His book covers a broad range of topics, including his novel ideas on rational design and profit sharing.

    This book, translated into French and German, and other writings, made Babbage a leading thinker of the early industrialisation phase.

    On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation, 1837, a work of natural theology, in which he supports uniformitarianism, rejecting 'contrivance' in favour of natural law.

    '...whilst the testimony of Moses remains unimpeached, we may also be permitted to confide in the testimony of our senses.'

    On the Tables of Constants of Nature and Art, an 1832 paper, reprinted by the Smithsonian Institute in 1856, which specifies 19 categories of 'constants of nature', and a compilation of numerical information. Babbage lays out that the development of machine tools would ultimately depend on exact measurement. This was a pioneering work in the new field of metrology.

    Cypher Writing, 1855.

  • Theories
  • Babbage designed on paper an ambitious enhancement to his first machine, the 'Analytical Engine'. This was a computer which had logic gates, and would carry out flexible operations on algorithms, taking computers far beyond the hitherto number-crunching function.

    The Babbage Principle: commercial advantages from better division of labour. Human capital should be viewed in terms of time required to recoup training costs. Babbage influenced Karl Marx in his thinking about sources of productivity related to the division of labour with machinery.

    Babbage held the view that industrial society was the culmination of human development.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • First mechanical computer, the 'Difference Engine'.

Charles Babbage's difference engine worked by many columns of numbered cogs

His fame and success with his first machine, the 'Difference Engine', did not succeed in his gaining funding for the far more ambitious machine, the 'Analytical Engine'. This machine would have been able to run algorithms, the theory of which and first examples had been developed by Ada Lovelace.

After graduating in mathematics from Cambridge Babbage became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. Nonetheless, he failed to gain a permanent position. Babbage's early work was in electromagnetic theory, a field soon to be dominated by Michael Faraday.

Babbage was independently wealthy, and had a large family. He was very active in politics, proposing social, economic and institutional reforms. His range of personal contacts included the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1832.

Babbage's first contact with tables of data came from work on actuarial tables for an insurance firm. Babbage was involved in the foundation of the Astronomical Society in 1820. He became interested in the field of astronomical calculations, reducing them to a standard form. By 1824, he had created an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables. Babbage's focus was on the elimination of human error from tables by mechanised calculation.

Babbage was an inventor, creating the first ophthalmoscope (for eye examination), and innovations for the railways for Brunel. He invented techniques in the field of cryptogrpahy, applying modular arithmetic to keyword-based cyphers. He applied this technique to decipher coded messages during the Crimean War (1853 - 1856).

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