I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 70 books on history and various topics.
In life, we sometimes struggle with bringing a great idea to fruition. Maybe it is as simple as a small home project, or just possibly, it is something so grand that it would change the world. The Englishman Charles Babbage was a man who struggled as such, for his grand vision was to build a mechanical calculating machine to take the drudgery and error out of the mathematical calculations which were necessary to move Great Britain into an industrial economy. Though he worked much of his adult life to construct different versions of a calculating machine, he died without seeing the project through to completion. The ideas behind his calculating machines would be the precursor to the modern computer. Charles Babbage was just born a century too soon.
Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in London, England, into a wealthy family. Young Charles was educated at schools in London and by private tutors. He showed a strong aptitude for mathematics at an early age and read widely on the subject. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in the fall of 1810. Unhappy with the way mathematics was taught at Cambridge, Babbage and his fellow students, John Herschel, the son of the famed astronomer William Herschel, and George Peacock founded the Analytic Society in 1812. The organization emphasized the abstract nature of algebra and brought new developments in mathematics to England. He transferred to Peterhouse, part of the University of Cambridge, where he was a top student in mathematics, graduating in 1814.
While attending the university, he met his future wife, Georgiana. After the wedding, Charles proved not to be much of a family man. For the years the couple had together, Charles shut himself up in his study with his papers to avoid interruptions from his wife and children. The picture of their marriage as painted by personal letters that remain and Babbage’s memoirs show a marriage with little emotional attachment. The couple had eight children, with five having died in childhood. Georgiana died at the early age of 35, and after her death, Charles showed little signs of emotion, concentrating more intensely on his work, not even allowing himself to mention her name—seemingly out of fear of arousing painful emotions.
After graduation from Cambridge, he unsuccessfully sought different positions teaching mathematics. Babbage and his growing family were forced to live off his father’s wealth. In 1827 his father died, leaving him a wealthy man. This allowed him time and money to pursue his scientific interests. After several attempts, he was able to land the position once held by Sir Isaac Newton as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Though not an active teacher, he would research and write on various areas of mathematics and other areas until he left the position in 1839.
His work in the advancement of mathematics was recognized, and he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society in 1816. The well-regarded science association had the sanction of the British monarchy and could sway funding towards member’s projects.
In 1830, Babbage wrote a controversial book titled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, in which he denounced the state of education in England and the Royal Society as having grown docile while the world of science was advancing. He deplored the state of science in Britain in comparison to the advances being made in Europe at large. He campaigned unsuccessfully to have a man who was sympathetic to his cause take over the Royal Society as president.
Babbage worked in an area that we now call "operations research" and was an advocate of division of labor in factories to enhance productivity. This was the same idea that Henry Ford would make practical in the United States on assembly lines of the Model T automobile. Babbage helped improve the British postal system by pointing out that the cost of collecting and stamping a letter for various sums proportional to the distance the letter was to travel was inefficient. He managed to convince the British government to see his point of view, and in 1840 they established a modern postage system where each letter was charged a flat rate rather than a fee based on the distance traveled. This idea would eventually be adopted by postal systems all over the world.
An innovator at heart, Babbage developed the first reliable insurance actuarial tables. This allowed insurance companies to properly price insurance based on risk. He worked out the first speedometer and invented skeleton keys and the locomotive cowcatcher. In the field of medicine, he invented a device called the ophthalmoscope, with which the retina of the eye could be studied. He gave it to a physician friend of his for testing, but the friend didn’t follow through, and the device didn't come into wide usage. Four years later, the German physiologist and physicist Hermann Helmholtz invented a similar instrument and is now generally credited with the invention.
The Difference Engine
While still a student at Cambridge, Babbage had the inspiration to create a mechanical calculator to prepare accurate mathematical tables. In the early nineteenth century, the calculation of trigonometric and logarithmic functions was a very laborious task performed by humans and prone to error. British society depended on the mathematical tables for such professions as navigation, surveying, astronomy, and banking, all of which needed accurate figures derived from mathematical formulas. The tables, which were calculated by human “computers,” were full of errors, and he demonstrated that the government had mistakenly paid out annuities amounting to nearly three million pounds based on inaccurate tables.
Babbage set about to improve the trigonometric and logarithmic tables in what would become his life’s work. Early in his career, he began to speculate on the possibility of using machinery for the purpose of mathematical computation. This was not a new idea, as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz had developed simple calculating machines in the past. What Babbage envisioned, however, was far more complex and versatile—a thinking machine.
Babbage constructed a small model of his Difference Engine to test the practicality of the idea. The name of the machine stems from the fundamental method of calculation employed by the machine, the method of finite differences. The elegance of this method is that it uses only arithmetic addition and removes the need for multiplication and division, which are more difficult to implement mechanically. With encouraging results from his model, in 1823, he obtained government support for a design of the full-scale calculator called Difference Engine No. 1, which could calculate sums and differences to 20 decimal places. The treasury approved 1,500 pounds ($236,000 today) to be used for the Difference Engine. Soon into his work, he discovered the job would be much more difficult than he imagined. His design was correct, but the tools necessary to build the parts simply did not exist. Before he could build the Difference Engine, he would have to revolutionize the tool-making trade.
The full-scale design of the Difference Engine No. 1 would require as many as twenty-five thousand parts. The machine would be eight feet high and seven feet long, weigh 15 tons, and be driven by steam power. The expenditure of £17,500 ($2.39 million today), a very large sum of money at the time, by the British government over ten years brought on a growing political controversy. By the end of the project, it is estimated that Babbage had contributed over £6,000 ($820,000 today) of his own money to the failed project. By 1828, the work had come to a halt as Babbage quarreled with his partner, the engineer Joseph Clements, who was responsible for the construction of the Difference Engine. When the partnership fully unraveled, Clements took the parts and the tooling designs, refusing to return them. By this time, Babbage was already considering an advanced design, which he called the Analytical Engine. In the late 1840s, Babbage redesigned the Difference Engine using refinements developed during the work on the Analytical Engine. This refined version, Difference Engine No. 2, required four thousand parts and weighed less than three tons.
It would be over a century before the Difference Engine was completed. In 1989, the Science Museum in London constructed the Difference Engine using the nineteenth-century plans and manufacturing tolerances. Three years later, it performed its first calculation with results in 31 digits.
The Analytical Engine
Out of money and with time on his hands, Babbage laid down the plans for a more advanced machine in 1834, which was later called the Analytical Engine. This new design, unlike the earlier Difference Engine which had the purpose to perform calculations and print the results in a table, was effectively a programmable calculator that could take instructions fed into the machine using a series of punch cards. This design followed the scheme developed in France for Jacquard power looms. In the case of the loom, the input cards told the loom which pattern to make in the fabric—a flower, a geometric design, etc. The Analytical Engine was to be capable of printing out the results in a variety of forms and had many of the essential features found in modern digital computers. The Engine had a “store” where numbers and intermediate results could be held, and an area for arithmetic processing called the “mill.” It had the capability to perform the four basic arithmetic functions and could perform direct multiplication and division. It also had a variety of ways to output the results of the calculations.
When Babbage first started looking for funds for the Analytical Engine, he was astonished to find himself the object of criticism and ridicule. The Difference Engine had failed and fellow scientists, particularly his rivals, claimed the project was impossible. The government refused to provide money, but he did find some funding from private individuals, namely the Duke of Wellington. Babbage lacked the necessary money and technical skill to build the machine, however.
As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of science.
— Charles Babbage
Help came to Babbage from an unlikely source: Ada, Countess of Lovelace. Ada, daughter of poet and adventurer Lord Byron, had been educated in mathematics, and the two formed an interesting pair. Ada met Babbage at a party in 1833 when she was only seventeen, and she was entranced when Babbage demonstrated the small working section of the Engine to her. She continued her studies in mathematics as time allowed between marriage and motherhood. The Countess corrected a number of Babbage’s calculations and developed the first computer program for the analytical engine. Together they succeeded by 1840 in getting part of the Analytical Engine built. When their funding dried up completely, the pair devised a scheme for winning money by gambling on horse races, using their knowledge of probability to increase their odds of winning. This too failed, costing them more money.
In 1843, Ada published a translation in English of an article on the Analytical Engine by an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea, of which Ada added extensive notes to the translation—tripling the size of the original paper. In 1840, Babbage had traveled to Turin, Italy, to make a presentation on the Analytical Engine, complete with charts, drawings, models, and mechanical notations, to a group of Italian scientists. In attendance at Babbage’s lecture was the young Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea, who prepared from his notes an account of the principles of the Analytical Engine. The notes added by Ada to the translation included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operation for solving a particular mathematical problem. For this, Ada is often referred to as the first computer programmer.
With the untimely death of Ada from cancer in 1852, Babbage lost heart, and the Analytical Engine was destined for the scrap heap of history. Parts of the unfinished machine are preserved today in the Science Museum in London.
Charles Babbage Biography in English: "Father of Computer"
Final Days and Legacy
By the time of his death on October 18, 1871, Babbage was disheartened by his lack of success, and his public reputation was that of an eccentric who had wasted public money. Toward the end of his life, he wrote: "If unwarned by my example, any man shall undertake and shall succeed in really constructing an engine . . . upon difference principles or simpler means, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be fully able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the value of their results."
It would be a century later before the construction of computers using electrical (rather than mechanical) devices would come into practical use. The invention of the vacuum tube and the transistor allowed the computer to be built without the need for cumbersome and costly mechanical contraptions. A good analogy to Babbage’s vision would be with Leonard de Vinci and his sketches of a heavier-than-air flying machine. Leonardo’s vision was sound, but heavier-than-air flight would have to wait until the invention of the gasoline engine to provide sufficient power to propel the flying machine into the air. Though Babbage failed in his lifetime to see the mechanical calculator come to fruition, his work was vital as a first step in the advancement of the modern computer age. Perhaps the unfulfilled efforts of Charles Babbage can be summed up by the words of Robert F. Kennedy: "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
- Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. 2nd revised edition. Doubleday & Company. 1982.
- De la Bedoyere, Guy. The First Computers. World Almanac Library. 2006.
- Heydt, Bruce. “Charles Babbage.” British Heritage. Apr/May 1998. Vol. 19 Issue 4.
- Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
- Pearson, John. “Charles Babbage.” Great Lives from History: Scientists and Science, 2012, page 47.
- Turing, Dermot. The Story of Computing: From the Abacus to Artificial Intelligence. Sirius Publishing. 2018.
- Witzel, Morgen. “Charles Babbage: The man who saw the future.” European Business Forum. Summer 2007.
- “The Babbage Engine” http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/engines/ Accessed August 31, 2018.
© 2018 Doug West
J Zod from Nairobi on September 19, 2019:
Babbage made our modern lives easier through the invention of his Engines. Computers have made our lives easier and safer. It takes a very unreasonable man to stand by his invention while others ridicule him.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 18, 2019:
Babbage had the right idea about how to build a computer but didn't have the right technology (electronics) to make a fully functional machine. BTW - my first job out of college was that of a technical analyst. I did a ton of FORTRAN programming in that job. As you know, the FORTRAN language dates me.
J Zod from Nairobi on September 17, 2019:
As a computer programmer and user. I first learned of Babbage in highschool. I came to realize later of his contribution to the creation of modern computers. This is a very enlightening article on the life of the grandfather of computers.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 08, 2018:
It is good that the machine was completed to show how much Babbage has contributed to the modern computer. It is the assiduous commitment of people like him that development comes to fruition. May we have more like him.
L.M. Hosler on September 07, 2018:
This was quiet interesting. I had first heard of Babbage while taking some computer courses but I really didn't pay much attention. But I have been watching the series "Victoria" about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and both Babbage and Ada Lovelace are a small part of the series. The series shows this machine. Good article. I enjoyed reading it.