Charles Babbage

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Babbage, Charles

(băb`ĭj), 1792–1871, English mathematician and inventor. He devoted most of his life and expended much of his private fortune and a government subsidy in an attempt to perfect a mechanical calculating machine that foreshadowed present-day machines. He was a founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He wrote Tables of Logarithms (1827) and an autobiography (1864).


See biographies by M. Moseley (1970) and D. Halacy (1970).

Charles Babbage


Charles Babbage

The british inventor known to some as the "Father of Computing" for his contributions to the basic design of the computer through his Analytical Engine. His previous Difference Engine was a special purpose device intended for the production of mathematical tables.

Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth, Devonshire UK. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1814 and graduated from Peterhouse. In 1817 he received an MA from Cambridge and in 1823 started work on the Difference Engine through funding from the British Government. In 1827 he published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000. In 1828 he was appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (though he never presented a lecture). In 1831 he founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1832 he published "Economy of Manufactures and Machinery". In 1833 he began work on the Analytical Engine. In 1834 he founded the Statistical Society of London. He died in 1871 in London.

Babbage also invented the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope. He also had an interest in cyphers and lock-picking.

[Adapted from the text by J. A. N. Lee, Copyright September 1994].

Babbage, as (necessarily) the first person to work with machines that can attack problems at arbitrary levels of abstraction, fell into a trap familiar to toolsmiths since, as described here by the English ethicist, Lord Moulton:

"One of the sad memories of my life is a visit to the celebrated mathematician and inventor, Mr Babbage. He was far advanced in age, but his mind was still as vigorous as ever. He took me through his work-rooms. In the first room I saw parts of the original Calculating Machine, which had been shown in an incomplete state many years before and had even been put to some use. I asked him about its present form. 'I have not finished it because in working at it I came on the idea of my Analytical Machine, which would do all that it was capable of doing and much more. Indeed, the idea was so much simpler that it would have taken more work to complete the Calculating Machine than to design and construct the other in its entirety, so I turned my attention to the Analytical Machine.'"

"After a few minutes' talk, we went into the next work-room, where he showed and explained to me the working of the elements of the Analytical Machine. I asked if I could see it. 'I have never completed it,' he said, 'because I hit upon an idea of doing the same thing by a different and far more effective method, and this rendered it useless to proceed on the old lines.' Then we went into the third room. There lay scattered bits of mechanism, but I saw no trace of any working machine. Very cautiously I approached the subject, and received the dreaded answer, 'It is not constructed yet, but I am working on it, and it will take less time to construct it altogether than it would have token to complete the Analytical Machine from the stage in which I left it.' I took leave of the old man with a heavy heart."

"When he died a few years later, not only had he constructed no machine, but the verdict of a jury of kind and sympathetic scientific men who were deputed to pronounce upon what he had left behind him, either in papers or in mechanism, was that everything was too incomplete of be capable of being put to any useful purpose."

[Lord Moulton, "The invention of algorithms, its genesis, and growth", in G. C. Knott, ed., "Napier tercentenary memorial volume" (London, 1915), p. 1-24; quoted in Charles Babbage "Passage from the Life of a Philosopher", Martin Campbell-Kelly, ed. (Rutgers U. Press and IEEE Press, 1994), p. 34].

Compare: uninteresting, Ninety-Ninety Rule.
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