Born in 1791, Charles Babbage was a mathematician, English polymath, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer. He was credited with introducing and inventing the concept of the digital programmable computer. He was also termed “father of the computer” by some and credited for inventing the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine.
Even though Babbage passed away before many of his designs could be successfully completed including the Analytical and Difference Engine but he continued to be a prominent personality throughout his life. Let’s take a deeper look at Charles Babbage’s profile and recall some of the most important inventions and contributions made by him.
Even though the birthplace of Babbage is disputed but according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he was born in London, England. Babbage was one amongst four children of Betsy Plumleigh Teape and Benjamin Babbage. At the age of eight, he encountered a life-threatening fever and was sent to a country school located in Alphington to recover.
At the time, Babbage was enrolled in a school but had to study under private tutors due to his health condition. Then, he joined the 30-student Holmwood Academy. Its library provoked the interest of Babbage in mathematics. Eventually, Babbage managed to be accepted by Cambridge, which officially marked his journey towards his future inventions and contributions.
Charles Babbage at the University of Cambridge
In 1810, Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was already quite well-versed with contemporary mathematics. As a result, he was disappointed to come across standard mathematical instruction offered by the university.
In 1812, Babbage along with George Peacock and John Herschel introduced the Analytical society. Apart from the Analytical society, Babbage was also a part of other societies such as The Ghost Club, committed to studying and discovering supernatural phenomena.
The same year, Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. Although he was the top mathematician there but failed to graduate with honors. Infact, in 1814, he received a degree without examinations. It is said that he defended a thesis that was termed blasphemous but it is not known whether this was the reason behind him not sitting in the examination.
By the time Babbage left Cambridge, he had developed quite a reputation of himself. He was known amongst the majority and even lectured at the Royal Institution in 1815 on astronomy. As a result, in 1816, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the meantime, he applied for different jobs and was not successful in receiving any offers. As a result, he had little to no career.
In 1816, he was a candidate for a teaching job at Haileybury College with the recommendations of John Playfair and James Ivory but lost to Henry Walter. Then, in 1819, Cabbage visited Paris and met the leading French physicists and mathematicians. Babbage after stepping out of Cambridge was trying out experiments and following his love for mathematics by being supported by his father.
It was primarily due to his father’s attitude towards his early marriage. Upon the passing of his father, Babbage inherited a large estate. This made him a wealthy independent individual. The same year, his wife passed away and he spent some time traveling. He visited Italy and met the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Leopold II.
In 1828, he visited Rome and upon hearing Herschel’s hiring as a professor at Cambridge relied on him to manage the difference engine project. Keeping in mind that Babbage had applied thrice for the same professor position earlier but failed each time.
Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society was formed in 1820 and Babbage played a huge role in its formation. The aim of society was to reduce astronomical calculations to a standard form and circulate data. In 1824, Babbage won a Gold Medal for inventing an engine that could calculate astronomical and mathematical tables.
In addition to Babbage working to reduce and overcome the errors, individuals like Dionysius Lardner also played a huge role in using mechanization to reduce the errors in tables. However, Babbage’s reason was a bit different. His origin or birth of the difference engine was a result of the Astronomical Society’s wish to improve The Nautical Almanac. Both Babbage and Herschel were asked to oversee a trial project and recalculate certain parts of the table. As a result, they found some discrepancies.
It was in 1821 or 1822 that Babbage came up with the idea of mechanical computation following the discovery of the discrepancies.
Babbage’s machines were amongst the first mechanical computers introduced at the time. The primary reason they were not completed while he was alive was funding along with personality clashes with the likes of George Biddell Airy.
As a result, Babbage suggested the creation of some steam-powered engines that received modest success. He had suggested that the calculations could be mechanized. Even though he received the government’s funding for complete ten years amounting to 17,000 pounds but eventually they lost confidence in him.
Background on Mathematical Tables
During Babbage’s time period, mathematical printed tables were produced by human-computer, in other words by hand. They played a huge role in science, navigation, and even mathematics. However, mistakes were a common occurrence during transcription as well as calculation.
It was at Cambridge that Babbage observed and realized the fallibility of the process and planned to introduce mechanization into its management. According to Babbage, his path towards mechanical computation is related to a particular occasion in 1812, where he found himself sitting in the Analytical Society Room looking at tables of logarithms. He knew that that the tables would be full of mistakes and it was then that the idea of using machinery to compute all tabular functions occurred.
At the time, the French government using a new method produced several tables while others worked on different areas of computing tables. Considering the limitations of the eighty computers that only knew addition and subtraction, Babbage was seized by the idea that machinery could completely take over the unskilled human computers by being quicker and more reliable.
Babbage began working on introducing his difference engine in 1822, which was intended to compute the values of polynomial functions. The machine was designed and programmed to automatically calculate a series of values. It was possible to avoid the need for division and multiplication using the method of finite differences.
To come up with a prototype, Babbage brought in Joseph Clement to implement the design. Considering the standards terms of business at the time, Clement could charge for the construction and also own them. However, both individuals fell out over costs in 1831.
Some prototype parts are displayed in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. This prototype would be transformed into the first “difference engine”. And while it remained unfinished, the finished portion is located at the Science Museum in London. The first difference engine would comprise of at least 25,000 parts, weighing fifteen tons. Babbage had received complete funding for the project but it still remained uncompleted.
As a result, he later came up with a detailed drawing of an updated version but failed to secure any funding from the British government. Finally, in 1989-1991, his design was finally constructed and the machine performed its first calculation at the Science Museum, London. It was able to generate results featuring 31 digits.
Soon after the attempt to design the world’s first difference engine fell through, Babbage shifted his attention to a much complex machine called the Analytical Engine. He hired C.G. Jarvis who had worked as a draughtsman for Clement. The invention of the Analytical Engine marked the transformation from mathematic arithmetic to general-purpose computation. It was the Analytical Machine on which Babbage’s reputation as a computer pioneer rests.
The biggest factor to consider was that the Analytical Machine was intended to be programmed using punched cards. It was planned that the machine would use the loops of Jacquard’s punched cards to control a mechanical control. Additionally, the machine was also planned to include features existing in modern computers such as branching, sequential control, and looping.
Ada Lovelace and Italian Followers
Ada Lovelace communicated and corresponded with Babbage while he was going through the development phase of the Analytical Engine. She was credited for developing an algorithm that would allow the machine to compute and calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. Although there is a lot of evidence in the form of Lovelace’s own handwriting but some experts still dispute to what extent did Lovelace owned the ideas.
At the time, even though programming had not been invented but was often described as the first computer programmer. She had supported the project by writing literature and translating it, describing the programming of the engine using punch cards.
Since Babbage’s plans were not completed, Britain researchers in 2011 initiated a multimillion-pound project to construct Babbage’s Analytical Engine. They hope to complete it in 2021, marking the 150th death anniversary of Babbage. Although Babbage was unlucky not to have witnessed the final designs even though he was continuously refining them but his ideas and contributions were recognized by many at the time.
Upon the completion of the Analytical Engine, many will remember Babbage as someone who was way ahead of his time and his machines could have made a huge difference had people continued to show confidence in him.