Print this page

Sources returnpage

Babbage, Charles

Category: Genius

Charles Babbage, FRS (1791 – 1871) was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, who is remembered now for inventing the concept of a programmable computer.  In effect he is the inventor of the first computer. While Babbage's machines were mechanical and unwieldy, their basic architecture was similar to a modern computer. The data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction-based, the control unit could make conditional jumps, and the machine had a separate I/O unit.  Babbage's computer even had a printer.

In Babbage's time, printed mathematical tables were essential to navigation, science and engineering, as well as mathematics. But they were often full of mistakes caused by both transcription and calculation.

In 1812 he was sitting in his rooms in the Analytical Society looking at a table of logarithms, which he knew to be full of mistakes, when the idea occurred to him of computing all tabular functions by machinery. The French government had produced several tables by a new method. Three or four of their mathematicians decided how to compute the tables, half a dozen more broke down the operations into simple stages, and the work itself, which was restricted to addition and subtraction, was done by eighty 'computers' [people]who knew only these two arithmetical processes. Here, for the first time, mass production was applied to arithmetic, and Babbage was seized by the idea that the labours of the unskilled computers could be taken over completely by machinery which would be quicker and more reliable.

Babbage began in 1822 with what he called the difference engine. After a number of designs and problems with machine tools, production and costs, Babbage was forced to abandon this version of the computer.  In 1991, however, a perfectly functioning 'difference engine' was constructed from Babbage's original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage's machine would have worked. Nine years later, the Science Museum completed the printer Babbage had designed for the 'difference engine'.

After the attempt at making the difference engine fell through, Babbage worked to design a more complex machine called the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine marks the transition from mechanized arithmetic to fully-fledged general purpose computation. He worked on various versions until his death in 1871.

The major innovation was that the Analytical Engine could be programmed using punched cards. The machine was also intended to employ several features subsequently used in modern computers, including sequential control, branching and looping. Ada Lovelace [Lord Byron's daughter] was the first programmer.  A program language – Ada- is named in her honour.  She is credited with developing an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

In 2011, researchers in Britain embarked on a multimillion-pound project,  to construct Babbage's Analytical Engine. It is likely to have the equivalent of 675 bytes of memory, and run at a clock speed of about 7 Hz. They hope to complete it by the 150th anniversary of Babbage's death, in 2021.

We should not end the story here, as Babbage was an inventor of many other things – the central heating system in his house, a stethoscope, a 'cow catcher' for trains plus many other odd inventions. There is a very interesting link between Babbage and Turing, another genius who based his efforts on computing machines.  Babbage achieved notable results in cryptography. During the Crimean War of the 1850s, Babbage broke Vigenère's autokey cipher.  Babbage's discovery was kept as a military secret, and he was never credited with this achievement.

Babbage also wrote On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers (1832), on the organisation of industrial production, which was an influential early work on operational research, which in my day was considered a branch of computing with its own languages [queuing theory etc].  Interestingly Babbage's conclusions were largely a result of actual observations in factories, British and abroad. So he stands scientifically alongside Darwin and Kepler in using observations and subsequent 'bottom up' analysis and pattern matching to drive theories.  The first operational researcher and possibly the first systems analyst.  The book also contained ideas on rational design in factories, and profit sharing - both quite radical ideas in their day.

Given this introduction, we might think that Babbage was a typical left brained academic.  But he was not.  He appears to have been a right brained spiritualist, with a genius in mathematics and a great interest in all things spiritual and 'supernatural'.  He was a member of The Ghost Club, concerned with investigating supernatural phenomena.  Furthermore his views of the spiritual world were such that his thesis at university  was considered 'blasphemous' in the preliminary public disputation; and he received a degree without examination. Babbage also tried to enter politics with the intention of, amongst other things, disestablishing the Church of England and opening up government to more people.

In 1837,  Babbage published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, under the title On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation. In this work Babbage supports the idea of a universe consisting of a spirit world of system, to all intents and purposes programs – mathematical instructions.  Furthermore there was a 'plan'.  This plan was ongoing and produced species and ideas at the appropriate times, in Vestiges the parallel with Babbage's computing machines is made explicit, and the idea of changes as functional changes – species are evolved through 'programming' – spiritual adaptation.

Where did Babbage get these ideas from?  The answer appears to be India.  Mary Everest Boole claims that Babbage was introduced to Indian thought in the 1820s by her uncle George Everest:

Some time about 1825, [Everest] came to England for two or three years, and made a fast and lifelong friendship with Herschel and with Babbage, who was then quite young. I would ask any fair-minded mathematician to read Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise and compare it with the works of his contemporaries in England; and then ask himself whence came the peculiar conception of the nature of miracle which underlies Babbage's ideas of Singular Points on Curves (Chap, viii) – from European Theology or Hindu Metaphysic? Oh! how the English clergy of that day hated Babbage's book!

What caused Babbage's inspiration and wisdom?  He may have suffered damage to his brain at birth, but clearly fortuitous damage.  Babbage spent a great deal of his time ill, which can indicate difficult births or premature births.  His health meant he was mostly taught by private tutors. Some of his oddities also point to an abnormal configuration of hardware!  He was something of an obsessive compulsive – just like Tesla - counting all the broken panes of glass in a factory, and publishing, in 1857, a "Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows": Of 464 broken panes, 14 were caused by "drunken men, women or boys".

There is sadly also a contribution from grief.  Charles and Georgiana [his wife] had eight children, but only four survived childhood. Charles' wife Georgiana died in  1827, the same year as his father, their second son (also named Charles) and their newborn son Alexander.

Babbage lived and worked for over 40 years at 1 Dorset Street, Marylebone, where he died, at the age of 79, on 18 October 1871.  According to Horsley, Babbage died "of renal inadequacy, secondary to cystitis".

Others appear to agree his brain was a dash unusual.  Half of Babbage's brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.  The other half  is on display in the Science Museum, London!


For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.