Charles Babbage

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  Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Mary M. Root

babbage.JPG (75673 bytes)Charles Babbage was a prodigal mathematician, a social charmer, a renaissance personality, and a genius whose life-work predicated the modern computer.  Babbage's creations were the Difference engines, so called because they were designed to compute tables of numbers according to the method of finite differences, and the more complex Analytical Engines, which utilized the concern of feeding the results of calculations back into the beginning of subsequent calculations.  Today, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is acknowledged as the father of modern computers because he foresaw what its basic elements required:  storage, mill, control, input, output, decision-making, repetition and programs.  Unfortunately, the brilliant Analytical Engine was never completed, due to a breach of faith and money from the British government and a lack of precision milling in that period.

As a young man, Babbage worked with pure mathematics, haunting the London bookshops for works by Lacroix, Newton, Leibnitz, Woodhouse and Lagrange.  In time, the self-taught Babbage invented the calculus of functions which was developed on lines analogous to differential equations and difference equations.  His work with theory and notation showed clear insight, causing a modern-day biographer to lament:  "The mathematical world is the poorer through Babbage never having developed nor published the 'Philosophy of Analysis'...It is almost tragic to think that (he) spent most of his remaining fifty years trying to devise suitable machinery for his engines.  If he had developed the very fruitful ideas contained in the book....then it might well have been that mathematical philosophy, modern algebra, the theory of games and stochastic mathematics would have developed many decades before they actually did."1 

Grueling computations of logarithmic tables for the Cambridge Astronomical Society led Babbage to dream of a calculating engine.  The first was a difference engine, and work began in 1821.  By 1882 a model with six figure-wheels worked satisfactorily.  In order to eliminate careless errors that crept into the long-hand tables of the period, Babbage made plans for a 2-part machine to both calculate and print its results.  Through the Royal Society, government funds were obtained to develop a larger Engine, with its accompanying printer.  More plans were produced, a clever mechanical notation system was devised to label working parts, and work progressed for four years.  Then funds ran out, and a frustrating and ultimately fruitless battle with the government ensued.  The Difference Engine was technically successful, and the spin-off advancement in machine-tools and machining techniques was valuable, but the lack of funds sounded its death-knell.

The idea of the Analytical Engine arose from the facility of the difference engine to calculate series automatically if arranged mechanically in a suitable way.  Babbage decided to pursue this new idea and to finance the project himself.  In less than two years he had sketched out many of the prominent features of the modern computer.  Babbage's plans separated the storehouse holding the numbers from the mill which carried out the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, using numbers brought from the store.  The control of the sequence of operations was made possible by Jacquard's punch-card loom.  Babbage used his punched cards to introduce numerical values of constants, to define the axis on which the number was to be placed or transferred, and to control the numerical operation cards.  Each calculation would be performed by a string of punched cards in the correct order for the operations and the variables.  Moreover, Babbage envisioned a library of programs for "every set of cards once made will at any future time reproduce the calculations for which it was first arranged."2   Thus Babbage provided for all the basic computer functions in use today.

Babbage died in 1871, his Analytical Engine never completed.  The scholars of today recognize Babbage as a genius for his versatile achievements involving the Analytical Engine.  He conceived the idea, developed the concepts, elaborated the designs, invented a mechanical notation, and devised machinery and tools.  Charles Babbage was a brilliant pioneer in the history of computers.


1Dubby, John M. The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage, London 1978

2Ibid, page 200




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