Charles Babbage: Pioneer in the computer arena

This multifaceted polymath was the first to build a computing machine. His pioneering work led to the creation of a calculating machine. He also established the Astronomical Society.
A strong advocate of reforms in science, Charles Babbage published six full-length works and nearly ninety papers(Illustration: Rushikesh)
A strong advocate of reforms in science, Charles Babbage published six full-length works and nearly ninety papers(Illustration: Rushikesh)
Updated on Jun 29, 2020 11:30 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Born in England on December 26, 1791, Babbage was one of the four children of banker Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Teape.

As a child, Babbage struggled with illness due to which at the age of 8, he was sent to a country school to help him overcome a life-threatening fever.

He resumed school but later attended lessons imparted by tutors due to his continued challenges on the health front.

In 1810, he joined Trinity, Cambridge to study mathematics. Two years later, he was transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was the top mathematician but did not graduate with honours. Instead, he received a degree without an examination in 1814.

Career

Babbage applied for numerous posts, but met with little success.

In 1814, he married Georgiana Whitmore. He lectured on astronomy at the Royal Institution and in 1816, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1820, Babbage helped found the Astronomical Society and in 1824 was honoured with the Society’s gold medal “for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables.”

From 1828 to 1839, he held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Babbage’s machines

In 1819, Babbage began building the first small model of the calculating engine and completed it in 1822 (Difference Engine 0). The machine calculated and printed mathematical tables. It was called a ‘difference engine’ after the mathematical theory on which the machine’s operation was based.

The British government was interested in his machine and Babbage was paid £1,700 to begin work on a full-scale machine (Difference Engine No. 1) .

In 1832, a small working portion was built. However, work on the full-scale difference engine stopped in 1833. The government decided to stop funding the projects in 1842. Between 1846 and 1849, Babbage designed a new improved difference engine (Difference Engine No. 2).

His machines were the very first mechanical computers. The fact that they were not actually built was owing to the lack of funding. However, they were finally built between 1989 and 1991 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. Parts of Babbage’s incomplete mechanisms, that are displayed in the Science Museum, London, offer a glimpse into the polymath’s numerous extraordinary achievements.

Other works

His book titled On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures in 1832 was one of the earliest works on operational research.

The ‘Babbage principle’ supported the division of labour on the degree of skill. In 1838, he invented the pilot (also called a cow-catcher), the metal frame attached to the front of locomotives to clear obstacles from the tracks of obstacles.

Babbage also invented an ophthalmoscope, which is used in eye examinations. His other interests included lock picking, code breaking, chess, submarine propulsion and armaments. A strong advocate of reforms in science, he published six full-length works and nearly ninety papers. He died of renal complications aged 79.

Interesting Facts

When Charles Babbage enrolled at Cambridge, he considered the mathematics courses of his time boring because he had already learned everything that was being taught there. So he established the Analytical Society in 1812 that took a deeper look into mathematics. He drew up plans for the Analytical Engine, that is seen as the forerunner of the modern computer. However, it could not be completed.

A crater on the Moon and a locomotive bear the name of the great innovator. The Charles Babbage Institute is an information technology centre at the University of Minnesota. He helped establish England’s modern postal system and compiled the first reliable actuarial tables. He invented a version of the speedometer. In 1832, he contested the election for the borough of Finsbury but polled the least no. of votes.

Babbage’s mathematician friend Ada Lovelace made a programme for the former’s Analytical Engine. Her efforts were in vain since the machine itself did not become a reality in Babbage’s lifetime.

Source: Wikipedia, famousscientists.org, charlesbabbage.net, thefamouspeople.com

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022