Charles Babbage


Early Years

Charles Babbage was born near London, England in the town of Walworth on December 26, 1792. (There is a discrepancy that states the year of his birth as that of 1791 however a birth certificate was located that pinpointed it to 1792.)  His father, Benjamin Babbage Jr., was of no simple means as he was a banker and a merchant. Charles was one of four children.  Although not much is known of his mother Elizabeth; it is believed she reveled in doing for her young son. Charles’s mother always sought to do for the young man.

Young Babbage was considered a rather sickly child; dealing with health issues constantly. Because this did not lend itself to being allowed to play outdoors often; Charles made use of his time in other pursuits. The boy had an immense appreciation for trying to understand how things worked. Often he would ask his parents for a toy and then make query as to what was inside the mechanism. To satisfy his curiosity, young Babbage would merely open up the toy and take pains to figure out the workings.

The boy also loved studying numbers and mathematics. During the time of his education, Charles made way to learn the study of algebra. This he would do of his own accord as his passion would surpass that of his instructors.

Because the Babbage family was well-off financially, Charles’s early education was completed at home by way of tutors. Although there was a time that the young man would school away from home; he would still have the benefit of private tutors. His education would occupy a considerable amount of these years because Charles did not enjoy idle time. He loved to learn and much of that was in the world of mathematics. What his instructors could not impart to his curriculum, Charles would make every effort to learn for himself.

At the age of 19, Charles Babbage made application and was accepted into Trinity College at Cambridge University. The thing that disturbed Charles, like many of his high intellect, was the incapacity of instructors to teach mathematics at the level he believed they should. He believed that his knowledge of the discipline far surpassed what they knew, thus he was frustrated.

It would be easier to look at the words of Babbage himself when it came to the education in regards to mathematics at Cambridge, in his book C Babbage, “Passages from the Life of a Philosopher”.

Thus it happened that when I went to Cambridge I could work out such questions as the very moderate amount of mathematics which I then possessed admitted, with equal facility, in the dots of Newton, the d’s of Leibniz, or the dashes of Lagrange. I thus acquired a distaste for the routine of the studies of the place, and devoured the papers of Euler and other mathematicians scattered through innumerable volumes of the academies of St Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris, which the libraries I had recourse to contained.

In response to his dissatisfaction, young Babbage helped create an organization (Analytical Society). This group was made of individuals, like George Peacock, that had similar frustrations and sought to further pursuit of studying mathematics. Some believed the society was an attempt to lessen the effectiveness of the Royal Society; which was comprised of scholars such as Sir Isaac Newton. Build on the areas of mathematics Babbage

One of the major effects of establishing the Analytic Society was to encourage his young peers to join him in creating publications that would give deeper meaning to mathematics and to expose works they felt were below par. Their first publication was entitled, Memoirs of the Analytical Society in 1813. The treatise looked a controversy centered around calculus that involved Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz. Each of the famous mathematicians had built their respective views of calculus and the history of it. Since their views differed considerably, each had notable experts siding with their conclusions.

Charles Babbage and his society members penned the work to draw on Newton’s perspective. In the work they write, “It is a lamentable consideration, that that discovery which has most of any done honor to the genius of man, should nevertheless bring with it a train of reflections so little to the credit of his heart”. Babbage understood more anyone that a man’s legacy should stand up with integrity in accuracy and completion. As it turned out, Liebniz’s side became the hallmark of calculus that is used today.

Computation Machines                      

During this period of his university years at Cambridge, Charles Babbage was consumed with the idea of machines again; similar to his childhood where he sought to understand the workings of things. In this setting, young Charles sought to figure a way of handling computations by use of a machine. What he found was that those that did exist were inaccurate and he needed to know a better way. His fascination with logarithms aided in his pursuit.

Three reasons why he pursued a better machine:
  • He understood logarithms.
  • Had disdain for any form of inadequacies with machines.
  • The calculation machines of Blaise Pascal and Schickard impressed him immensely.

By 1814, Babbage graduated from Peterhouse, a sister college to that of Cambridge, after having left Cambridge a couple years prior. His graduation was not one of high honors. He did so by not having to take any form of examination.

That same year Babbage entered into matrimony with Georgiana Whitmore. The new Mrs. Babbage came from a wealthy family in Shropshire. Charles’s father did not have any ill-will towards his son’s bride, but he did have issue with Chares marrying so early in life. He felt his son should establish himself in his calling before entertaining thoughts of matrimony. This would cause some estrangement between Charles and his father.

They set-up residence in London where together they would have eight children. Unfortunately, only three of the Babbage children would live to see their adult years. This was a sad aspect of Charles’s life.

At this period of his life, Charles Babbage published two works in 1815 and 1816. By 1815, Charles is also inducted into the Royal Society of London. Charles continues to write during this period of his life. Much of his written work is considered to be either trivial or incorrect.

Babbage does not forget his love of mechanics and is during this time working more focused on his concept. Around 1819, Charles Babbage is pursuing an interest in instruments that dealt with astronomy. He is working on an idea to develop methods of differences. Machines that figured by addition were already in use. Babbage moved forward to develop a difference machine and it was completed in 1822. He announced the completion of theinvention in a paper that he would read to Royal Astronomical Society. Although not perfect because a person still had to write out final answers from the machine, it was a step forward.

Charles Babbage continues his interest in counting machines by visiting with scientists in France. He wants to pick the brain of experts in closely associated fields; such as Baron Gaspard de Prony. The baron is involved in using calculating tables. It is believed his conversations with de Prony advanced his work with the difference machine.

In spite of his disdain for the Society, Babbage joins another Royal Society this time the on in Edinburgh. He then, with help of others, sets up a society. The Royal Astronomical Society is formed and he serves on its board for a number of years.

The Royal Astronomical Society honors Babbage for his work in developing the difference machine. The prize is a gold medal that he receives in July of 1823. But he does not want to stop at the smaller version. Babbage is inclined to want to develop a bigger difference machine; but he lacks the funds to do so. The Royal Society adds to the support for Babbage’s bigger design by stating this to the government in seeking public monies, “Mr. Babbage has displayed great talent and ingenuity in the construction of his machine for computation, which the committee thanks fully adequate to the attainment of the objects proposed by the inventory…”. They praise Babbage further by asking for the grant.

By 1827, Babbage does make it into a position as a professor at Cambridge. He is a Professor of Mathematics; yet he will not spend anytime in the classroom while in this position. He is deeply involved in trying to put together a prototype of a working mechanical computer. He is also involved in experimenting with magnetism, along with a fellow associate.

The same year of 1827 brings additional tragedies to his life. His beloved wife Georgianna and a couple of his children all pass away. On top of that his father also is taken away into death. The monies he did receive for the larger machine were spent and cost overruns for its creation were becoming immense. Because his own health was in jeopardy at this low-point in his life; Babbage took time to travel as a sabbatical.

The intent for the larger computation machine was improve the de Prony tables. The idea of being able to print out the results was being sought as well. With him taking time off because of expenses and health reasons, he returned near 1829 to seek more funds for the work to begin again. Members of the government visited Charles Babbage and his uncompleted work to find out for themselves whether they believed in pursuing the project. It was agreed that they would administer another round of funding for the machine completion.

As Charles Babbage continued to move forward with the design of the computation machine; he noticed that the study of science and math seemed to be on a decline in his home country. He detailed his concerns in a piece in 1830 entitled, “Reflections on the Decline of Science in England”. The book was radical to many in England but it was also hitting a chord of agreement with many others. The writing was so relevant to the need for change that the British Association for the Advancement of Science was created in 1831.

He also penned a second work that detailed the need for more than thinking in regards to the sciences; there had to be application as well. His work, “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” brought this point home to many.

The cost for his continued work hit a brick wall again by 1834. Cost overruns again was the telling point as the machine still had not been built and design plans still did not hit the right path for success. Even though he appealed again to the British government for help; it would be eight years before any decision came forward as to continuing or not. When an answer did reach Babbage it was not one he wanted to hear…the answer was no. With a change in government leadership, the mindset was that they did not fully appreciate the possibilities for a better computation machine. During the eight-year wait, Babbage suffered disdain from many that thought his work was not worth pursuing.

Charles Babbage continued to do what he could in regards to his computation machine. In 1840 he visited Turin to share his plans and designs with a famous mathematician. He also would continue speaking on the subject. His hope was that by 1864 a working model of his computation would see the light of day.

End of Life

On October 18, 1871, Charles Babbage passed away. Although he never did see a working model of his sought after computation machine; Babbage’s design is considered to be a for-runner to the modern computer. His design incorporated facets that would correspond to a CPU, printing capability with computer cards as examples.

Near the end of his life, it is said that Babbage corresponded with famed poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. One particular poem referred to the idea that with everyday a man dies, so another is born. Babbage articulated to Tennyson that to be accurate he would have to say that with every man dies; 1 1/6 of a person dies. The mathematician was one in the philosophies of life.


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