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Charles Babbage




Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth , Devon, the son of a banker. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. He was active in establishing the Analytical, the Royal Astronomical and the Statistical societies. In 1817 Babbage was awarded his MA.

Charles Babbage is mainly known as the inventor of a machine known as the Analytical Machine. This machine has been widely recognised as a major contribution to the basic design of the computers we have today. However Charles Babbage was a man of considerable intellect and was responsible for many inventions in his lifetime.



In 1822 he wrote to the President of the Royal Society setting down his plans for calculating and printing mathematical tables by machine.

In 1823 Babbage met the Chancellor of the Exchequer who awarded him funding of £1 500 to enable him to begin work on the Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was a mechanical device able to perform simple mathematical calculations.

Unfortunately, in 1827 Babbage's wife Georgiana died at the young age of 35. Following this, he travelled across Europe and did not return until the end of 1828. By this time Babbage's grant had run out so he was financing the project himself and needed to approach the Government once more for funding.

In 1829 some of Babbage's friends arranged for the Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, to see a model of the Difference Engine. Wellington must have been impressed with what he saw, as he awarded Babbage a further grant of £3 000. The engineer Joseph Clement was hired to construct the engine. However, Babbage was to come into serious conflict with Clement, when, in 1830 Clement refused to move the engine from his premises to Babbage's new workshop. Babbage accused Clement of making "inordinately extravagant demands" and refused to give Clement any more money. This resulted in Clement stopping work and dismissing his workers. Development of the Difference Engine ground to a halt.

In 1834 Babbage had devised another machine which he called the Analytical Machine. This was capable of carrying out any mathematical operation. However, he needed funding for this project and had to persuade the government to provide more money. Babbage argued that it was cheaper to develop a new engine with more capability, rather than complete the Difference Engine. Lord Melbourne who was the current Prime Minister and the Government could not see their way clear to funding a new machine until the old one was completed.

Undaunted, Babbage continued to press various Prime Ministers for the next eight years, for a decision as to whether he should continue with the Difference Engine or start work on the Analytical Engine. In November 1842 Babbage was finally told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there would be no funding and the project would have to be abandoned.

The Difference Engine was never completed and the Analytical Machine never started.



In 1826 he published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000.

In 1828 he was appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. As this was a post held previously by both Isaac Barrow and Isaac Newton, Babbage must have felt this was a great honour, especially as he did not have to deliver a single lecture!

In 1831 he founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1832 published "Economy of Manufactures and Machinery", this started an area of study known today as operational research.

In 1834 he founded the Statistical Society of London.

In 1864 he published passages from the Life of a Philosopher.

Babbage was also responsible for the invention of: the standard railroad gauge, the cowcatcher, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, the dynometer and the heliograph ophthalmoscope.



Babbage became increasingly bitter at the lack of funding for his Analytical Machine. Never a patient man and lacking political sensitivity and with a tendency to alienate people, he made many enemies. The Reverend Richard Sheepshanks a secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society and arch enemy of Babbage had attacked him on many occasions. He was to write in his "Letter to the Board of Visitors of the Greenwich Royal Observatory, " We got nothing for our £17 000 but Mr Babbage's grumblings". This was in response to a belief that Babbage had been rewarded for his time and labour with grants from the public purse. However, Robert Peel who was now the Prime Minister declared in Parliament that Charles Babbage "had derived no emolument whatsoever from the government". In recognition of his work Babbage was offered a baronetcy. He declined this, stating that he wanted a life peerage instead. This was refused and neither was granted.

When Charles Babbage died in 1871 he was virtually unknown. Only one carriage (that of the Duchess of Somerset) was in the funeral procession at Kensal Green Cemetery. The Times newspaper ridiculed him and the Royal Society did not publish an obituary.

An interesting postscript is that in 1991, British Scientists set out to reconstruct the Difference Engine from Babbage's detailed specifications. This Difference Engine a huge machine, works perfectly, calculating to a precision of 31 digits. It can be seen in the British Museum and proves the accuracy of Babbage's work.