Early Years of a Pioneer of the Computer
Charles Babbage was born in London, on December 26 in 1791, as one of four children born to a wealthy banker Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Teape. After attending Trinity, Cambridge, to study mathematics, he married Georgiana Whitmore against his father’s wishes. He had a happy life until tragedy struck in 1827 when his estranged father, his wife, a newborn son, and his young daughter he doted all died. Inconsolable Babbage immersed himself in work.
Charles Babbage’s Inventions
When science was not an established profession yet, Babbage worked prolifically. According to the Computer History Museum, he published six full-length works and nearly ninety papers between 1813 and 1868; pioneered lighthouse signaling; invented the ophthalmoscope; proposed ‘black box’ recorders for monitoring the conditions preceding railway catastrophes; advocated decimal currency; proposed the use of tidal power once coal reserves were exhausted; designed a cow-catcher for the front end of railway locomotives, failsafe quick release couplings for railway carriages, multi-colored theatre lighting, an altimeter, a seismic detector, a tugboat for winching vessels upstream, a ‘hydrofoil’ and an arcade game for members of the public to challenge in a game of tic-tac-toe. He was interested in chess, lock picking, ciphers, submarine propulsion, armaments, and diving bells.
Inventing the First Computer
Anyone with a need for calculation such as engineers, architects, mathematicians, astronomers, bankers, actuaries, insurance brokers, statisticians, navigators all relied on printed numerical tables. But there was a really high error rate in the calculation of numerical tables as printed tables were calculated, copied, checked and typeset by hand.
Babbage invented and designed mechanical calculating engines to avoid the risk of human error. Automatic calculation and other mathematical functions called polynomials have general application in mathematics and engineering. However, Babbage failed to build a machine despite huge government funding, a decade of design and development, and the best of British engineering.
The title of the first biography on his life was called ‘Irascible Genius: A Life of Charles Babbage, Inventor’ as the two characteristics of irascibility and genius were his defining features. He was intelligent, sharp, brilliant but at the same time, rude, sarcastic and a very difficult person to deal with. After losing his wife, he never remarried and died unacknowledged on October 18, 1871. Babbage famously said; “Another age must be the judge.”
It was only in the 1970s, computer engineers and pioneers discovered and studied Babbage’s work thoroughly and recognized the scale of his accomplishments.
The full-size Babbage Engine, or Difference Engine No. 2, was finally built at the Science Museum in London, for the first time in 2002. The Engine consists of 8,000 parts, weighs five tons and measures eleven feet long and seven feet high and works just as Babbage planned — the engine automatically calculates to 31 decimal places, tables of values for any seventh order polynomial, and prints the result to 30 places on a paper roll. A duplicate engine is on display and demonstrated at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.