Charles Babbage‘s ideas for mechanical calculations and “thinking machines” anticipated the computer age by a hundred and fifty years. He is credited for inventing the first mechanical computer leading to more complicated designs.
Charles Babbage was born in south London on Boxing Day, December 26, 1791, the son of wealthy parents. Sadly, his relationship with his father was unhappy primarily due to his father’s temper. He married Georgina Whitmore and set up his own home in London.
Babbage the Young Inventor
A brilliant mathematician, he went to Cambridge at the age of 19. Likeable, talented and brilliant, he was easily recognized in London scientific circles, helping to found both the Royal Astronomical Society and the analytical Society to promote statistics and analytical calculus. He had all the backings of influential friends when he applied for government funding to build a full-size version of the Difference Engine after 1821. One of his good friends was the astronomer John Herschel.
The Difference Engine No. 1 was Babbage’s ambitious project. That time there was no calculator working that had any numbers bigger than four digits and he planned to build a machine that could handle fifty. He hired Joseph Clement, considered the best machinist in London that time. Each number in the Difference Engine was represented by a column of cogwheels, and each cogwheel was marked with digits from 0 to 9.
Slow Progress of Work and Babbage Difficult Times
After ten years of intense work, progress was slow and he had only a small section assembled. He had already put in a large amount of his own money, as well, the government was getting impatient with his project’s completion. When there was a dispute between Babbage and Clement over bills, the government decided to stop the funding.
Along with his work problems, his family life was just as tough. In 1827, hi father died, followed by his son and then his beloved wife, Georgina. On top, he had earned powerful enemies due to his open attack on the cliquey nature of the scientific establishment.
Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine
With all these problems compounded together, he decided to work on a new idea, the Analytical Engine. With the government still refusing to re-instate funding for his Difference Engine, Babbage turned to his inventive mind continuously, and also accepted invitations as consultant on other projects.
Ada Lovelace, Enchantress of Number
In 1843, it was with joy that Babbage accepted the 27 year old aristocrat Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, to be his assistant. He called her “Enchantress of Number.” Ada took over the publicizing of Babbage’s ideas and arranged for publication about the analytical Engine, to which she added extensive explanatory notes.
Sadly, Ada’s plans for Babbage tragically stopped when she died of cancer at the age of 36. Her publicizing of the Analytical Engine may have helped to an extent. By taking advantage of his Analytical Engine work, Babbage came up with a much simpler but more elegant design of the Difference Engine, called the Difference Engine No. 2, eventually the machine built from his plans by the Science Museum in 1991.
Babbage Final Years
Having amassed more enemies at this time, with his age taking up on him, Babbage was spent. In 1854, a Swedish printer, Georg Scheutz, brought to London a rough-and-ready difference engine he had developed himself, inspired by reading about Charles Babbage two decades earlier. Babbage welcomed him and even helped Scheutz promote his prototype. It was Scheutz who predicted that “Babbage will be known for what he is – a benefactor of mankind, and one among the noblest and most ingenious of the sons of England.” Seriously ill, he died on October 18, 1871.