Oil painting of Charles Babbage


Charles Babbage was born in Walworth, Surrey, on 26 December 1791. He was one of four children born to the banker Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Teape. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge in 1810, graduated from Peterhouse in 1814 and received an MA in 1817. He resided at Devonshire Street in London until 1828 when he moved to 1 Dorset Street, Manchester Square, London, where he resided until his death. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1816 and occupied the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge University from 1828 to 1839.

Between 1813 and 1868, Babbage published six full length works and nearly ninety papers. Babbage’s talents and interests were wide-ranging. He was a prolific inventor, a mathematician, scientist, politician, critic of the scientific establishment and political economist. Babbage pioneered lighthouse signalling, proposed ‘black box’ recorders for monitoring the conditions preceding railway catastrophes, advocated decimal currency and the use of tidal power once coal reserves were exhausted. He favoured and campaigned for the introduction of Continental theories to the mathematics curriculum and highlighted the neglect of science and the status of scientists.

Babbage’s reputation as a computer pioneer rests on his work on automatic calculating engines. His engines were of two kinds: Difference Engines and Analytical Engines. By previous standards these engines were monumental in conception, size and complexity.

In 1821, Babbage began the task of mechanising the production of tables. The idea was that a calculating machine that could not only calculate without error but automatically print the results would eliminate at a stroke all three sources of errors in printed tables. Babbage designed an apparatus called a Difference Engine so-called because of the mathematical principle on which it was based – the method of finite differences.

By the end of 1834, while Difference Engine No. 1 was still incomplete, he had conceived the Analytical Engine – a revolutionary machine on which his fame as a computer pioneer now largely rests. The Analytical Engine is far more ambitious and technically demanding than his earlier Difference Engine. Like the Difference Engine little of it was ever built and all that survives are a few partially completed mechanical assemblies and test models of small working sections.

The ground-breaking work on the Analytical Engine was largely complete by 1840. Seven years later he started the design of Difference Engine No. 2 using elegant and simplified techniques developed for the more complex Analytical Engine.

Babbage failed to complete the construction of any of his engines. His failures were not failures of principle but of practical accomplishment. However, the legend of his work if not its technical detail remained part of the folklore amongst those who pursued the ideal of automated calculation after his death.