Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Babbage, Charles - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Charles Babbage

computer engine society england



Although Charles Babbage never built an operational mechanical digital computer because of technology limitations, his design concepts conceived 150 years before the computer came into practical usage have been proven correct, and Babbage is regarded as the “father of the computer.” Babbage was an expert mathematician who was also a significant economic theorist and inventor. He invented many measuring tools and standardizing techniques, including the cow-catcher on trains, the lighthouse signaling device most commonly used, a mathematical means for code-breaking used by the British government, the dynamometer, and the ophthalmoscope.

Personal Life

Charles Babbage was born in a wealthy rural area of England known as Teignmouth, in Devon county, on December 26, 1792, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution era. He came from a family with a long heritage in England; he grew up as an aristocrat. His father, Benjamin Babbage, was a well-known banker.

Babbage grew up in a region of England that was economically based on agriculture, mining, and the seaport town of Dartmouth. After a comfortable childhood filled with curiosity about science, Babbage attended Cambridge College in England, where he excelled in mathematics. With friends at school he modified some aspects of calculus and transformed calculus throughout all of England. In 1817 he received his master of arts degree from Cambridge University.

Charles Babbage lived a life that earned him the title of eccentric. He was known as a cranky, rather continually distracted man “with a dirty collar.” He was extremely intelligent and lived much of his life pursuing his curiosities in uncommon ways. He was, for instance, intensely interested in beauty, but spent his time finding beauty in unusual objects: stamped buttons, the shape of stomach pumps, the physical appearance of both railroad trains and train tunnels. He found beauty in most things that suggested humans’ mastery over nature.

He married Georgianna (Whitmore) Babbage while at Cambridge University in 1814, at the age of 23. The marriage was a comfortable one, but in August of 1827, at age 35, his wife died suddenly. Babbage left England after his wife’s death to wander Europe for a year, presumably to deal with his grief.

His personal life did not demand that he pursue a career. He was somewhat independently wealthy and so continued to pursue directions that intrigued him personally. He had considered becoming a minister for a time, but that was largely because he had little interest in pursuing business or law, which were common careers for affluent educated men of his era.

When Babbage died in 1871, at age 81, few knew that a crater on the moon had been named for him. His burial procession was small, and his passing was virtually unnoticed in the English press. His life of science and invention was basically ignored during his own time.

Career Details

Babbage lived his life largely in the role of an amateur scientist and inventor who pursued several other avocations as well, including that of philosopher, aesthete, politician, professor of mathematics, and founder of several scientific societies. He spent his life as a booster of science in general and as a champion of technology and the Newton physics of the day.

He was a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the founder of several organizations, including the Statistical Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, and The Royal Society. He was also honored with the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University.

Throughout his life Babbage invented many mechanical items, including the cow-catcher on trains, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, lights for lighthouses, time-signals for the world’s most accurate clock in Greenwich, England, as well as the heliograph and ophthalmoscope. He is known today primarily as the man who spent his life trying to literally build the first universal digital computer.

The idea of the computer first occurred to Babbage while in college. As a member of an academic society, he had been given the task of verifying tables of astronomical data. He found numerous errors. Indeed, errors in mathematical tables were becoming increasingly common during these early years of the Industrial Revolution, and they often had disastrous results. For example, mistakes such as inaccuracies in navigational tables were often the cause of shipwrecks. Babbage thought there should be a way to create a machine that could calculate mathematical data much faster than a human could, and without error. He then set to work to try to make such a machine.

By 1822 Babbage had worked out all the ideas for the logical structure of the computer, which he had called the “Difference Engine,” a machine that could compile and print mathematical tables. His small working model won the Royal Astronomical Society’s first Gold Medal. The following year, Babbage received government funding to build a full-scale model. But progress was slow and expensive, and in 1834 the government withdrew its support. By then, Babbage had conceived of the more complex idea of the “Analytical Engine,” which was a programmable automatic machine that could not only compute a single mathematical function but could be programmed to perform many different computations. Although the Analytical Engine was never finished, due partly to the limitations of nineteenth-century technology, it was Babbage’s invention of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine that earned him the modern-day title of “the father of the computer.”

Babbage was also an important political economist. He was one of the first to talk about the impact of the factory in economics and to discuss the division of labor. His theories and discussions were later incorporated and discussed by John Stuart Mill and was fundamental to Marxist theory of capitalist socio-economic development.

Social and Economic Impact

Babbage saw the computer, if developed, as working hand-in-hand with industry to improve the lives of people with accurate and scientific knowledge of the world. His research into many areas, because of the limitations of existing technology, made his ideas of genius seem merely visionary and impractical.

Even though Babbage’s attempts to build his Difference Machine and Analytical Engine did not result in an actual product that could be used at the time, his efforts had a profound effect on mechanical engineering. Many improvements to machine tools and techniques ensued from his research and efforts, which included a study of all mechanical devices that could be used to build his machines.

Babbage also had a profound effect on society by organizing large social gatherings where the European intellectual elite could meet and discuss ideas. Despite his reputation of being cranky and cantankerous, he was a leading London socialite and his famous Saturday night parties often numbered between two and three hundred guests.

Chronology: Charles Babbage

1792: Born.

1822: Won a Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal for his invention, the “Difference Engine.”

1823: Received government funds to build a full-size “Difference Engine.”

1833: Wrote and published The Economy of Manufactures and Machinery.

1835: Created the first reliable actuarial tables.

1835: Conceived the idea of the “Analytical Engine,” the direct ancestor of the modern digital computer.

1837: Wrote and published A Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.

1864: Wrote and published Pasages from the Life of a Philosopher.

1871: Died.

Babbage’s ideas planted the seed that eventually grew to be the modern-day computer. No other device can claim such a staggering effect on society in the twentieth century as the computer; and Babbage’s visions for the machine were finally realized more than 100 years after his death.

Babbitt, Milton (Byron) [next] [back] Babbage, Charles

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

almost 6 years ago

hi mi name is hildiguard, but u can call me hildi. u r dumb. her did not dye at age 81