Who is Charles Babbage?
The English mathematician Charles Babbbage (born 1791, died 1871) is one of the most celebrated icons in the history of the computing world. He is best known for inventing two types of cogwheel calculating machines; the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.
Babbage’s Difference Engine
In 1820, whilst working as a mathematician, Babbage was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was when he gained his interest in calculating machinery, which became his life’s passion.
In 1821 Babbage invented the Difference Engine (No.1) in order to compile mathematical tables. It was a digital device that had a 20 decimal capacity. The engine had storage, similar to modern computers, as it had a place where data could be temporarily held to be later processed. This engine was the first ever successful automatic calculator and was one of the greatest examples of precision engineering of the time.
Designs for the Difference Engine were completed in 1832, which is when he then had the idea to make a better machine that could perform any type of calculation instead of just one calculation task. This was called the Analytical Engine and was more complex than anything built before it. It was designed to have a memory unit which was large enough to hold a thousand 50 digit numbers. This storage capacity was larger than any computer built before 1960. In 1843 Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s friend and mathematician translated a French paper about the Analytical Engine. In her notes she wrote how it could perform a sequence of calculations. This was the first computer program.
Difference Engine No.2
Unfortunately, Babbage never actually made a fully complete working version of any of his machines during his lifetime. His designs were forgotten about until his unpublished notebooks were found in 1937.
Babbage had created the designs for the Difference Engine No.2 but never constructed it. Doron Swade, the assistant director and head of collections at the Science Museum in London studied Babbage’s work and read everything that he had wrote. This took him over 8 months! Once he did this he was then able to head the team that built the working Difference engine No.2 in 1991. This engine is now on display at the London Science Museum and is one of the highlights of the collection.
Why didn’t Babbage complete his engines?
Many of Babbage’s contemporaries saw Babbage as an eccentric dreamer without real substance. However, the creation of the Difference Engine No.2 proves that his plans made sense and that he was actually a genius whose plans could have been fulfilled in his day.
One of the main reasons why his plans didn’t reach completion were because of Babbage’s lack of skill with dealing with influential political and scientific figures of his day. Their support would have been vital for the successful completion of his plans. Babbage was a genius, yes, however diplomacy and public relations were his weak points. This made him struggle to secure funding which pushed away his chief engineer Joseph Clement, who demanded to be paid in advance.
The fact that Swade had success in making Babbage’s life’s work come to completion shows us that all hi-tech innovation needs great interpreters and communicators to fulfil its potential. These communicators allow the product and technology to be well marketed to influential people. A teachable moment for sure – that it often takes a whole team of differently skilled individuals to fully embrace and evolve genius ideas.
- Swade, Doron. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. New York: Viking, 2000
- Computer History Museum
- The University of Minnesota. Charles Babbage Institute. Who was Charles Babbage?
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