Charles Babbage, FRS (December 26, 1791 London, England – October 18, 1871 Marylebone, London, England) was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer. Parts of his uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum. In 1991 a perfectly functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage's original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage's machine would have worked. Nine years later, the Science Museum completed the printer Babbage had designed for the difference engine, an astonishingly complex device for the 19th century. Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs.
Babbage's date of birth was given in his obituary in The Times as December 26, 1792. However, after the obituary appeared, a nephew wrote to say that Charles Babbage actually was born one year earlier, in 1791. The parish register of St. Mary's Newington, London, shows that Babbage was baptized on January 6, 1792, supporting a birth year of 1791.
Charles' father, Benjamin Babbage, was a banking partner of the Praeds who owned the Bitton Estate in Teignmouth. His mother was Betsy Plumleigh Teape. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth, and Benjamin Babbage became a warden of the nearby St. Michael’s Church.
Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1810. He had read extensively in Leibniz, Joseph Louis Lagrange, Thomas Simpson, and Lacroix and was seriously disappointed in the mathematical instruction available at Cambridge. In response, he, John Herschel, George Peacock, and several other friends formed the Analytical Society in 1812. Babbage, Herschel and Peacock were also close friends with future judge and patron of science Edward Ryan. Ultimately, Babbage and Ryan married sisters.
In 1812 Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the top mathematician at Peterhouse, but failed to graduate with honors. He instead received an honorary degree without examination in 1814.
On July 25, 1814, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore at St. Michael's Church in Teignmouth, Devon. The couple lived at Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire (where Babbage engineered the central heating system), before moving to 5 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London.
Charles and Georgiana had eight children, but only three — Benjamin Herschel, Georgiana Whitmore, and Henry Prevost — survived to adulthood. Georgiana died in Worcester on September 1, 1827. Charles' father, wife, and at least two sons all died in 1827. These deaths caused Babbage to go into a mental breakdown which delayed the construction of his machines.
His youngest son, Henry Prevost Babbage (1824-1918), went on to create six working difference engines based on his father's designs, one of which was sent to Howard H. Aiken, pioneer of the Harvard Mark I. Henry Prevost's 1910 Analytical Engine Mill, previously on display at Dudmaston Hall, is now on display at the Science Museum.
Charles Babbage died at age 79 on October 18, 1871, and was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. According to Horsley, Babbage died "of renal inadequacy, secondary to cystitis. In 1983 the autopsy report for Charles Babbage was discovered and later published by one of his descendants. A copy of the original is also available. Babbage's brain is preserved at the Science Museum in London.
Babbage's engines were among the first mechanical computers, although they were not actually completed, largely because of funding problems and personality issues. He directed the building of some steam-powered machines that achieved some success, suggesting that calculations could be mechanized. Although Babbage's machines were mechanical and unwieldy, their basic architecture was very similar to a modern computer. The data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction based, the control unit could make conditional jumps and the machine had a separate I/O unit.
The first difference engine was composed of around 25,000 parts, weighed fifteen tons (13,600 kg), and stood high. Although he received ample funding for the project, it was never completed. He later designed an improved version, "Difference Engine No. 2", which was not constructed until 1989-1991, using Babbage's plans and 19th-century manufacturing tolerances. It performed its first calculation at the London Science Museum returning results to 31 digits, far more than the average modern pocket calculator.
Ada Lovelace, an impressive mathematician, and one of the few people who fully understood Babbage's ideas, created a program for the Analytical Engine. Had the Analytical Engine ever actually been built, her program would have been able to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer. In 1979, a contemporary programming language was named Ada in her honour. Shortly afterward, in 1981, a satirical article by Tony Karp in the magazine Datamation described the Babbage programming language as the "language of the future".
These modern versions of mechanical computation were highlighted in the magazine The Economist in its special "end of the millennium" black cover issue in an article entitled Babbage's Last Laugh (requires paid subscription). The article highlighted work done at University of California Berkeley by Ezekiel Kruglick. In this Doctoral Dissertationthe researcher reports mechanical logic cells and architectures sufficient to implement the Babbage Analytical engine (see above) or any general logic circuit. Carry-shift digital adders and various logic elements are detailed as well as modern analysis on required performance for microscopic mechanical logic.
From 1828 to 1839 Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Statistical Society in 1834. However, he dreamt of designing mechanical calculating machines.
“... I was sitting in the rooms of the Analytical Society, at Cambridge, my head leaning forward on the table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a table of logarithms lying open before me. Another member, coming into the room, and seeing me half asleep, called out, "Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?" to which I replied "I am thinking that all these tables" (pointing to the logarithms) "might be calculated by machinery. "
In 1837, responding to the Bridgewater Treatises, of which there were eight, he published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, "On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation", putting forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator, making laws (or programs) which then produced species at the appropriate times, rather than continually interfering with ad hoc miracles each time a new species was required. The book is a work of natural theology, and incorporates extracts from correspondence he had been having with John Herschel on the subject.
Babbage also achieved notable results in cryptography. He broke Vigenère's autokey cipher as well as the much weaker cipher that is called Vigenère cipher today. The autokey cipher was generally called "the undecipherable cipher", though owing to popular confusion, many thought that the weaker polyalphabetic cipher was the "undecipherable" one. Babbage's discovery was used to aid English military campaigns, and was not published until several years later; as a result credit for the development was instead given to Friedrich Kasiski, a Prussian infantry officer, who made the same discovery some years after Babbage.
In 1838, Babbage invented the pilot (also called a cow-catcher), the metal frame attached to the front of locomotives that clears the tracks of obstacles. He also constructed a dynamometer car and performed several studies on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway in about 1838. Babbage's eldest son, Benjamin Herschel Babbage, worked as an engineer for Brunel on the railways before emigrating to Australia in the 1850s
Babbage also invented an ophthalmoscope, but although he gave it to a physician for testing it was forgotten, and the device only came into use after being independently invented by Hermann von Helmholtz.
Babbage twice stood for Parliament as a candidate for the borough of Finsbury. In 1832 he came in third among five candidates, but in 1834 he finished last among four.
In On the Economy of Machine and Manufacture, Babbage described what is now called the Babbage principle, which describes certain advantages with division of labour. Babbage noted that highly skilled - and thus generally highly paid - workers spend parts of their job performing tasks that are 'below' their skill level. If the labour process can be divided among several workers, it is possible to assign only high-skill tasks to high-skill and -cost workers and leave other working tasks to less-skilled and paid workers, thereby cutting labour costs. This principle was criticised by Karl Marx who argued that it caused labour segregation and contributed to alienation. The Babbage principle is an inherent assumption in Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management.
On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
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