Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Mathematician, Philosopher and orginator of computing science

Charles Babbage was born in Devon in 1792 into a wealthy banking family. Because of ill health when young he received much of his early education privately and through self study when he discovered his interest in mathematics. He studied mathematics at Trinity and Peterhouse, Cambridge with great distinction although he failed to gain honours and was subsequently awarded an honorary degree in 1814 without being examined. Charles Babbage is mainly known now as the founding father of computer science and for his contributions to computer technology. His work in this area was inspired by the work of J.M. Jacquard who invented a loom that could be coded/programmed to produce repetitive patterns. At this time high error rates existed in the computation of mathematical tables and Babbage attempted to devise machines to remove this human error by mechanical means. Babbage spent a great deal of his life and fortune on designing and inventing ‘difference machines’ that subsequently laid the foundations for computing science and technology. He designed the Difference Machine and later the Analytical Machine that could perform practically all the then known mathematical operations. Unfortunately the necessary materials and technical facilities were not available at the time so his great machines were never able to crank out answers. However his ideas did lay the foundations of computing science developed decades later. Babbage was truly an individual ahead of his time and many of his ideas were viewed with suspicion and dismissed as unworkable though decades later he was recognised as a great innovator and visionary. His frustration and unhappy experiences with getting these machines recognised and the lack of financial support from government made him highly critical of the state of science at the time and the future prospects for science and technology and hence the education of these subjects in England. For example throughout his life he was a vigorous campaigner against the policies of the Royal Society of which he was a Fellow. He made several attempts to reform the Society but all his suggestions were initially ignored but eventually with support did bring about major reforms of the Society.

Baggage was also critical about the health of mathematics in England arguing that during the late 18th century the country had fallen behind its continental counterparts. He criticised his own mathematical studies at Cambridge that he thought were outdated. He became interested and impressed with the work of the continental mathematicians particularly those in France e.g. Lacroix. He was an active member of the ‘Analytical Society’ whose aim was the reform of English mathematics and to undertake translations of continental mathematical texts. By this time Babbage held the Newtonian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (1828+).

A man of many interests he was very interested in the consequences and challenges of the emerging technological society analysing the interactions between science, technology and society. This aspect reinforced his concern about the decline of science and the inadequate state of science and technical education in England which led to the publication in 1830 of the book entitled ‘Reflections on the Decline of Science in England’ which was instrumental in establishing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831.It was his concern about the ineffective use and application of science in industrial processes that made him a strong advocate of scientific and technical education. Another key book was ‘The Exposition of 1851’ published after the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Babbage defined man as a tool making animal. This important definition was restated by Singer in his seminal series of books (1) that again highlighted how farsighted Babbage was. ‘What is man? —- Man makes things, but so do many animals; man shapes objects into tools, but so do few animals; man alone makes tools with which to make other tools’ Through his writings he because an influential promoter of the factory system advocating the importance of increased mechanisation and the system of the division of labour. These and other farseeing ideas were to have a profound impact on industrial production and ultimately on how technical education developed.
As well as being instrumental in founding the British Association for the Advancement of Science he played a significant role in the creation of the Astronomical Society (1820) and the Statistical Society (1834). Babbage was one of a few individuals e.g. A.W. Hoffman, W.G. Armstrong and Co. of Newcastle and Lyon Playfair [see biographies] who were strong advocates of technical education. Other achievements of this remarkable individual included a set of logarithm tables from 1 to 108,000, the standard gauge railway, improved lighting for lighthouses, the dynometer and the cowcatcher. Although many writers have said Babbage’s life was one of continual disappointment he was a remarkable individual, a true polymath, whom history has now acknowledged.

 

Of the many publications of Charles Babbage four merit referencing namely: ‘The Decline of Science in England, and some of its causes’. (1830), ‘The Exposition of 1851; or Views of the Industry, the Science and the Government’. (1851), ‘Economy of Manufactures and Machinery’. ( 1832) and ‘Passages from the Life of a Philosopher’. ( 1864). Incidentally the Cambridge University Press (CUP) is to soon reissue the first two of these seminal works

His legacy is to be found in the Societies he helped to create and most certainly the recognition as the founding father of computation science/technology and operational research.

References:

  1. Singer. C, Holmyard. E.J. Hall.A.R. and Williams. T.I. ‘The History of Technology.’ OUP. 1958-1962. 5 volumes.
  2. An excellent overview of Charles Babbage life and achievements is to be found in: ‘Charles Babbage and his Calculating Machines.’ Edited by P. and E Morrison. Dover. 1961.

Footnote: A replica of the Difference Machine capable of calculating to 31 digits is housed in the British Museum and is testimony to the accuracy of his work. See image opposite of one of his machines.

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