Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871) was a colourful British mathematician, inventor, and mechanical engineer. He made significant contributions to the field of computing through his pioneering work on the design of mechanical computers.
A mathematician of great stature, he held the position at Cambridge held by Newton and received substantial Government funds to build a calculating Differential Engine, funds he used to go further to develop an Analytical Engine, more of a computer than calculator.
Machine to mind
For the first time we see, albeit still mechanical product of the Industrial Revolution, the move from machine to mind. Babbage saw that human calculations are often full of errors and speculated whether steam could be used to do such calculations. This led to his lifetime focus on building such a machine.
Babbage had been given government money to conceive and develop a mechanical computing device, the Difference Engine. He designed it in the early 1820s and it was meant to automate the calculation of mathematical tables, basically a sophisticated calculator, hat used repeated addition. He did, in fact, go on to design a superior Analytical Engine, a far more complex machine that shifted its functionality from calculation to computation. Conceived by him in 1834, it was the first programmable, general-purpose computational engine and embodies almost all logical features of a modern computer. Although a mechanical computer, it features an arithmetic logic unit, control flow with conditional branching, and memory, what he called the ‘store’. We should note that it is decimal but not binary but it could automatically execute computations.
Although this is an astonishing achievement, neither were fully built during his lifetime, Babbage's design laid the groundwork for future developments in computing. His son Henry Babbage did build a part of his differential engine as a trial piece and it was completed before Babbage's death in 1871. A full Differential Engine was built in 1991 from materials that were available at the time and to tolerances achievable at the time. It weighs in at 5 tons, with 8000 moving parts. Both can be seen in the Science Museum in London.
Babbage was a prickly character who alienated many, especially in Government, who generously funded his work. He alienated the government and in a tale that has been common in UK computing, never turned from theory into practice. Those developments eventually came from the US. I
Although described as the ‘father of computers’, there is no direct, causal influence between Babbage and the development of the modern compuer. Babbage’s designs were not studied until the 1970s, so Babbage’s designs could not have been the direct descendants of the modern computer. It was the pioneers of electronic computers in the 1940s that were the true progenitors of modern computers. There is a much stronger case made for the idea that it was Holerith and his census machines that had the real causal effect.
Swade, D. and Babbage, C., 2001. Difference engine: Charles Babbage and the quest to build the First Computer. Viking Penguin.
Hyman, A., 1985. Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the computer. Princeton University Press.
In Our Time, Ada Lovelace, featuring Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor at Clare College, Cambridge; Doron Swade, Visiting Professor in the History of Computing at Portsmouth University; John Fuegi, Visiting Professor in Biography at Kingston University.