Charles Babbage Biography

Born: December 26, 1791
London, England
Died: October 18, 1871
London, England

English mathematician and inventor

Charles Babbage was an English inventor and mathematician whose mathematical machines were based on ideas that were later put to use in modern computers. Indeed, Babbage is sometimes even called the inventor of the computer. He was also a pioneer in the scientific understanding of manufacturing processes.

A bright, curious child

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791, in London, England. His father, Benjamin Jr., was a banker and merchant. One of his grandfathers, Benjamin Sr., had been mayor of Totnes, England. Babbage was always curious—when he would receive a new toy, he would ask his mother, Elizabeth, what was inside of it. He would then take apart the toy to figure out how it worked. Babbage was also interested in mathematics at a young age, and he taught himself algebra.

The Babbage family was wealthy, and Charles received much of his early education from private tutors. In 1810 he entered Trinity College at Cambridge University. He found that he knew more about mathematics than did his instructors. Very unhappy with the poor state of mathematical instruction there, Babbage helped to organize the Analytical Society, which played a key role in reducing the uncritical following of Sir Issac Newton (1642–1727; English scientist, mathematician, and astronomer) at Cambridge and at Oxford University.

In 1814, the same year of Babbage's graduation from Cambridge, he married Georgiana Whitmore. They had eight children together, but only three lived beyond childhood. Georgiana herself died in 1827.

Mathematical engines

In 1822 Babbage produced the first model of the calculating engine, which

Charles Babbage. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Charles Babbage.
Courtesy of the
Library of Congress
would become the main interest of his life. The machine calculated and printed mathematical tables. He called it a "difference engine" after the mathematical theory upon which the machine's operation was based. The government was interested in his device and made a vague promise to fund his research. This encouraged Babbage to begin building a full-scale machine.

But Babbage had underestimated the difficulties involved. Many of the machine tools he needed to shape the wheels, gears, and cranks of the engine did not exist. Therefore, Babbage and his craftsmen had to design the tools themselves. The resulting delays worried the government, and the funding was held back.

Meanwhile, the idea for a far grander engine had entered Babbage's ever-active mind: the "analytical engine." This machine would be able to perform any mathematical operation according to a series of instructions given to the machine. Babbage asked the government for a decision on which engine to finish. After an eight-year pause for thought, the government decided that it wanted neither.

Other interests

Babbage managed to squeeze in an incredible variety of activities between dealing with the government and working on his engines. In addition to other subjects, he wrote several articles on mathematics, the decline of science in England, the rationalization of manufacturing processes, religion, archeology, tool design, and submarine navigation. He helped found the Astronomical Society, which later became the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as other organizations. He was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge for ten years. He was better known, though, for his seemingly endless campaign against organ-grinders (people who produce music by cranking a hand organ) on the streets of London.

He always returned to his great engines—but none were ever finished. He died on October 18, 1871, having played a major part in the nineteenth-century rebirth of British science.

For More Information

Campbell, Kelley Martin, ed. The Works of Charles Babbage. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Collier, Bruce. Charles Babbage and the Engines of Perfection. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Moseley, Maboth. Irascible Genius: A Life of Charles Babbage, Inventor. London: Hutchinson, 1964.

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