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Brief Bio: Charles Babbage

June 27, 2014 mgroves 0 Comments
Tags: Brief Bio

Welcome to the latest installment of the Brief Bio series, where I'm writing up very informal biographies about major figures in the history of computers. Please take a look at the Brief Bio archive, and feel free to leave corrections and omissions in the comments.

Charles Babbage

Like Pascal, Leibniz, and even Muller, Babbage was a man who was into a whole variety of fields: mathematics, economics, engineering, and so on. He was born in 1791 in London, on the day after Christmas, just a couple weeks after the Bill of Rights was ratified in the States. His father was a banker; and again, like the Pascal family, it's not difficult to imagine a house cluttered with mathematics. An Oxford tutor educated him and he was accepted at the University of Cambridge, but found their mathematics program to be disappointing (as shown in this photo):

Charles Babbage by Antoine Claudet c1847-51

A theme that I've noticed while researching Babbage is that his motivation seems to be one of replacing people (or rather, the innaccuracies and nuisances they cause). If t-shirts existed during his life time, I'm sure he would have at least considered purchasing "Go Away Or I Will Replace You...". Babbage spent some time later on in his life measuring and campaigning against public nuisances, even to the point of unpopularity. Babbage said that such nuisances destroyed up to 25% of his productivity. He's not only the ancestor of computing, but he's also the ancestor of the BOFH.

In 1820, he helped to form the (Royal) Astronomical Society. I believe that this is not because he was a romantic stargazer, but rather it was mostly a way for him to explore ways to reduce errors in astronomy (heavily used in sea navigation) with computing. He began work in 1822 on his now famous Difference Engine. He won an award 2 years later for inventing this machine (yes, he won an award from the very same organization that he helped to start). His machine was never actually completed until 1991, when it performed its first calculation.

Later on, Babbage went to work designing the Analytical Engine, which was to be a more general-purpose machine (a multitasker, as compared to the unitaskers of Pascal, Leibniz, Muller, and his own Difference Engine). Again, this machine (actually a collection of machines) was never completed. However, the designs include the use of punch cards as input, as well as branching, looping, and sequencing. Theoretically, this machine would be the first to ever be Turing-complete, and therefore the first ever device equivalent to what would generally be considered a computer.

The Analytics Engine concept marks the birth of computers, and even more importantly, marks the beginning of software (as will be explored later in the Ada Lovelace bio). However, this separation of concerns was just too abstract for the Victorian world, and he never got any funding to build the machine. Babbage died in 1871, still tinkering with his idea until the bitter end.

Plan 28 is a project to actually build an Analytical Engine. John Graham-Cumming gave a TEDx Talk about The Greatest Machine That Never Was:

Check out about 12 minutes in to see a part of the Analytical Engine in action. To compare this machine apples-to-apples with current computers, John Graham-Cumming has said that it would have 675 bytes of memory and a clock speed of 7 hz. That's hertz, not megahertz. Still, I'd call that very impressive: the Atari 2600 only has 128 bytes of RAM (albeit a much, much faster clock speed, and it's not the size of a locomotive).

Babbage's legacy lives on as an icon of computers and computing. In addition to the multiple academic institutions that bear his name, there's a crater on the moon named after him. Do you remember the video game/electronics store "Babbage's"? Named after him.


Matthew D. Groves

About the Author

Matthew D. Groves lives in Central Ohio. He works remotely, loves to code, and is a Microsoft MVP.

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