Born December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth, Devonshire UK, Died 1871, London; Known to some as the "Father of Computing" for his contributions to the basic design of the computer through his Analytical machine. His previous Difference Engine was a special purpose device intended for the production of tables.
While he did produce prototypes of portions of the Difference Engine, it was left to Georg and Edvard Schuetz to construct the first working devices to the same design which were successful in limited applications.
Significant Events in His Life: 1791: Born; 1810: Entered Trinity College, Cambridge; 1814: graduated Peterhouse; 1817 received MA from Cambridge; 1820: founded the Analytical Society with Herschel and Peacock; 1823: started work on the Difference Engine through funding from the British Government; 1827: published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000; 1828: appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (never presented a lecture); 1831: founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science; 1832: published "Economy of Manufactures and Machinery"; 1833: began work on the Analytical Engine; 1834: founded the Statistical Society of London; 1864: published Passages from the Life of a Philosopher; 1871: Died.
The cowcatcher, dynamometer, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, heliograph opthalmoscope. He also had an interest in cyphers and lock-picking, but abhorred street musicians.
Near the northern pole of the moon there is a crater named for Charles Babbage. When he died in 1871, however, few people knew who he was. Only one carriage (the Duchess of Somerset's) followed in the burial procession that took his remains to Kensal Green Cemetery. The Royal Society printed no obituary, and the Times ridiculed him. The parts of the Difference Engine that had seemed possible of completion in 1830 gathered dust in the Museum of King's College.
In 1878 The Cayley committee told the government not to bother constructing Babbage's Analytical Engine. By the 1880's Babbage was known primarily for his reform of mathematics at Cambridge. In 1899 the magazine Temple Bar reported that "the present generation appears to have forgotten Babbage and his calculating machine". In 1908, after being preserved for 37 years in alcohol, Babbage's brain was dissected by Sir Victor Horsley of the Royal Society. Horsley had to remind the society that Babbage had been a "very profound thinker".
Charles Babbage was born in Devonshire in 1791. Like John von Neumann, he was the son of a banker - Benjamin (Old Five Percent) Babbage. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, receiving his MA in 1817. As the inventor of the first universal digital computer, he can indeed be considered a profound thinker. The use of Jacquard punch cards, of chains and subassemblies, and ultimately the logical structure of the modern computer - all come from Babbage.
Popularly, Babbage is a sort of Abner Doubleday of data processing, a colorful fellow whose portrait hangs in the anteroom but whose actual import is slight. He is thought about, if at all, as a funny sort of distracted character with dirty collar. But Babbage was much more than that. He was an amazing intelligence.
Babbage was an aesthete, but not a typical Victorian one. He found beauty in things: in stamped buttons, stomach pumps, railways and tunnels, in man's mastery over nature.
A social man, he was obliged to attend the theater. While others dozed at Mozart, Babbage grew restless. "Somewhat fatigued with the opera [Don Juan]", he writes in the autobiographical Passages From the Life of a Philosopher, "I went behind the scenes to look at the mechanism". There, a workman offered to show him around. Deserted when his Cicerone answered a cue, he met two actors dressed at "devils with long forked tails". The devils were to convey Juan, via trapdoor and stage elevator, to hell.
In his box at the German Opera some time later (again not watching the stage), Babbage noticed "in the cloister scene at midnight" that his companion's white bonnet had a pink tint. He thought about "producing colored lights for theatrical representation". In order to have something on which to shine his experimental lights, Babbage devised "Alethes and Iris", a ballet in which 60 damsels in white were to dance. In the final scene, a series of dioramas were to represent Alethes' travels. One diorama would show animals "whose remains are contained in each successive layer of the earth. In the lower portions, symptoms of increasing heat show themselves until the centre is reached, which contains a liquid transparent sea, consisting of some fluid at white heat, which, however, is filled up with little infinitesimal eels, all of one sort, wriggling eternally".
Two fire engines stood ready for the "experiment of the dance", as Babbage termed the rehearsal. Dancers "danced and attitudinized" while he shone colored lights on them. But the theater manager feared fire, and the ballet was never publicly staged.
Babbage enjoyed fire. He once was baked in an oven at 265oF for "five or six minutes without any great discomfort", and on another occasion was lowered into Mt. Vesuvius to view molten lava. Did he ponder Hell? He had considered becoming a cleric, but this was not an unusual choice for the affluent graduate with little interest in business or law. In 1837 he published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, to reconcile his scientific beliefs with Christian dogma. Babbage argued that miracles were not, as Hume write, violations of laws of nature, but could exist in a mechanistic world. As Babbage could program long series on his calculating machines, God could program similar irregularities in nature.
Babbage investigated biblical miracles. "In the course of his analysis", wrote B. V. Bowden in Faster than Thought (Pitman, London, 1971), "he made the assumption that the chance of a man rising from the dead is one in 10^12". Miracles are not, as he wrote in Passages From the Life of a Philosopher, "the breach of established laws, but... indicate the existence of far higher laws".
Of all his roles, Babbage was least successful at this one. He had himself to blame: he was too impatient, too severe with criticism, too crotchety. Bowden wrote that, in later life, Babbage "was frequently and almost notoriously incoherent when he spoke in public". What ultimately kept him from building an Analytical Engine was not his inability to finish a project, but his inadequacies as a political man, as a persuader. His vision was not matched by his judgment, patience, or sympathy.
Babbage was a confusing political figure. A liberal republican, he was pro-aristocratic and strongly antisocialist. Friend to Dickens and to the workman, he was a crony to the Midlands industrialist. The son of a Tory banker, he supported the cooperative movement and was twice an unsuccessful Whig candidate to Parliament. But his liberalism waned during the 1840's; by 1865, he was a conservative utilitarian for whom capitalism and democracy were incompatible.
In July of 1822, two days after Shelley drowned near La Spezia, Babbage wrote a letter to the president of the Royal Society, describing his plan for calculating and printing mathematical tables by machine. By June of 1823 Babbage met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who granted money and told Babbage to proceed with the engine (which he did, starting work in July). But no minutes were made of this initial meeting.
In August 1827, Babbage's 35-year-old wife, Georgiana, died. Babbage traveled to the Continent. By the end of 1828 he returned to England, the initial £1,500 grant gone. Babbage was financing the construction himself. And the exchequer could not recall promising further funds.
Convincing the government to continue with two tons of brass, hand-fitted steel and pewter clockwork was not easy. In 1829 a group of Babbage's friends solicited the attention of the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister. Wellington went to see a model of the engine, and in December ordered a grant of £3,000. Engineer Joseph Clement was hired to construct the engine for the government, and to oversee the fabrication of special tools.
By the end of 1830 Babbage wanted to move the engine's workshop to his house on Dorset Street. A fireproof shop was built where Babbage's stables had stood. A man of great ego, Clement refused to move from his own workshop, and made, according to Babbage, "inordinately extravagant demands". Babbage would not advance Clement further money, so Clement dismissed his crew, and work on the Difference Engine ceased.
This did not seem to perturb Babbage. His initial scheme for the Difference Engine called for six decimal places and a second-order difference; now he began planning for 20 decimal places and a sixth-order difference. "His ambitious to build immediately the largest Difference Engine that could ever be needed", wrote Bowden, "probably delayed the exploitation of his own ideas for a century".
With Clement and his tools gone, Babbage wanted to meet with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne in 1834 to tell him of a new machine he had conceived - the Analytical Engine, an improved device capable of any mathematical operation. He contended it would cost more to finish the original engine than to construct this new one. But the government did not wish to fund a new engine until the old one was complete. "He was ill-judged enough", wrote the Reverend Richard Sheepshanks, a secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, "to press the consideration of this new machine upon the members of Government, who were already sick of the old one". (Sheepshanks was Babbage's archenemy. In 1854 he published a vituperative 100-page work, "Letter to the Board of Visitors of the Greenwich Royal Observatory, in Reply to the Calumnies of Mr.Babbage" at its meeting in June 1853, and in his book entitled The Exposition of 1851.)
For the next eight years, Babbage continued to apply to the government for a decision on whether to continue the suspended Difference Engine or begin the Analytical Engine, seemingly unaware of the social problems that preoccupied Britain's leaders during what Macauley called the Hungry Forties. Although £17,000 of public money had been spent, and a similar amount by Babbage, the Prime Minister avoided him. "It is nonsense", wrote Sheepshanks, "to talk of consulting a Prime Minister about the kind of Calculating Machine that he wants". Prime Minister Robert Peel recommended that Babbage's machine be set to calculate the time at which it would be of use. "I would like a little previous consideration", wrote Peel, "before I move in a thin house of country gentlemen a large vote for the creation of a wooden man to calculate tables from the formula x^2 + x + 41".
Finally, in November of 1842, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having sought the opinion of Sir George Airy on the utility of the machine, and having been told it was "worthless", said he and Peel regretted the necessity of abandoning the project. On the 11th of November, Babbage finally met with Peel, and was told the bad news.
By 1851 Babbage had "given up all expectation of constructing the Analytic Engine", even though he was to try once more with Disraeli the next year. He wrote in the vitriolic Exposition of 1851: "Thus bad names are coined by worse men to destroy honest people, as the madness of innocent dogs arises from the cry of insanity raised by their villainous pursuers".
Some believed Babbage had "been rewarded for his time and labor by grants from the public use", according to biographer Moseley Maboth (Irascible Genius, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1964). "We got nothing for our £17,000 but Mr. Babbage's grumblings", wrote Sheepshanks in his "Letter to the Board of Visitors of the Greenwich Royal Observatory". "We should at least have had a clever toy for our money".
Peel, however, declared in Parliament that Babbage "had derived no emolument whatsoever from the government". Offered a baronetcy in recognition of his work, Babbage refused, demanding a life peerage instead. It was never granted.
THE MUSIC HATER
Lady Lovelace wrote that Babbage hated music. He tolerated its more exquisite forms, but abhorred it as practiced on the street. "Those whose minds are entirely unoccupied", he wrote with some seriousness in Observations of Street Nuisances in 1864, "receive [street music] with satisfaction, as filling up the vacuum of time". He calculated that 25% of his working power had been destroyed by street nuisances, many of them intentional. Letters to the Times and the eventual enforcement of "Babbage's Act", which would squelch street nuisances, made him the target of ridicule.
The public tormented him with an unending parade of fiddlers, Punch-and-Judys, stilt-walkers, fanatic psalmists, and tub-thumpers. Some neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows. Others willfully annoyed him with worn-out or damaged wind instruments. Placards were hung in local shops, abusing him. During one 80-day period Babbage counted 165 nuisances. One brass band played for five hours, with only a brief intermission. Another blew a penny tin whistle out his window toward Babbage's garden for a half and hour daily, for "many months".
When Babbage went out, children followed and cursed him. Adults followed, too, but at a distance. Over a hundred people once skulked behind him before he could find a constable to disperse them. Dead cats and other "offensive materials" were thrown at his house. Windows were broken. A man told him, "You deserve to have your house burnt up, and yourself in it, and I will do it for you, you old villain". Even when he was on his deathbed, the organ-grinders ground implacably away.
Copyright J. A. N. Lee, September 1994.