10 Facts About Charles Babbage, Victorian Computer Pioneer

Charles Babbage: Victorian Computer Pioneer

Portrait of Charles Babbage, c. 1820 (left) / Photo of Charles Babbage, 1860 (right)
Image Credit: National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

The mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage is widely credited with creating the forerunner of modern programmable computers in the early 19th century. Though he is commonly described as the creator of the first mechanical computer, his most famous machines were not actually completed.

But his inventiveness wasn’t limited to computing: as a teenager, Babbage experimented with shoes that helped with walking on water, and he was also responsible for an array of interventions that helped change public life.

Here are 10 facts about Charles Babbage.

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1. Charles Babbage was a poorly child

Charles Babbage was born in 1791 and baptised at St Mary’s, Newington in London on 6 January 1792. A serious fever led to him being despatched to a school near Exeter at the age of eight, and he would later have private tuition on account of his poor health. It was at the Holmwood Academy in Enfield where Babbage’s love of mathematics was first nurtured.

2. He was a top mathematician as a student

Babbage taught himself aspects of contemporary mathematics ahead of his entry to Cambridge University. Though he did not graduate with honours and a thesis of his was considered blasphemous, he was nevertheless elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816.

Portrait of Charles Babbage, c. 1820

Image Credit: National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He struggled to establish the career in teaching that he sought, and as a result often leaned on his father for financial support. However, when his father died in 1827, he inherited an estate estimated to value, in today’s terms, around £8.85 million.

3. He was instrumental in setting up the Royal Astronomical Society

Babbage helped to found the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820, which aimed to circulate data and standardise astronomical calculations. As a member of the society, Babbage made mathematical tables which might be depended upon by astronomers, surveyors and navigators.

This was difficult work: it constituted repetitive tasks, yet required exquisite care. It was in this role that Babbage developed an idea for a labour-saving machine that could spit out the tables like clockwork.

4. His ‘Difference Engine’ could perform mathematical calculations

Babbage started designing a calculating machine in 1819, and by 1822 he had developed his ‘Difference Engine’.This was intended to use the differences between terms in a mathematical series to generate the contents of a navigational table, and he lobbied the British government for financial support to build a complete device.

The machine represented digits by positions on toothed wheels. When one wheel advanced from nine to zero, the next wheel in the series would advance by one digit. In this sense, it was able to carry a number in temporary storage, like a modern computer.

Babbage constructed a demonstration model of this Difference Engine in 1832, which he showed to audiences. He never finished the device to the intended room-sized proportions, although a functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage’s original plans in 1991, proving the success of his design. Instead, Babbage looked to innovations across the Channel to inspire a yet more sophisticated mechanism.

5. Babbage created the more complex ‘Analytical Machine’

Babbage recognised in a new industrial weaving technology the potential for “a totally new engine possessing much more extensive powers”. First patented by French weaver and merchant Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1804, the Jacquard machine automated pattern weaving by using a series of punched cards to give instructions to a loom.

Charles Babbage, c. 1850 (left) / A portion of the difference engine (right)

Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Woodcut after a drawing by Benjamin Herschel Babbage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

Jacquard’s invention transformed textile production, but it was also a predecessor for modern computing. It directly inspired the Analytical Machine with which Babbage cemented his legacy.

The Analytical Machine was more complex than the Difference Engine and it could undertake much more advanced operations. It did this by employing punched cards similar to the Jacquard machine as well as a memory unit able to hold 1,000 50-digit numbers. This was all supposed to be steam-powered, though Babbage didn’t complete his Analytical Machine.

6. He worked with Ada Lovelace

The mathematician Ada Lovelace was mentored by Charles Babbage, who arranged her tuition at the University of London. She went on to write an algorithm for the Analytical Machine which, had the machine been completed, would have enabled it to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

She wrote of Babbage’s invention, “we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

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7. His inventions weren’t limited to computing

Babbage was active in many fields as an inventor. As a teenager, he came up with an idea for shoes intended to help walking on water. Later on, while working for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, he conceived of the cowcatcher.

Had he actually constructed one, it might have been the first of the plough-like devices that were mounted on the front of locomotives to push cows, and other obstructions, from the rails.

8. He campaigned to reform British science

Babbage firmly believed in the practical value of science to society but was disturbed by the conservatism of the British establishment which he was convinced held 18th-century British science back. To this end, he published Reflections of the Decline of Science in England in 1830, which painted a dismal picture of what society would look like if it failed to support scientific endeavour.

Charles Babbage in the Illustrated London News (4 November 1871)

Image Credit: Thomas Dewell Scott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9. He helped establish the modern postal system in England

As part of his membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, Babbage explored the demands of a modern postal system with Thomas Frederick Colby. One of the first interventions in the reform of the Royal Mail, the introduction of the Uniform fourpenny post in 1839, followed their conclusion that there should be a uniform rate.

10. Babbage’s brain is on display in London

On 18 October 1871, Charles Babbage died at home in London. His legacy is as a lifelong inventor prominent in the history of computers. It also takes material form in the halves of his brain which are preserved in two locations in London. One half of Babbage’s brain is located at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, while the other is on display at the Science Museum, London.

Kyle Hoekstra