CHARLES BABBAGE - COMPUTER PIONEER
by Russ Jensen
All of you reading this must be "computer people" (or you
couldn't even be reading it) and we all know what a great "tool"
the digital computer can be! However, many of you, I suspect,
probably don't realize that the idea of the digital computer is
actually rooted in the past - the distant past! Would you believe
that there was a man who lived over 150 years ago who had the total
concept of the computer in his mind?
His name was Charles Babbage. He had an idea for a mechanical
digital computer, but he was never able to construct it, partly due
to the state of mechanical technology of the day, but also for
another reason which I shall mention later. But I can assure you
that Mr. Babbage would not at all have been surprised at today's
high tech computers - he would probably say if he were to come back
today "you see, I told you that it had endless possibilities".
Mr Babbage could probably be classified as a "genius". He
certainly was an interesting individual. He was quite intelligent
and just loved all aspects of science and mathematics. He had one
pet peeve, however, he HATED organ grinders!
Charles was born to a well-to-do family, his father being a
London banker. He was born the day after Christmas in 1791. He
was a sickly child, but had it better than most of his siblings who
died young - only one sister living into adulthood. He was too
sick for about a year to go to school, but was tutored during that
In 1811 he began attending Cambridge University. During his
first year he read the works of the great European mathematicians
of the time, and soon discovered that he knew more of The Calculus
than his instructors. In his second year he joined a group of
students (who became known as the "Analytical Society") who were
devoted to translating the work of the French mathematician Lacroix
into English. These same chaps concerned themselves with
propagating the use of the "d's" (denoting differentials) of
Leibnitz over the "dots" used by Newton - the use of which at the
university Babbage once referred to as "the 'dot-age' of the
university". (Incidentally, Isaac Newton is one of my personal
"folk heros" as Mr. Babbage also is),
Babbage later became interested in astronomical instruments
and started a project to find a method for accurately making fine
graduations on their scales. But, he thought, what good is that if
the tables used to determine where to point the instrument are not
accurate themselves? So he came up with an idea for a mechanical
calculating machine to create more accurate astronomical tables.
This device, which he dubbed the "Difference Engine", employed
the mathematical method of "Successive Differences". Not only
would his proposed device calculate tables (and it included a
method of "carrying" from one column to the next) it would also
print the results of it's calculations on paper!
By 1822 Babbage had build two experimental versions of his
machine. By the next year he had convinced the British government
to provide funding for further development - the total cost of the
project being estimated at 3 to 5 thousand Pounds - with an
estimated completion time of three years.
These estimates proved to be very unrealistic - the project
never being completed! This was partly because Babbage was
constantly revising his ideas, causing most previous work on the
device to be abandoned many times. Because of this the government
eventually refused to pour any more funds into the project - some
officials calling it a "humbug", and others even accusing him of
trying to defraud the government.
One of Babbage's later ideas for the Difference Engine
involved letting the output of the "highest order column" be "fed
back" to other parts of the machine. This resulted in him
arranging the shafts and gears in a circle rather than in a
straight line. This meant that the machine could "control itself"!
A machine based on that principle he referred to as an "Analytical
Engine". Babbage believed such a machine could be used to
automatically perform complex mathematical operations. It was
around 1834 that he began thinking about such a device.
Babbage's new brainchild would be made up of several
"sections" all working together to solve a problem - the problem to
be solved being able to be changed ("programmed") by the user.
This, as you can see, was very similar to the digital computers of
The "calculating" of the Difference Engine was to be performed
by "the mill" which utilized refinements of the principles of the
Difference Engine. The device would also have a "store" (memory)
capable not only of holding "constants", but intermediate results
of the machine's calculations as well - the mechanical equivalent
of the "memory" of computers today. In fact, these terms ("mill"
and "store") are still used in England today to denote a computer's
CPU and memory respectively.
The input/output ("I/O") of the Analytical Engine was also
extremely sophisticated. The "input" would consist of "constants"
- Babbage envisioned up to 1000 (of 50 decimal digits each) -
which would be set by hand at the start of a calculation on ceratin
wheels in the machine. The machine's "instructions" would come
from rudimentary "punched cards", the idea for which Babbage got
from Frenchman J.M. Jacquard's automatic weaving loom which had
been recently invented and was "all the rage" at the time.
The "output" Babbage proposed was an automatic printing
mechanism similar to what he had proposed for the Difference
Engine, but it would also be capable of printing two sheets at
once, or creating a "printing plate" for mass printing. He also
envisioned the machine as being able to punch cards as output.
The "control" for the machine, of course, came from the
program cards as just described. It is easy to see the
similarities between Babbage's planned machine and the computers
Every computer needs a programmer - and if the Analytical
Engine had ever been completed it's programmer would have possibly
been a lady named Ada Augusta King (ne Byron), the Countess of
Lovelace. I'm sure some of you readers have heard of the Ada
programming language which is used today - well, it was named after
this special lady.
Ada was the only legitimate daughter of the famed English poet
Lord Byron. Due to his philandering, his wife separated from him
and raised Ada by herself. Ada's mother soon discovered that her
daughter had a good mind, especially when it came to mathematics,
so she hired the well-known mathematician Augustus DeMorgan to
tutor her. In those days it was quite unusual for a woman to get
more than a rudimentary education, but Ada was "special"!
Ada and a friend once visited Charles Babbage and he explained
his ideas for the Analytical Engine to them. She immediately
grasped his idea and was fascinated by it! In later years she
wrote extensively about the Analytical Engine, describing Babbage's
concept in much detail. She eventually died at a fairly young age
- which Babbage took very hard.
Although Babbage did not get much encouragement from his
fellow countrymen (other than Ada and a few others) regarding his
new brainchild (the Analytical Engine) the situation was different
on the Continent, especially in Italy. When an Italian scientist
wrote of Babbage's Analytical Engine in very complementary terms,
he was invited to speak at a scientific gathering at Turin in 1840.
He was also presented with two "honorary orders" from the Italian
King which he was very proud of - his achievements being hardly
noticed by England's scientific community which discouraged him
very much throughout his life.
As I said earlier, the British government eventually dropped
it's financial support of the Difference Engine. It was because of
that that Babbage could not get them to finance the Analytical
Engine, despite Lady Lovelace's praises of it's concept to people
in the government and English society that she and her husband knew
- and the praise he received on the Continent.
So the Analytical Engine (and Babbage's version of the
Difference Engine) was never completed, partly because of the
British government withdrawing it's financial support of his
Difference Engine project. But, the reason for that was the
failure of the Difference Engine project being completed in a
reasonable time, and for a reasonable amount of money - at least as
far as the government was concerned. And one reason for that was
Babbage's continually revising specifications for the Difference
Engine as construction went along.
It could therefore be conjectured that if Babbage had left the
original specifications for the Difference Engine alone it might
have been completed, and possibly then the government would have
considered financing the Analytical Engine. So, who knows, if
Charles Babbage had not been such a "perfectionist" England might
have had a working "prototype" of the modern digital computer -
however, no one will ever know? The above conjecture is purely
this writer's, and I have not read anywhere of such a theory - but
it is interesting to ponder, nevertheless!
Now, a little about some other aspects of this great man's
life. As far as his family was concerned, Charles married during
his years at the university. His wife, Georgiana, bore him eight
children, only to die during her last delivery - a very, very sad
event for Charles! Most of his other children also died early in
life, only three sons surviving him. Babbage's eldest son, Henry,
(who eventually became a Colonel in the British Army) helped his
father from time to time with his "engines", and even worked on one
himself after his father's death as we shall see.
In addition to his "engines", throughout his life Charles was
a prolific writer on many scientific and mathematical subjects, all
involving a considerable amount of research. He also was an
inventor, again involving a variety of disciplines.
Babbage was fascinated by railroads (which were a fairly new
thing at the time) and invented the locomotive "cow catcher". and
had a brilliant idea for a semaphore device which could show the
engineer approximately how long ago a previous train had passed.
He was also quite interested in the field of optics and, among
other things, came up with the idea for the "opthalmascope" - the
device the eye doctor uses to look into one's eyes. He failed to
patent it, however, and it was patented later by someone else.
Getting back now to the "engines". Even though Babbage's
version of the Difference Engine was never built, a successful one
was completed in 1854 by a Swede named George Scheutz. This
machine utilized "4th Differences" and computed to an accuracy of
14 decimal digits (not the 50 that Babbage had proposed). Two
years later it was purchased by an Albany, New York observatory and
used to compute astronomical tables just as Babbage had proposed.
A copy of the Scheutz engine was also used in England to compute
insurance actuarial tables.
As far as the Analytical Engine was concerned, several years
after his father's death his son Henry succeeded in building a
working model of the engine's "mill" and printing mechanism which
he used to calculate and print the multiples of "pi" to 29 decimal
places. Parts of both of Babbage's engines ended up in a London
area museum where they can be seen today.
Charles Babbage died at his home on October 18, 1871 at almost
80 years of age, a long lifetime for a person in that time! He
died somewhat of an embittered man because of the failure of his
pet project and of the lack of recognition he had received from the
scientific community in his country. But, as you can see from the
above, his ideas were far ahead of their time, but "right on" as it
Charles Babbage - The Father Of The Computer, by Dan Halacey.
Published 1970, Macmillan Co., New York.