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

of today.


     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

turns out!





Charles Babbage - The Father Of The Computer, by Dan Halacey.

Published 1970, Macmillan Co., New York.