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Charles Babbage - Biography

Charles Babbage (December 26, 1791 – October 18, 1871) was an English mathematician and is considered a “father of the computer,” for his work in developing a difference machine and drafting plans for an analytic machine that would pave the way for more complicated models that would come to be known as the contemporary computer. He was born in London, a son of a banker which afforded him not only a sturdy education that spanned across a few different small schools and private tutorship. He has some failings of his health that punctuated his first education, but he studied enough classics from an Oxford tutor, that he was able to be accepted at Trinity College, Cambridge. Babbage had already appreciation for mathematics and had read widely such authors as Leibniz, Lacroix, Lagrange and Thomas Simpson. He was disappointed with what Trinity had to offer by means of advanced mathematics and in 1812 with others who also felt the same lack, most notably George Peacock and John Hershel, he founded the Analytical Society. Charles Babbage completed his education by being awarded an honorary degree from Peterhouse, Cambridge where he had transferred to in 1812. Upon receiving his degree in 1814 he was also married to Georgiana Whitmore with whom he would have six children, three of which would make it into adulthood. His son, Henry Prevost, would continue in his father's footsteps after Babbage died in 1871 building many of the machines that Charles Babbage had only put down onto paper.

When Charles Babbage died, he was left wholly unsatisfied with his life's work. This was due to the difficulties that he faced finding government funding to build his miraculous calculating machines and that without financial support, it was impossible to construct the monstrous machines. It wasn't until 1985 that the Science Museum in London set to the task of building a complete Difference Engine (the second series) which was completed in 1991, the printer for the 'computer' was completed nine years later in 2000. Each piece has about 4000 working parts and each weighs about three tons. What the London Science Museum achieved was the completion of an original Babbage Difference Engine since he was unable to complete on in his lifetime and likewise for his son.

What the Difference Engine is able to do is to perform polynomial functions which are entirely useful for both logarithmic and trigonometric functions and calculations using very large sets of numbers. Charles Babbage came up with the idea about the time the Analytical Society was founded in 1812. He was sitting in front of a set of logarithms that he knew to have errors. At that time there were people, called 'computers', that would compute parts of logarithms in a sort of mass productive enterprise. Babbage had the thought that if people could break down bits of a complicated mathematical procedure into smaller parts that were easily computable, that there must be a way to program a machine to work from these smaller bits and compute large mathematical computations, and to do so more quickly without human error. It was in 1822 that Charles Babbage began on the actual prototype for the Difference Engine which would have been 25,000 parts and fifteen tons. He received funding for this version of the calculating machine but did not go about building it, instead beginning to work on Difference Engine No. 2 which is the machine that the London Science Museum built. Consequently, when operational, the Difference Engine No. 2 can compute and return results to the 31st place.

The Analytical Engine was Charles Babbage's next attempt at creating a machine that could compute, and with the Analytical Engine, the computations would not necessarily be limited to mathematical equations. This machine would be programmed with punched cards that would have all the information for the initial programming and that by running these cards in a loop, one could control the mechanical calculator by using sequences, conditional branching and many other ways that our contemporary era computers use to do our bidding. This Analytic Engine was in essence a Difference Engine that could curve back upon itself much like the CPU (central processing unit) that relies upon internal procedures to carry out complex instructions. Although this engine was never built, it is the prototype to computers that are used today. The success of this model is due to Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace translated Luigi Menebrea’s article on Babbage’s machine proposal and added her own notes which contained a workable program, an algorithm to be processed by the machine. Not only did Lady Lovelace provide the prototype of what computer programming would come to modeled after, but she was also the first person to see beyond the number-crunching uses of these computing machines while many of the men, including Charles Bababge, saw them as limited to numerical processing devices.

As previously mentioned, however, Charles Babbage encountered many difficulties with the production of these machines. Not only did his project come under great scrutiny for its possible usage and practical value, both of which were seemingly laughable in the rumor circles for it was said that these machines would never work. Babbage's friend and colleague, John Hershel, continually defended Babbage and his would and the government did fund Babbage initially but the payments were not quite in sync with the money owed Babbage's engineer, Clement. Behind his house, Charles Babbage had built a 50-foot long workshop, two-stories tall that was lit by skylight and had a dust-free room to house the machine, but Clement refused to use it and this expense along with not being able to pay Clement what he needed when he needed due to the atrocious nature of bureaucratic scheduling led to the abandonment of the project in 1834 by Babbage and Clement and the official abandonment by the government in 1842. Babbage wrote of the end of the project, “I am almost worn out with disgust and annoyance at the whole affair.”

While these machines, the Difference Engines 1 and 2 as well as the Analytical Engine, were greatly influential to the technology of the 21st century, Charles Babbage was also known for many other technological endeavors and inventions. His most unsuccessful life attempts were to run for a place in Parliment, once in 1832 and another time in 1834. in both attempts he was far from attaining a position. Besides these less than desirable runs, Babbage was a prominent member of the Royal Astronomical Society which he had helped to found and was also elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was an incredible cryptologist, breaking Vignere's aukokey cipher which had gained the moniker “the undecipherable cipher.” This code-breaking was of incredible assistance to the English military campaigns although the attribution of the code-breaking was given to a Prussian infantry officer mistakenly.

Charles Babbage was an avid inventor, the cow-catcher on the front of locomotives (formally known as the pilot) was invented by him in 1838. Also in railway inventions, Babbage is responsible for the dynamometer car which is a car used for measuring aspect of a locomotive performance. He has equipped a passenger car with a continuously moving roll of paper to record such things as the shake of the carriage and pulling force of engine. This was very characteristic of Charles Babbage who wanted to record as much as possible as “the preservation of any fact might ultimately be useful.” He desired to know the daily intake of food by zoo animals, how much wood a man could saw in ten hours, and any small fact or statistic that came his way. He is most noted in this respect for publishing in Mechanics Magazine in 1857 a “Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows.” Attributing some of the damage to drunk and disorderly people was characteristic of Babbage's distaste for 'the mob' of which much is recorded since he was parodied ruthlessly, especially for his hatred of street music.

Charles Babbage also found criticism from Karl Marx for his On the Economy of Machine and Manufacture which did not take into account the lives of the people that worked in industrialized labor, but sought to assign only high-skill tasks to high-skilled workers and less to less thereby cutting costs and devaluing the potentiality of a person in which Babbage saw only a 'computer'. Marx's criticism against the segregation that leads to incredible alienation is still in dynamic tension with the principles of computational facts and information that Babbage championed.

Charles Babbage was an English mathematician, philosopher and inventor. (December 26, 1791 – October 18, 1871)