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Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871)

Mathematician, computer scientist

Whom do we thank for introducing the concept of the computer to the world? It is this British mathematician and computer scientist that we should acknowledge for coming up with the idea.

Charles Babbage was born on the 26th of December 1791 in London, to a wealthy banker, Benjamin Babbage and his wife Betsy Plumleigh. From his childhood, Babbage was quite a sickly child and was sent to a clergy school to receive special care, because his parents believed he should not be stressed out too much.

Even though he was sick, because his father was quite wealthy, he received a good quality education, sometimes even having had private tutors.

At 19 years he arrived at Trinity College Cambridge but was not impressed by their mathematical teaching. He, along with a few other friends decided to form a few clubs during this time to study on their own.

They formed the Analytical Society, which was concerned with science, the Ghost Club, which investigated supernatural phenomena, and the Extractors Club, which was to free anyone who was put into a ‘madhouse’ or mental asylum.

Two years later, at the age of 21 Babbage left to Peterhouse Cambridge and became the leading mathematician there receiving an honorary degree without an examination 2 years later.

He got married soon after at the age of 23 and the couple had eight children. Unfortunately only four survived childhood.

Babbage’s wife passed away when he was 36 years old, and tragically the same year he also lost his father, his second son (also named Charles) and his youngest son Alexander.

To cope with the loss he spent a year travelling and this delayed his work quite a bit.

Babbage’s idea to build a computer sprung from the many mistakes that men were making when they calculated math table. When he was just 21, he wanted to introduce a machine that can calculate without making mistakes like those that humans did.

The calculating machines that existed at that time also influenced his idea to build the computer.

The first step in this process was when the Royal Astronomical Society granted him £1500 to build the “difference engine” that could calculate astronomical and mathematical tables using the differences method of numbers.

It was at this stage that death struck the Babbage family leading him to take a year off his work. He travelled through many countries and was even stayed on in Italy for a while.

Babbage faced plenty of difficulties on his return because there were rumours that his machine was useless and he was wasting precious government money. The Royal Society and the government supported him however, to continue his work.

Soon however he started experiencing problems with his assistant, which turned ugly because of certain money issues. Unfortunately, in 1842, the government officially stopped funding Babbage’s project because of this.

He had also started working on an advanced version of his Differences Engine, called the Analytical Engine; by trying to programme the machine calculate more than just astronomical and mathematical calculations.

Funding became a major problem for Babbage because the government was not supporting his work any longer. However, a lady, Ada Lovelace supported his work and even wrote several computer programmes that Babbage could use in his machine.

In 1855, Babbage approved a Swiss design of his analytical engine and the British Government purchased this machine in 1859 to use in one of their offices.

Besides being a pioneer in the field of computing, like many of the greatest scientists Babbage wrote many interesting academic papers on machinery, computing and even philosophy.

He received many awards for his great strides in computer mathematics, and even tried (although unsuccessfully) to run for public office.

While Babbage is known famously for his introduction of the computer to the world, he is less famous for inventing the ‘pilot’ or the ‘cow-catcher’ – the metal frame which is fixed in front of locomotives that allows for them to pass through barriers on the tracks.

Babbage was also involved in establishing England’s modern postal system, and even put together the first reliable actuarial tables (a type of period life table to calculate populations during a short time).

Many locations, institutes, a computer blog, and even objects (a moon crater) are named after Charles Babbage in honour of his great work to the field of computer science.

Babbage passed away at the age of 79 years on the 18th of October 1871 of kidney failure. Half of his brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, while the other half is displayed at the Science Museum, London.

His youngest son, Henry Prevost Babbage (1824–1918) created 6 different engines based on Babbage’s work, thereby continuing the legacy of his famous father.