Mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Charles Babbage’s sophisticated machines are considered to be the ancestors of modern computers.
Born in 1792 to a wealthy family, Charles Babbage was home schooled by private tutors before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge to read Mathematics. A fervent believer that scientific breakthroughs would foster human progress, he became disappointed by the standard of instruction and transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge, from which he graduated with top marks.
In 18th century Britain, complicated equations relied on maths tables – lists of numbers showing the results of various calculations – but affected by human error they often resulted in terribly poor performances and Babbage became consumed with the idea of finding a method that could do the equations mechanically. It was a quest that haunted him until the end of his life.
In 1821, he presented to his fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society the ‘Difference Engine’ – a machine capable of automatically calculating algebraic equations. Intrigued, the society approved the idea and two years later the government offered him an initial grant of £1500 to construct it. Faced with technical difficulties and quarrels with his colleagues, in 1834, Babbage wrote: “The drawing and parts of the Engine are at length in a place of safety, I am almost worn out with disgust and annoyance at the whole affair.”
Soon after, the government officially abandoned the project. Yet Babbage did not give up and together with Ada Lovelace – daughter of poet Lord Byron – they conceived the ‘Analytical Engine’, another machine, this time capable not only of a single mathematical task but of any kind of calculation. It marked the transition from mechanised arithmetic to fully-fledged general-purpose computation.
The Analytical Engine consisted of two parts: the mill and the store. The mill, analogous to a modern computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU), executed the operations on values retrieved from the store, the equivalent of today’s memory.
Babbage had a vision for the Analytical Engine as being oriented towards algebraic computation, but Lovelace believed it could be used outside of just a mathematical context. After elaborating a system that could calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers – considered to be the first written computer program – she suggested that numbers could represent any type of data and that the Analytical Engine might even be able to compose pieces of music.
And yet, despite 500 large design drawings, 1000 sheets of mechanical notations and 7000 sheets of scribbles, Babbage wasn’t able to build it. Instead, with the knowledge gained, between 1847 and 1849 Babbage started designing a second Difference Engine. He realised that he could simplify the drawings and use a third of the parts while keeping the same computing power. Suffering the same fate as its predecessors, however, the engine never saw daylight.
Lacking the material and financial resources to make groundbreaking progress, Babbage died frustrated and misunderstood. A few years before, he declared that he would have accepted an imminent death on the conditions that he could spend three days, 500 years later, with a scientific guide who could offer him explanations on all of the inventions that occurred during those five centuries.
Babbage pioneered the idea of machines as a means to supersede the skill and power of the human brain in everyday life. Born in the wrong century, he was never able to fulfill his desire to build a fully functional machine but he went on to inspire the inventor of modern computers – Alan Turing – and in a world where computers are the backbone of most industries, his legacy still lives on.