Charles Babbage was born in 1791, and showed an aptitude for mathematics from a young age. Educated privately, he took up a place at Cambridge University in 1810 and soon after graduating in 1814, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, aged just 24.
Engines of Change
Babbage was still a student when he first considered producing a machine to calculate logarithm tables, and in 1819, inspired by his interest in astronomy, he set about designing and building a mechanical computer capable of producing and printing accurate tables to eliminate the frustration of human error. Success soon followed. By 1822 he had built a small calculating machine, or Difference Engine, that could solve complex equations.
Setting his sights higher, Babbage secured an initial government grant of £1,500 to build a larger machine. Work on the Difference Engine began in 1823, but progress was slow and expensive. In 1834, work came to a halt, and in 1842 the government decided to abandon the project altogether without seeing any return on its investment. Babbage too was left out of pocket, sinking £6,000 of his own money into the failed venture.
By this time, he was working on something more sophisticated, the Analytical Engine, which could perform multiple functions, store numbers and was programmable using punched cards. Babbage’s highly detailed plans reveal a machine analogous to modern computers. However, due to a lack of funding, the Analytical Engine never saw the light of day. Nor did he ever get to see his Difference Engine No. 2, an improved design of his original engine, during his lifetime.
Although Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, he was a lifelong inventor, and as a polymath, he was active in many fields. However, his curiosity almost cost him his life at a young age. Aged just 16, Babbage nearly drowned trialing a pair of shoes he had designed to help him walk on water. Undeterred by this near fatal mishap, a constant stream of ingenious ideas followed. These ranged in scope from a cow catcher for locomotives to an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, and ‘speaking tubes’ connecting London and Liverpool. Frustratingly for Babbage, his ideas didn’t always find favour at home. In the case of his shuttered light system to aid ship navigation, it was the Russians who saw its potential, even using it against the British during the Crimean War. Babbage’s inventions were also accompanied by astonishingly accurate predictions such as recommending the use of tidal power instead of coal, providing yet more evidence of his astonishing mind.
Babbage was passionate about promoting the benefits of science beyond the circles he moved in, and was instrumental in setting up the Astronomical Society (1820), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) and the Statistical Society of London (1834). He also believed that his inventions should be freely available to all, notably refusing to patent the ophthalmoscope he constructed in 1847. Instead, the credit went to Hermann von Helmholtz four years later.
Ahead of his Time
Babbage died in 1871 without seeing his most ambitious ideas realised. However, in 1985, the Science Museum began work on building Difference Engine No. 2, completing the main part in 1991 in time for the bicentennial year of Babbage’s birth. It stands as a testament to one of Britain’s most extraordinary scientists, whose ideas were a century ahead of their time.