Charles Babbage

Biography of Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage, credited deservedly as Father of the Computer, the world renowned inventor of Differential Engine and Analytical Engine, was born on the 26th of December, 1791, in the family home at 44 Crosby Row, Walworth Road, London. He was the first child of Benjamin Babbage (1753-1827) and Elizabeth Plumleigh Babbage, née Teape (1759-1844). Benjamin Babbage Sr., Charles' grandfather, was mayor of Totnes in Devon (in southwest England). His son, also Benjamin (Charles' father) had started out as a goldsmith in the small town of Totnes, a picturesque port in Devonshire, and later became a successful merchant and banker, who had waited until he was 38 year of age and wealthy before marrying and moving to London in 1790 to join a new banking firm—Bitton Estate in Teignmouth. Elizabeth Teape came from a prominent Devonshire family. After Charles, the family had two other sons, who died in infancy, and a daughter—Mary Ann (born 1798). She outlived Charles and the two siblings remained close throughout their lives.

Young Charles was brought up as an Anglican and received his earliest education at home. His childhood was marred by chronic illness and hoping that country living would improve his health, around the age of eight his parents began to sent him to country schools. In 1803, his family returned to Devon, and in improved health, Charles was sent to a small residential school in the village of Enfield near London, where he remained for three years. The teacher at Enfield was Stephen Freeman, an amateur astronomer and namely he awakened Charles’s interest in science and mathematics.

Charles then moved to a small school near Cambridge for a couple of years. This may have been to prepare for entrance to the University of Cambridge, but it made little impression on him. At age 16 or 17, Babbage returned to Devon to live with his parents. He learned Latin and Greek with a tutor and also spent much time studying mathematics on his own. By then, he was passionately fond of algebra and devoured every book he could find on the subject.

In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth, and Benjamin Babbage became a warden of the nearby St. Michael’s Church. In October 1810, Charles Babbage began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. It meant new perspectives and he found the environment, the books and social life intensely stimulating. Here he was to meet new friends who would remain close to him for the rest of his life. His days were spent in sampling the pleasures of undergraduate existence parties with plenty of good food and drink, Sunday breakfasts with his friends after Church, chess and games of whist and trips on the Cam. There was a servant to take care of the routine chores and make Babbage's life all the more agreeable. All this was financed with the 300 pounds, a big sum for the time, which Charles received as an annual allowance from his father. Among his new friends, John Frederick William Herschel soon took first place. (He was the son of William Herschel, the outstanding astronomer, who had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. John followed in his father’s footsteps, and became one of the leading men of science in England during the 1800s.) Together they began to devote themselves to mathematics. Other friends of Babbage were the famous mathematician George Peacock and Edward Ryan, a famous English lawyer. In 1812, Babbage, Peacock, Herschel and some other students had founded a little association called the Analytical Society. Its purpose was to introduce continental mathematical methods into the conservative Cambridge.

Georgiana BabbageIn the spring of 1814, Charles Babbage received his B.A. Shortly afterwards, on 25th July 1814, he married to Georgiana Whitmore (1792-1827) (see the nearby portrait), one of the 8 daughters of a wealthy Shropshire family and in the fall, they moved to London. The marriage was not welcomed by his father Benjamin and it would appear that the relations between father and son were far from harmonious. Benjamin Babbage had no complaints against Georgiana. His attitude was that, like himself, Charles should wait until he was properly established financially. Fortunately, Benjamin continued his £300 annual allowance, to which Georgiana could add £150 of her own. With such an income, the couple could maintain a modest life without lavish entertaining. In the August next year was born his first son—Benjamin Herschel (1815-1878). Charles and Georgiana had eight children, 7 sons and 1 daughter, but only three—the above-mentioned Benjamin Herschel, 5th son, Dugald Bromheald (1823-1901), and 6th son, Henry Prevost (1824-1918) survived to adulthood. All other children died young.

In 1815 Babbage becomes a member of the Royal Society. For a while, he sought paid employment, to prove to his father that he could make something of himself. In 1816, he applied for the post of math professor at East India College at Hartford, but his hopes were soon dashed when another candidate was chosen instead. In 1819, Babbage once more applied for a professorship, this time at Edinburgh. But despite all his recommendations from prominent French and English mathematicians, Babbage did not gain the position. At the same time, he also applied for a seat on the Board of Longitude but this too ended in failure. In 1820, he made a new application but to no avail.

In 1819 Babbage travels to Paris to visit French scientists. There he gets first inspiration for Difference Engine from Baron Gaspard de Prony’s use of division of labor for calculating tables.

Charles Babbage as youngAt the close of 1820, Charles Babbage by now twenty-nine was still without any profession. For the previous six years, he had tried to find something suitable. He had carried out intensive mathematical research and had published a fair number of articles. He had presented several of his findings in lectures at the Royal Society, among whose illustrious members he had managed to establish himself. He had also, once again, shown his predilection for reform by becoming one of the cofounders of the Astronomical Society in 1820. Despite of his unsuccessful attempts to find a job, the family seemed to manage quite comfortably financially.

In 1814 Babbage made his first step in the field of engineering. He invented a new type of lock which he was interested in having manufactured. This was possibly his first serious excursion into that area of human endeavor, which was with time to cast its spell on him. The real passion about engineering will possess him in 1821, when he will begin his Difference Engine.

Besides his lifetime engagement with the construction of Differential Engine and Analytical Engine, Babbage did make occasional forays into other fields. In 1824, he was invited by some investors to organize a life insurance company. The new challenge intrigued him, and he threw himself into the task of determining the appropriate rates to charge for life insurance policies. Having collected a lot of information, Babbage decided that he would have to make some other use of it. In 1826, he published a book on the life insurance industry, A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives. In fewer than 200 pages, this book provided a very useful consumer’s guide to the life insurance companies in England at that time. Readers could use it to compare companies and make intelligent decisions about which one would suit their particular needs.

In 1827 Babbage decided to publish tables of logarithms. He compared several tables, published since then in England. Wherever they differed, he recalculated the value so that he could produce a table completely free from error. With the help of an army engineer, he directed the work of a number of clerks. The corrected table was published in 1827. This table was reprinted many times, even after 1900. Babbage's Table of Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108,000 was a paradigm of accuracy and was extensively used into the twentieth century.

The year 1827 was a devastating year for Charles. In February of 1827, his father died in Devon at the age of 73. Old Benjamin left sufficient funds to care for his wife, Betty, who moved to London to live with Charles and his family. Babbage inherited about £100,000, the bulk of his father's estate, which made him a very rich man. The interest on the investments and the rent on the properties provided a comfortable income for the rest of his life. However, his view of a comfortable life did not last long. In July of the same year, his son Charles Whitmore was struck with a childhood disease and died at the age of 10. Then, in a month later, Charles’s wife Georgiana contracted a serious illness. On the 1st of September, both she and a newborn son Alexander Forbes died, apparently from complications caused by childbirth. These deaths caused Babbage to go into a mental breakdown which delayed the construction of his machines.

In 1828, Charles was elected as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. This university chair, once held by Isaac Newton, was a great honor, though it carried an annual salary of less than £100. Babbage however did not think it was worth the distraction from his beloved Difference Engine. He held the post for ten years, however, he did not live in Cambridge and seldom lectured there. Nevertheless, he was always grateful for the appointment, which he called the only honour I ever received in my own country.

Filled with sorrow, at the end of 1827 Babbage made a long (one year) trip to Europe, when he met a lot of leading European scientists. After returning to England, his famous charm, wit, and humor had been restored, but he had clearly changed and his family life was gone. From 1829 to 1834, Babbage engaged in electoral politics, promoting candidates and even standing for election himself. In 1830 he published a book—Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, which is the best known of Babbage’s many polemics against the scientific institutions of his day and fueled much debate at the time and after. In addition to the affairs of his family, he continued with the Difference Engine, and managed to write a book on the economy of manufacturing. He began to also to hold regular Saturday evening parties, initially in order to introduce his teenage children, Herschel and Georgiana, into society. Before long, the Babbage soirées formed an important part of the London social scene. Often, the guest list exceeded 200. They came from all parts of polite society: lawyers and judges, doctors and surgeons, deacons and bishops, and scholars and artists by the score. In the midst of this full bustle of activity during the 1830s, personal tragedy again struck Babbage. In 1834, his beloved daughter Georgiana became ill and died. She was only 17 years old. To deal with his grief, Charles threw himself more deeply into his work.

Babbage was able to turn every experience to advantage. After all his visits to workshops and factories both in England and on the continent, he sought to draw general principles from them. In 1832, Babbage compiled these principles into the more than 30 chapters of his book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Within three years, there were four editions in England, one in America, and translations into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Russian—a real best-seller.

Charles Babbage at middle ageDuring the 1830s Babbage became progressively more involved in developing the efficiency of rail transport in England. Charles and his son Herschel even constructed a special device, something like black box, which measured the speed of the train and its degree of vibration.

In 1842 the oldest son of Babbage—Herschel, with his family and his brother Dugald, went off on a railway project in Italy. After other jobs, these two sons went to Australia in 1851 to conduct a geological survey. The third son, Henry, decided to join the Indian army. He took up his post there in 1843. Charles’s mother, Betty, was left alone in the old house, where she died in 1844 in her mid-eighties.

Charles fell into a routine that lasted most of the rest of his life. He devoted mornings and afternoons to writing or work on the Analytical Engine or Differential Engine, and then evenings to dinner, followed by a party, a play, or the opera.

In 1861, at the age of 70, Charles Babbage became more aware of his own mortality. He began to devote part of his time to writing a collection of reminiscences. His autobiography, titled Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, was published in 1864.

Babbage was a quite eccentric and a man of extremes. His friends could do no wrong and his enemies could do no right. He once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem "The Vision of Sin". Babbage wrote, "In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.
...If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next version of your poem should read:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."
Babbage especially hated street music, and once wrote: It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances. It is said that organ grinders were playing deliberately outside his house on the day he died.

Charles Babbage oldThere is no doubt, that Babbage was an outstanding genius and he is the only man (if any!), who deserves the title Father of the Computer. His Differential Engine was a sophisticated specialized calculating machine, try to compare this monster with the ubiquitous calculator of Colmar, manufactured at the same time. But Differential Engine was nothing, compared to the Analytical Engine. It's unbelievable, that Babbage dared to design a universal computer more than 100 years, before such a machine to be produced. And he was capable to make it, if he had the necessary support. 100 years in the field of computers is equal to 1000 years in many other areas. At the same time his striving for perfection and his difficult personality foiled a lot of his great ideas. After 10 years of work and huge sum of money spent, he was very close to completion of Differential Engine, but his disputes with the engineer Clement, and some other trammels, spoiled his plans.

Despite his many achievements, the failure to construct his calculating machines left Babbage in his declining years a disappointed and embittered man. He died of renal inadequacy, secondary to cystitis at age 79 on 18th October 1871 at his home on Dorset Street, London, and was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. Babbage's brain is preserved at the Science Museum in London.

Charles Babbage in 1848

Charles Babbage (a painting by Samuel Laurence from 1845, at the National Portrait Gallery in London)

Charles Babbage was a genius of the first order—a mathematician and professor, an engineer and inventor, a politician, a writer, a cryptographer, a founder of scientific organizations, and an expert on industry. His pioneering book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, was cited repeatedly by Marx in Capital and by John Stuart Mill in Principles of Political Economy. He was a human dynamo who needed only five or six hours of sleep a day and who was driven by a millennarian vision of man and machine that brought him within a hair's breadth of the invention of the greatest of all machines—the Computer.

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
Albert Einstein