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The History of Charles Babbage & The First Digital Computer

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The History of Charles Babbage & The First Digital Computer

Key Points

  • In 1821 Charles Babbage grew tired of manually calculating and decided to consider mechanical calculations. 
  • The English mathematician and inventor is credited with having conceived the first automatic digital computer.
  • Although Charles Babbage thought of the first digital computer, the design was not completed in his lifetime. 

Charles Babbage is credited for designing and giving birth to the idea of the first automatic digital computer. During the mid-1830’s, Charles developed plans for a Analytical Engine. Although, it wasn’t competed during his lifetime, Babbage’s plans made way for the basic elements of the present-day, modern computer.

Some time in 1821, the young English mathematician Charles Babbage (biography), checking calculations for improving tables for a navigational book, and disappointed by numerous errors in these calculations, shared with a friend, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!” “It is quite possible,” remarked his friend.

It was during the course of this activity that Charles Babbage began to seriously consider how such routine calculations could be performed mechanically. This preoccupation will last half a century, until his death. There is no doubt, that Babbage was an outstanding genius and he is the only man who deserves the title Father of the Computer.

             

Charles Babbage is commonly referred to as the Father of Computers.

                 

Charles Babbage was an extremely intelligent man and during the time of 1828 to 1839, he was Lucian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Not only was Babbage dedicated to his teachings (although known for being unconventional) he wrote three different topical books during this period of his life and was elected a Foreign Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832.

Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine

While his Difference Engine was a sophisticated specialized calculating machine and a huge step forward in the construction of calculating devices, it was nothing, compared to the Analytical Engine. Babbage dared to design an entirely mechanical digital programmable computer more than 100 years, before such a machine was produced.

Drawing of Babbage's difference engine
This drawing by Charles Babbage provides a close-up view of a portion of the Difference Engine.

It is simply astonishing that the designs for the Analytical Engine embodied in their mechanical and logical details just about every major principle of the modern digital computer.

This section of the site will follow the steps of the great man, as well as of his followers.

Babbage’s Difference Engine

Babbage designed his first Difference Engine in the 1820s. This device was intended to be an automatic mechanical calculator that could tabulate polynomial functions. While he drew plans for several different iterations of the machine, none of them were ever built due to a lack of funding and conflicts with his chief engineer, Joseph Clement, who was in charge of making the parts for the Difference Machine.

It’s interesting to note that Babbage’s first design, Difference Engine Number 1, would have weighed around four tons!

Inspired by Babbage’s work, two Swedes, Georg Scheutz and his son Edvard, completed a working prototype of a Difference Engine. They sold two fully engineered Difference Machines (in 1853 and 1859), which were “temperamental” and not very useful to their buyers.

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