Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871)

Babbage was an English polymath mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, who is remembered now for originating the concept of a programmable computer.

In 1821 Babbage invented the Difference Engine to compile mathematical tables. On completing it in 1832, he conceived the idea of a better machine that could perform not just one mathematical task but any kind of calculation.

This was the Analytical Engine (1856), which was intended as a general symbol manipulator, and had shared some of the characteristics of today’s computers. It was to be programmed using punch-cards.

Unfortunately, little remains of Babbage’s prototype computing machines. Critical tolerances required by his machines exceeded the level of technology available at the time. And, though Babbage’s work was formally recognized by respected scientific institutions, the British government suspended funding for his Difference Engine in 1832, and after an agonizing waiting period, ended the project in 1842.

Babbage’s Difference Engine No.1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. Babbage is sometimes referred to as “father of computing.” The International Charles Babbage Society (later the Charles Babbage Institute) took his name to honor his intellectual contributions and their relation to modern computers.

Fun facts about Babbage:

  • It is believed that he put a couple of faults into the plans of the design deliberately so that when somebody would attempt building it, the machine would not work.
  • He hated music and tended to show a temper. His neighbors would gather in front of the house to make music just to annoy him.

Babbage wrote to the young poet Tennyson. “In your otherwise beautiful poem,” he said, “one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

” … If this were true,” he went on, “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 edition of your poem should read:”

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

“Strictly speaking,” Babbage added, “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.”

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