Babbage, Charles Essay, Research Paper
Charles Babbage was born at Walworth, Surrey England in December 26,1791. He achieved many great feats and belonged to many very distinguished groups before he died in October 18, 1871. Many people consider him to be the grandfather of computer science due to his great works with his Difference Engine (1821), which printed tables of polynomials, and his Analytical Engine (1856), which was intended as a general symbol manipulator.
Babbage grew up with a fascination with the way mechanical objects worked and was an excellent mathematician. This was discovered at an early age when he employed a tutor only to find out he knew more about math than the tutor did. He was home schooled for most of his early education mainly on account of his invalid health. Babbage eventually enrolled in Cambridge University in 1810, an institution where he would later hold the position of Lucasian chair of mathematics from 1828 to 1839. He was involved in many different fields of science. He was the first person to be presented the Gold Medal award given by the Astronomical Society, and a key figure in the founding of the Astronomical Society in 1820, the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831, and the Statistical Society of London in 1834. He authored the very influential book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, as well as a series of papers on varied topics such as optics and cryptology.
Charles Babbage had a fascination with numbers and statistics. He was obsessed with quantifying everything observable in nature. Babbage delighted in the thought of having a daily account of food consumed by zoo animals, or the “proportion of sexes amongst our poultry”. He proposed tables to calculate the amount of wood (elm or oak) a man would saw in 10 hours, or how much an ox or camel could plow or mow in a day. In Mechanics Magazine in 1857 Babbage published a “Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows” detailing 464 breakages, of which “drunken men, women, or boys” were responsible for 14. Babbage thought the table would be “of value in many respects”, and might “induce others to furnish more extensive collections of similar and related facts”.
In Babbage’s early years he was a popular and well-liked socialite. In fact, he was known for extravagant dinner parties where many famous and prominent people would be in attendance. Over the years, however, for reasons not clearly understood, Babbage turned inward and socialized less and less, and took on a reserved and bitter disposition. Some credit this to three nearly-simultaneous tragedies in his personal life, including the death of his daughter Shelley, who drowned near La Spezia in July of 1822 , his wife Georgiana’s death five years later in August 1827, and his inability to receive a royal grant for his research on the analytical engine, whose completion was Babbage’s ultimate goal in life.
Babbage had many dreams. One was a dream about a machine that would perform calculations. He called it the Differential Engine. This is a dream he would never see accomplished but would burn in him with such passion that it would keep him devoted to achieving it for the rest of his life. He had many detailed drawings and even achieved the feat of a small prototype. His perfectionism always left him thinking of a better way to build the device, though, and this left him unable to complete a project before starting work on another idea. Said Joel Shurkin of Babbage:
“One of Babbage’s most serious flaws was his inability to stop tinkering.
No sooner would he send a drawing to the machine shop than he
would find a better way to perform the task and would order work
stopped until he had finished pursuing the new line. By and large
this flaw kept Babbage from ever finishing anything.”
Work began on the Difference Engine in 1829. He had hired an engineer and machinist by the name of Joseph Clement to construct the engine and to oversee the fabrication of special tools. By the end of 1830 Babbage wanted to move the engine’s workshop to his house on Dorset Street. A man of great ego, Clement refused to move from his own workshop, and made, according to Babbage, “inordinately extravagant demands”. Babbage would not advance Clement further money, so Clement dismissed his crew, and work on the Difference Engine ceased. Clement also withheld the blueprints and special tools constructed for the project. This would leave bad blood between Clement and Babbage through out the remainder of their lives, although eventually Clement did return the blue prints. Adding to the difficulties, the British Government suspended funding for his Difference Engine in 1832, and after an agonizing waiting period, finally killed the project in 1842. At any rate, there remain only fragments of Babbage’s prototype Difference Engine.
After the collapse of his Difference Engine project, Babbage now focused on his next invention: the Analytical Engine, an improved version of the Difference Engine. This project he devoted most of his time and large fortune towards after 1842, although he never succeeded in completing any of his several designs for it. The Analytical Engine was intended to use loops of Jacquard’s punched cards to control an automatic calculator, which could make decisions based on the results of previous computations. This machine was also intended to employ several features subsequently used in modern computers, including sequential control, branching, and looping. Unfortunately, though, this too fell through as the British government once again could not approve funding the research the project further, and in 1851 Babbage finally had to close the entire project in frustration.
George Scheutz, a Swedish printer, successfully constructed a machine based on the designs for Babbage’s Difference Engine in 1854. This machine printed mathematical, astronomical and actuarial tables with unprecedented accuracy, and was used by the British and American governments.
Despite the fact that he died without ever achieving his ultimate goal of the Analytical Engine, Charles Babbage must be considered among the most talented and intelligent men of the 19th century, and certainly one of the leading visionaries in the field of computing. He has definitely left his mark on our way of life and has every right to be deemed a “genius.” It is because of his visions, maybe not directly related to our advancements in technology today but through his underlying methods and ingenuity that we have such an advanced society.
C. Babbage, “Passages from the Life of a Philosopher”, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1864.
P. And E. Morrison, “Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines”, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, New York, 1961.
R.W. Sebesta, “Concepts of Programming Languages”, Fourth Edition, Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1998.
M.R. Williams, “A History of Computing Technology”, Second Edition, IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamitos, California, 1998.
J.A.N. Lee, http://www.histech.rwthaachen.de/www/quellen/Histcomp/Babbage.html, Charles Babbage, September 1994.
JOC/EFR, http://turnbull.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Babbage.html, Charles Babbage, December 1996.