Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Charles Babbage was one of the key figures of a great era of British history. Born as the industrial revolution was getting into its swing, by the time Babbage died Britain was by far the most industrialized country the world had ever seen. Babbage played a crucial rôle in the scientific and technical development of the period.

Although born in London, Babbage came from an old Totnes family, and retained close links with the region all his life. The West Country, with its mining and engineering was particularly important in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and from the extraordinarily wealthy Totnes region, with its port at Dartmouth, came also Newcomen and Savery, pioneers of the steam engine.

Babbage went up to Cambridge in 1810 and with some friends effected the crucial introduction of the Leibnitz notation for the calculus, which transformed mathematics in Cambridge and thus throughout Britain.

In 1814 Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore, from a landowning Shropshire family. Her half brother, Wolryche Whitmore, was the M.P. who rose year after year in the House of Commons to move the repeal of the Corn Laws. He was also a leading member of the Political Economy Club, and played an important part in Babbage's life.

Babbage's greatest achievement was his detailed plans for Calculating Engines, both the table-making Difference Engines and the far more ambitious Analytical Engines, which were flexible and powerful, punched-card controlled general purpose calculaters, embodying many features which later reappeared in the modern stored program computer. These features included: punched card control; separate store and mill; a set of internal registers (the table axes); fast multiplier/divider; a range of peripherals; even array processing.

It has often been asked whether Babbage's Engines would have worked if they had been built. This may not be an entirely meaningful question: much can go wrong during such a project, while on the other hand new solutions may be found to any problems which might appear during construction. However the question can be put slightly differently: would it have been technically feasible for, say, Babbage and Whitworth to construct an Analytical Engine during the 1850s?

Twenty five years ago, after a careful investigation, Anthony Hyman and the late Maurice Trask formed the opinion that construction of Babbage's Engines would have been quite possible. The problems were financial and organizational, but technically the project in itself was perfectly feasible. They proposed a plan. :first construct DE2 (the Second Difference Engine; then, if wished DE1, or a version of DE2 with `travelling platforms'; and finally a complete Analytical Engine, probably following plan 28A.

After much work by many people, and particularly by Dr. Allan Bromley, a team at the Science Museum led by Doron Swade built a complete version of DE2. It was a triumphant success, vindicating Babbage's technical work. However, the far more ambitious task of constructing an Analytical Engine remains to be undertaken.

Besides the Calculating Engines Babbage has an extraordinary range of achievements to his credit: he wrote a consumer guide to life assurance; pioneered lighthouse signalling; scattered technical ideas and inventions in magnificent profusion; developed mathematical codebreaking (Prof. Franksen has plausibly suggested that Babbage ran a private Bletchley Park for the British government in the middle of the +19th century).

Babbage was also an important political economist. Where Adam Smith thought agriculture was the foundation of a nation's wealth; where Ricardo's ideas were focused on corn: Babbage for the first time authoritatively placed the factory on centre stage. Babbage gave a highly original discussion of the division of labour, which was followed by John Stuart Mill. Babbage's discussion of the effect of the development of production technology on the size of factories was taken up by Marx, and was fundamental to Marxist theory of capitalist socio-economic development. A case can also be made that Babbage had an influence on William Stanley Jevons, and was thus also a pioneer of marginal value theory. However, the latter remains to be proved.

For twenty five years Charles Babbage was a leading figure in London society, and his glorious Saturday evening soirées, attended by two or three hundred people, were a meeting place for Europe's liberal intelligencia.

Further references

Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer (1982),
Princeton/Oxford University Press, by Anthony Hyman,
is the standard biography of Babbage.

Science and Reform, Selected works of Charles Babbage, (1989),
with commentary and notes, Cambridge University Press, by Anthony Hyman, (in print);
complements Pioneer of the Computer, treating in detail aspects of Babbages work which were treated more cursorarily in the latter, and vice versa.
Together they give a clear and coherent introduction to Babbage`s life and work.

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Maintainer & date: October 01, 1996