Charles BabbageCharles Babbage may have spent his life in vain, trying to make a machineconsidered by most of his friends to be ridiculous. 150 years ago, Babbage drewhundreds of drawings projecting the fundamentals on which today’s computers arefounded. But the technology was not there to meet his dreams. He was born onDecember 26, 1791, in Totnes, Devonshire, England. As a child he was alwaysinterested about the mechanics of everything and in the supernatural. Hereportedly once tried to prove the existence of the devil by making a circle inhis own blood on the floor and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward. In college,he formed a ghost club dedicated to verifying the existence of the supernatural.
When in Trinity College in Cambridge, Charles carried out childish pranks andrebelled because of the boredom he felt from knowing more than his instructors.
Despite this, however, he was on his way to understanding the advanced theoriesof mathematics and even formed an Analytical Society to present and discussoriginal papers on mathematics and to interest people in translating the worksof several foreign mathematicians into English. His studies also led him to acritical study of logarithmic tables and was constantly reporting errors in them.
During this analysis, it occurred to him that all these tables could becalculated by machinery. He was convinced that it was possible to construct amachine that would be able to compute by successive differences and to evenprint out the results. (He conceived of this 50 years before type-settingmachines or typewriters were invented.)In 1814, the age of 23, Charles married 22-year-old Georgina Whitmore. Georginawould have eight children in thirteen years, of which only three sons wouldsurvive to maturity. Babbage really took no interest in raising his children.
After Georgina died at the age of 35, his mother took over the upbringing. In1816, Babbage had his first taste of failure when his application for theprofessorship of mathematics at East India College in Haileybury was rejecteddue to political reasons, as was his application, three years later, for thechair of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Fortunately, his elderbrother supported his family while Babbage continued his work on calculatingmachines.
At the age of 30, Babbage was ready to announce to the Royal AstronomicalSociety that he had embarked on the construction of a table-calculating machine.
His paper, “Observations on the Application of Machinery to the Computation ofMathematical Tables” was widely acclaimed and consequently, Babbage waspresented with the first gold medal awarded by the Astronomical Society. Babbagewas also determined to impress the prestigious Royal Society and wrote a letterto its president, Sir Humphrey Davy, proposing and explaining his ideas behindconstructing a calculating machine, or the Difference Engine, as he would callit. A 12-man committee considered Babbage’s appeal for funds for his project andin May 1823, the Society agreed that the cause was worthy.
While constructing this machine, implementation problems arose as well as amisunderstanding with the British Government, both of whom regarded this machineas property of the other. This misunderstanding would cause problems for thenext twenty years, and would result in delaying Babbage’s work. Babbage alsoapparently miscalculated his task. The Engine would need about 50 times theamount of money he was given. In 1827, Babbage was overwhelmed by a number ofpersonal tragedies: the deaths of his father, wife and two of his children.
Consequently, Babbage took ill and his family advised him to travel abroad for afew months. Upon his return, he approached the Duke of Wellington, then primeminister, regarding the possibility of a further grant. In the duke, Babbagefound a friend who could really understand the principles and capabilities ofthe Engine and the two would remain friends for the rest of the duke’s life.
Babbage was also granted more money. He continued work on the project for manyyears.
In old age, Babbage agreed, at the age of 71, to have the completed section ofhis Difference Engine shown to the public for the first time. Babbage’s manydisappointments led him to say that he never lived a happy day in his life.
Babbage died in 1871, two months shy of his 80th birthday.