Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Charles Babbage invented the analytical engine, a computing device.

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The dawn of the computer age begins with Charles Babbage's invention of the analytical engine. This mechanical 19th century computer had a processing unit that Babbage called the "mill," which could store number programs. Data was inputted using punch cards, then Babbage's computer would solve the problem and provide a printed answer.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) developed the analytical engine project after an earlier computing project, the difference engine, that Babbage started in 1822.

The difference engine was intended to solve polynomial equations using a numerical method called the "method of differences," but the British government killed the project in 1842 after sinking thousands of pounds into the project without receiving a working engine.

The analytical engine was the first general computational device, with the ability to solve different types of equations. The use of punch cards to record a program was inspired by the Jacquard loom, which used similar punch cards to control the pattern being woven by the loom.

Being mechanical rather than electrical, the analytical engine was intended to work by a series of gears and levers. Charles Babbage started designing his analytical engine in 1833 and continued to tinker with the designs until the day he died. As with the difference engine, he was unable to build a working prototype.

Charles Babbage's motive for inventing the difference engine and analytical engine was the desire to create absolutely accurate mathematical tables.

Impact of the Analytical Engine

During a public lecture on Charles Babbage held at the University of Witwatersrand, historian Philip Machanick stated, "What made the analytical engine such a feat of engineering was that it was built before the discovery of electronics, and was entirely mechanical. Its memory consisted of gears, while the processing unit, or mill, consisted of cams, clutches, cranks and gears."