The Life of Charles Babbage: Father of the Computer

Photograph of Charles Babbage

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Charles Babbage (December 26, 1791–October 18, 1871) is known as the "Father of the Computer" thanks to his work developing prototypes for the first mechanical and programmable computing machines.

He was a prolific writer, with a wide number of interests including mathematics, engineering, economics, politics, and technology. Among Babbage's many inventions were the modern postal system in England, as well as speedometers, and cowcatchers for locomotive engines. But his best-known inventions were undoubtedly his computing machines.

Early Years 

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791, in Surrey, the eldest of four children born to London banker Benjamin and Elizabeth Pumleigh Teape Babbage. Only he and his sister Mary Ann survived early childhood. The Babbages were a fairly well-to-do family, and as the only surviving son, Charles was sent to the best schools, including Exeter, Enfield, Totnes, and Oxford before finally entering Trinity College at Cambridge in 1810.

At Trinity, Babbage read mathematics, and in 1812 he joined Peterhouse at Cambridge University, where he was the top mathematician. While at Peterhouse, he co-founded the Analytical Society, a more-or-less mock scientific society that nevertheless had a membership of some of the best-known young scientists in England. Babbage graduated from Peterhouse in 1814.

Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore in Teignmouth on July 2, 1814. His father wanted him to wait until he had enough money to support himself, but still promised his son £300 per year for life. The younger Babbages eventually had eight children, only three of whom lived to adulthood.

After his graduation, Babbage became a lecturer on astronomy at the Royal Institute. He was then elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1816.

Inventing "The Difference Engine"

In the early 19th century, navigation, astronomical, and actuarial tables were vital pieces of the burgeoning industrial age. In navigation, they were used to calculate time, tides, currents, winds, positions of the sun and moon, coastlines, and latitudes. The tables were laboriously constructed by hand at the time: inaccurate tables led to disastrous delays and even loss of ships.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine Prototype, 1824–1832
Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, prototype calculating machine, 1824–1832, assembled in 1832 by Joseph Clement, a skilled toolmaker and draftsman.  Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

Babbage began creating a machine to produce those tables mechanically in 1819. By 1823, he described it as a machine which would tabulate calculations for up to 20 decimal places. It was called the Difference Engine, after the principle of finite differences. That principle is a mathematical method of resolving polynomial expressions by addition, and thus resolvable by simple machinery.

In 1827, Babbage's wife and father died, as well as two of his children. From his father's estate, he inherited £100,000. To a large degree, that inheritance made it possible for Babbage to dedicate his life to his machines. 

Government Support

Babbage had seen the Jacquard loom, a weaving machine built in 1801, which was cranked by hand and driven by instructions delivered by punch cards. He wanted to build an infallible steam-driven or hand-cranked calculating machine that would calculate and print tables. After the prototype for the Difference Engine was constructed in 1823, Babbage's project was funded by an enthusiastic British government. 

Babbage himself built several prototypes of the Difference Engine, but despite these partial successes, the British government ceased funding the project in 1832, after a decade without a working model. The project was officially ended in 1842. 

Later, the Swedish printer Per Georg Scheutz (1785–1873) successfully constructed a marketable machine based on Babbage's work, known as the Scheutzian calculation engine. While imperfect and about the size of a grand piano, the engine was demonstrated in Paris in 1855, and versions were sold to the U.S. and British governments. 

Analytical Engine 

By 1834, Babbage had ceased work on the Difference Engine and began to plan for a larger and more comprehensive machine: the Analytical Engine. Babbage's new machine was an enormous step forward. It would be built to calculate more than one mathematical task: in other words, it would be what we call today programmable. 

Model of Babbage's Analytical Engine
Non Functional Model of Charle's Babbage's Analytical Engine, built for Babbage about 1870. Getty Images / De Agostini Picture Library

Babbage proposed that his new machine would be fed by Jacquard-type punch cards, read by mechanical feelers. It incorporated memory storage and anticipated modern computer techniques such as "condition transfer" so that intermediate calculations would automatically direct the machine to modify its own program. 

Babbage continued to devote most of his time and fortune to the construction of the Analytical Engine, but he never got any of his various versions to work. Engineering technology of the time simply did not exist for the precision required by his machine and its printer. 

Meeting Ada Lovelace 

Babbage met Ada Byron (1815–1852), the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and later Countess of Lovelace, on June 5, 1833. She was 17 years old. Ada and her mother attended one of Babbage's lectures, and after some correspondence, Babbage invited them to see a small scale version of the Difference Engine. Ada was fascinated, and she requested and received copies of the blueprints of the Difference Engine. She and her mother visited factories to see other machines at work. 

Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace, (nee Byron) (1815–1852)
Ada Lovelace is credited as the world's first programmer for the help she gave computer pioneer Charles Babbage, painted circa 1840. Donaldson Collections/Getty Images

Ada Lovelace read widely and studied with two of the best mathematicians of her day: Augustus De Morgan and Mary Somerville. After she translated Luigi Menabrea’s "Notions sur la Machine Analytique de M. Charles Babbage", she sent Babbage a copy. He responded that she could have written the article herself, and Lovelace embarked upon additional work on the translation, adding detailed appendices and footnotes to the content. This document essentially described how to program the Difference Engine, making Ada Byron Lovelace the world's first programmer. 

Legacy and Death

Babbage died at home in London on October 18, 1871. His son Henry continued Babbage's work, but like his father, Henry was unable to build a completely functioning machine. Another of his sons, Benjamin, emigrated to South Australia, where many of Babbage's papers and pieces of the prototypes were discovered in 2015. 

A modern, functional version of Babbage's Difference Engine was successfully built in 1991 by Doron Swade, Curator at London's Science Museum. It is accurate to 31 digits, has 4,000 parts, and weighs over three metric tons. The printer, completed in 2000, had another 4,000 parts and weighed 2.5 metric tons. Swade is part of Plan 28, an attempt to build a working Analytical Engine. 

Charles Babbage was one of the most influential figures in the development of technology. His machines served as the intellectual predecessor to a wide range of industrial and computing techniques. In addition, he is considered a significant figure in 19th century English society. He published six monographs and at least 86 papers, and he gave lectures on topics ranging from cryptography and statistics to the interaction between scientific theory and industrial practices. He was a major influence on economists, including John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx.

Charles Babbage Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Charles Babbage
  • Nickname: Father of Computing 
  • Born: December 26, 1791 in Surrey, England
  • Parent's Names: Benjamin and Elizabeth Pumleigh Teape Babbage
  • Died: October 18, 1871 in London, England
  • Education: Cambridge University
  • Key Accomplishments: Produced working prototypes of machines that computed and printed mathematical tables.
  • Spouse: Georgiana Whitmore
  • Children: 8, 3 of whom survived to adulthood (Dugald, Benjamin, and Henry)
  • Famous Quote: "No person will deny that the highest degree of attainable accuracy is an object to be desired, and it is generally found that the last advances towards precision require a greater devotion of time, labour, and expense, than those which precede them."