Biography of Charles Babbage, Mathematician and Computer Pioneer

The Father of Computing

Photograph of Charles Babbage
Professor Charles Babbage (1792 - 1871), mathematician and inventor of the unfinished Babbage Difference Engine a mechanical programmable computer, circa 1860.

Corbis / Getty Images

Charles Babbage (December 26, 1791–October 18, 1871) was an English mathematician and inventor who is credited with having conceptualized the first digital programmable computer. Designed in 1821, Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 1” was the first successful, error-free automatic calculating machine and is considered to be the inspiration for modern programmable computers. Often called the “Father of the Computer,” Babbage was also a prolific writer, with a wide number of interests including mathematics, engineering, economics, politics, and technology.

Fast Facts: Charles Babbage

  • Known For: Originated the concept of a digital programmable computer.
  • Also Known As: The Father of Computing
  • Born: December 26, 1791 in London, England
  • Parents: Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Pumleigh Teape
  • Died: October 18, 1871 in London, England
  • Education: Cambridge University
  • Published Works: Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England
  • Awards and Honors: Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • Spouse: Georgiana Whitmore
  • Children: Dugald, Benjamin, and Henry
  • Notable Quote: “The errors which arise from the absence of facts are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from unsound reasoning respecting true data.”

Early Life and Education

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791, in London, England, the eldest of four children born to London banker Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Pumleigh Teape. Only Charles and his sister Mary Ann survived early childhood. The Babbage family was fairly well-to-do, and as the only surviving son, Charles had private tutors and 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 comprised of some of the best known young scientists in England. He also joined less-scholarly oriented student societies such as The Ghost Club, concerned with the investigation of supernatural phenomena, and the Extractors Club, dedicated to freeing its members from mental institutions they referred to as “madhouses,” should any be committed to one.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) English Mathematician And Pioneer Of Computing, 1871
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) English mathematician and pioneer of computing, 1871. Print Collector / Getty Images

Though he had been the top mathematician, Babbage did not graduate from Peterhouse at Cambridge with honors. Due to a dispute over the suitability of his final thesis for public review, he instead received a degree without examination in 1814.

After his graduation, Babbage became a lecturer on astronomy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, an organization devoted to scientific education and research, based in London. He was then elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1816.

Babbage’s Path to Calculating Machines

The idea of a machine capable of calculating and printing error-free mathematical tables first came to Babbage in 1812 or 1813. In the early 19th century, navigation, astronomical, and actuarial tables were vital pieces of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. In navigation, they were used to calculate time, tides, currents, winds, positions of the sun and moon, coastlines, and latitudes. Laboriously constructed by hand at the time, inaccurate tables led to disastrous delays and even loss of ships.

Man Operating Jacquard Loom
Operation of the Jacquard loom, used in the production of tapestries and upholstery. Undated photograph. Corbis / Getty Images

Babbage drew inspiration for his calculating machines from the 1801 Jacquard loom, an automated weaving machine, which was cranked by hand and “programmed” by instructions delivered by punch cards. Having seen the intricate portraits automatically woven into silk by the Jacquard loom, Babbage set out to build an infallible steam-driven or hand-cranked calculating machine that would similarly calculate and print mathematical tables.

The Difference Engines

Babbage began creating a machine to produce mathematical tables mechanically in 1819. In June 1822, he announced his invention to the Royal Astronomical Society in a paper titled “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables.” He dubbed it Difference Engine No. 1, after the principle of finite differences, the principle behind the mathematical process of resolving polynomial expressions by addition, and thus resolvable by simple machinery. Babbage’s design called for a hand-cranked machine capable of tabulating calculations for up to 20 decimal places.

Illustration Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, a mechanical digital calculator.
Illustration of the Difference Engine. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1823, the British government took an interest and gave Babbage £1.700 to start work on the project, hoping his machine would make its task of producing critical mathematical tables less time-consuming and expensive. Although Babbage's design was feasible, the state of metalworking of the era made it too expensive to produce the thousands of precisely-machined parts needed. As a result, the actual cost of building Difference Engine No. 1 far exceeded the government's initial estimate. In 1832, Babbage succeeded in producing a working model of a scaled-down machine capable of tabulating calculations up to only six decimal places, instead of the 20 decimal places envisioned by the original design.

By the time the British government abandoned the Difference Engine No. 1 project in 1842, Babbage was already working on the design for his “Analytical Engine,” a far more complex and programmable calculating machine. Between 1846 and 1849, Babbage produced a design for an improved “Difference Engine No. 2” capable of calculating up to 31 decimal places more quickly and with fewer moving parts.

In 1834, the Swedish printer Per Georg Scheutz successfully constructed a marketable machine based on Babbage's Difference Engine known as the Scheutzian calculation engine. While it was imperfect, weighed half-a-ton, and was the size of a grand piano, the Scheutzian engine was successfully demonstrated in Paris in 1855, and versions were sold to the U.S. and British governments.

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

The Analytical Engine, a True Computer

By 1834, Babbage had ceased work on the Difference Engine and began to plan for a larger and more comprehensive machine he called the Analytical Engine. Babbage's new machine was an enormous step forward. Capable of calculating more than one mathematical task, it was truly to be what we call “programmable” today.

Much like modern computers, Babbage’s Analytical Engine included an arithmetic logic unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory. Like the Jacquard loom, which had inspired Babbage years earlier, his Analytical Engine was to be programmed to perform calculations via punched cards. Results—output—would be provided on a printer, a curve plotter, and a bell.

Called the “store,” the Analytical Engine’s memory was to be capable of holding 1,000 numbers of 40 decimal digits each. The engine’s “mill,” like the arithmetic logic unit (ALU) in modern computers, was to be capable of performing all four basic arithmetic operations, plus comparisons and optionally square roots. Similar to a modern computer’s central processing unit (CPU), the mill was to rely on its own internal procedures to carry out the program’s instructions. Babbage even created a programming language to be used with the Analytical Engine. Similar to modern programming languages, it allowed for instruction looping and conditional branching.

Due largely to a lack of funding, Babbage was never able to construct full working versions of any of his calculating machines. Not until 1941, over a century after Babbage had proposed his Analytical Engine, would German mechanical engineer Konrad Zuse demonstrate his Z3, the world's first working programmable computer.

In 1878, even after declaring Babbage’s Analytical Engine to be "a marvel of mechanical ingenuity,” the executive committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science recommended that it not be constructed. While it acknowledged the usefulness and value of the machine, the committee balked at the estimated cost of building it without any guarantee that it would work correctly.

Babbage and Ada Lovelace, the First Programmer

On June 5, 1883, Babbage met the 17-year-old daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace—better known as “Ada Lovelace.” Ada and her mother had 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.

Considered a gifted mathematician in her own right, Ada Lovelace had studied with two of the best mathematicians of her day: Augustus De Morgan and Mary Somerville. When asked to translate Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea’s article on Babbage's Analytical Engine, Ada not only translated the original French text into English but also added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine. In her added notes, she described how the Analytical Engine could be made to process letters and symbols in addition to numbers. She also theorized the process of instruction repetition, or “looping,” an essential function used in computer programs today.

Published in 1843, Ada’s translation and notes described how to program Babbage’s Analytical Engine, essentially making Ada Byron Lovelace the world's first computer programmer.

Marriage and Personal Life

Against his father’s wishes, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore on July 2, 1814. His father had not wanted his son to marry until he had enough money to support himself, but still promised to give him £300 (£36,175 in 2019) per year for life. The couple eventually had eight children together, only three of whom lived to adulthood.

Over a span of just one year, from 1827 and 1828, tragedy struck Babbage as his father, his second son (Charles), his wife Georgiana, and a newborn son all died. Nearly inconsolable, he went on a long trip through Europe. When his beloved daughter Georgiana died around 1834, the devastated Babbage decided to immerse himself in his work and never remarried.

On the death of his father in 1827, Babbage inherited £100,000 (over $13.2 million U.S. dollars in 2019). To a large degree, the sizable inheritance made it possible for Babbage to dedicate his life to his passion for developing calculating machines.

Since science was not yet recognized as a profession, Babbage was viewed by his contemporaries as a “gentleman scientist,”—a member of a large group of aristocratic amateurs, who by virtue of being independently wealthy, was able to pursue his interests with no outside means of support. Babbage’s interests were by no means limited to mathematics. Between 1813 and 1868, he authored several books and papers on manufacturing, industrial production processes, and international economic politics.

Charles Babbages Brain Launches Science Exhibition, London
Dr Ken Arnold, Head of Exhibitions at the Wellcome Trust, poses for a photograph next to the brain of Charles Babbage March 14, 2002 at the exhibition "Head On, Art with the Brain in Mind" at the Science Museum in London. Sion Touhig / Getty Images

Though never as well-publicized as his calculating machines, Babbage’s other inventions included an ophthalmoscope, a “black box” recorder for railroad catastrophes, a seismograph, an altimeter, and the cow-catcher for preventing damage to the front end of railway locomotives. In addition, he proposed harnessing the tidal movements of the oceans to produce power, a process being developed as a source of renewable energy today.

Though often regarded as an eccentric, Babbage was a superstar in the 1830s London social and intellectual circles. His regular Saturday parties at his home on Dorset Street were considered “don’t miss” affairs. True to his reputation as a charming raconteur, Babbage would captivate his guests with the latest London gossip, and lectures on science, art, literature, philosophy, religion, politics, and art. “All were eager to go to his glorious soirees,” wrote philosopher Harriet Martineau of Babbage’s parties.

Despite his social popularity, Babbage was never mistaken for a diplomat. He often launched vehement public verbal attacks against members of what he considered the “scientific establishment” for its lack of vision. Unfortunately, he sometimes even attacked the very people to whom he was looking for financial or technical support. Indeed, the first biography of his life, written by Maboth Moseley in 1964, is titled “'Irascible Genius: A Life of Charles Babbage, Inventor.”

Death and Legacy

Babbage died at age 79 on October 18, 1871, at his home and laboratory at 1 Dorset Street in London’s Marylebone neighborhood, and was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. Today, half of Babbage's brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the other half is on display in the Science Museum, London.

The Science Museum's Difference Engine No. 2, built from Charles Babbage's design
The Science Museum's Difference Engine No. 2, built from Charles Babbage's design. Geni / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

After Babbage’s death, his son Henry continued his father’s work but also failed to build a completely functioning machine. Another of his sons, Benjamin, emigrated to South Australia, where many of Babbage's papers and pieces of his prototypes were discovered in 2015.

In 1991, a fully functional version of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2 was successfully built by Doron Swade, Curator at London's Science Museum. Accurate to 31 digits, with over 4,000 parts, and weighing over three metric tons, it works exactly as Babbage had envisioned 142 years earlier. The printer, completed in 2000, had another 4,000 parts and weighed 2.5 metric tons. Today, Swade is a key team member of the Plan 28 project, the London Science Museum’s attempt to build a full scale working Babbage Analytical Engine.

As he neared the end of his life, Babbage came to grips with the fact that he would never complete a working version of his machine. In his 1864 book, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, he prophetically affirmed his conviction that his years of work had not gone in vain. 

“If, unwarned by my example, any man shall undertake and shall succeed in really constructing an engine embodying in itself the whole of the executive department of mathematical analysis upon different principles or by simpler mechanical means, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be fully able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the value of their results.”

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 manufacturing control 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 had a major influence on noted political and social philosophers including John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.

Sources and Further Reference

Updated by Robert Longley 

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Charles Babbage, Mathematician and Computer Pioneer." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 2). Biography of Charles Babbage, Mathematician and Computer Pioneer. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Charles Babbage, Mathematician and Computer Pioneer." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).