Charles Babbage

"On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question." -- Charles Babbage (1791-1871)


Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Charles Babbage was one of the key figures of a great era of British history. He was born as the industrial revolution was getting into its swing; by the time he died, Britain was by far the most industrialized country the world had ever seen. Babbage played a crucial r�le 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 Leibniz notation ("df/dx = d/dx (2x+3)" and the like) for differential calculus, which transformed mathematics in Cambridge and thus throughout Britain. (See GottfriedWilhelmLeibniz.)

In 1814, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore, from a land-owning 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 DifferenceEngine and the far more ambitious AnalyticalEngine, which were flexible and powerful, punched-card controlled general purpose calculators, 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.

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 BletchleyPark for the British government in the middle of the +19th century).

Babbage was also an important political economist. Where AdamSmith 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 JohnStuartMill. 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 soir�es, attended by two or three hundred people, were a meeting place for Europe's liberal intelligentsia.

Babbage was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1828 (the Chair held by IsaacNewton and presently held by StephenHawking).

Further references

Together, they give a clear and coherent introduction to Babbage`s life and work.


No mention of Babbage is complete without mention of his collaborator, mathematician AugustaAdaByron.

More information exists at the WorldGeniusesDiscussion. - DaveEveritt

Neither is it complete without mention of his inventing the "cow-catcher"

{I hope that's not a joke about people who like to date portly women.}

No, a cow-catcher is a device on the front of old trains that was intended to throw a cow or other large animal that was on the tracks to the side, instead of running over it and potentially derailing the train.

Other Quotes:

"Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all."

See Also: TheCurseOfXanadu, TheBabbageFaq

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