Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Mathematician Charles Babbage is credited as being one of
the forefathers of the computing era. It is said that the
use of Jacquard punch cards, chains and subassemblies, and
the logical structure of the modern computer all stem from
his early ideas. Born on December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth,
Devonshire, outside London, he entered Trinity College in
1811 where it was clear that he knew more than the majority
of his tutors. By 1816 he was well known throughout academic
circles and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He
earned his master's degree from Trinity in 1817.
helped found the Astronomical Society in 1820, and it was
at that time that he first became interested in calculating
machinery. Babbage, like Isaac Newton, believed there was
a distinct order to the universe, that basically once all
things were quantified, all things could be predicted. In
1821 he invented the Difference Engine No. 1, a machine designed
to compile mathematical tables. Despite its imperfections,
this is considered to be the world's first successful automatic
calculator. Though Blaise Pascal built a crude calculator
in 1642, his was extremely unreliable.
From 1828 to 1839 Babbage held the Lucasian chair of mathematics
at Cambridge University, which Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking
have also held during their lifetimes. He began working on
a new Difference Engine in 1832 and completed an initial prototype,
but he was forced to end the project in 1842. Challenged by
things mechanical, many of his models were not received as
well as they might have been. Often, as in this case, he suffered
from a lack of funding. In 1854, however, Swedish printer
George Scheutz successfully constructed a machine based on
Babbage's Difference Engine designs. It printed mathematical,
astronomical and actuarial tables accurately, and was used
by the British and American governments.
The Analytical Engine, Babbage's second and more complex
design, was started unofficially in 1837, when he began thinking
of a machine that could be programmed like a modern computer
that could receive and understand a set of commands. A very
rough and unreliable model of the Analytical Engine was the
only version of the design that Babbage was able to complete.
But the important thing was, the concept of programming had
been introduced to the world for the first time.
Babbage died on October 18, 1871. He left a legacy that
was bigger than life, having also invented a dynamometer,
Britain's first cow catcher, a standard railroad gauge, occulting
lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and a heliograph
opthalmoscope. He helped to advance the British tool industry
with his designs for lathes and tool-shapers and even contributed
to the introduction of the first standard screw threads. His
was the idea to instate uniform postal rates.
On the moon, there is a crater bearing Babbage's name.
In addition, his brain was preserved in alcohol until 1908,
when Sir Victor Horsley of the Royal Society dissected and
studied it. And today, the Charles Babbage Foundation is named
in his honor in recognition of his intellectual contributions
and their influence on the modern computing world.