Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was born in London, 1791. His childhood was blighted by illness, and his family were forced to send him to a clergy operated school for special care. Babbage was fortunate enough however to come from a wealthy family, and a father who was determined to provide him with the best education possible.

To this end he was sent to the Academy at Forty Hills in Middlesex to prepare him for Cambridge, and quickly began to display a talent for mathematics. His disinterest in the classics slowed his progress somewhat, but he did enjoy reading many of the major works in mathematical science, and showed a solid understanding of them.

As an undergraduate, Babbage set up a society to review the works of the French mathematician Lacroix, on the subject of differential and integral calculus. He found Lacroix’s work to be a masterpiece and showing the good grace to admit it, and from this was asked to set up an Analytical Society that was composed of Cambridge undergraduates.

The group which included John Herschel and George Peacock published intelligent, serious work, and many leading mathematical scholars praised the contributions of Babbage. He completed his schooling and started to write papers on various subjects for the Royal Society of London, who honoured him with an invitation to join in the role of vice-president. However, Babbage was not enamoured with the society, thinking them too egotistical and not focused on genuine knowledge.

He became in Astronomy and the equipment used to study the stars and planets, and at around the same time he also began to conceive the idea for a mechanical calculation device. Frustrated by the labour intensive methods required to create logarithmic tables manually, Babbage invented the Difference Machine.

The Machine was a complete success and gave its creator an impetus to perhaps further this concept and design a device that could perform any calculation. He did, and this revolutionary piece of equipment was dubbed the Analytical Engine. It would be in essence the first computer, and Babbage received funding from the government to turn his design into a reality.

Unfortunately, due to changes in politics and negative funding decisions, he was never able to complete the project. Charles Babbage died in 1871, although you can still see some of his mechanisms in London’s Science Museum (including a fully functioning difference engine, and a gruesomely preserved section of his brain!).