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Computing (FOLDOC) dictionary
Charles Babbage
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person The british inventor known to some as the "Father of
Computing" for his contributions to the basic design of the
computer through his Analytical Engine. His previous
Difference Engine was a special purpose device intended for
the production of mathematical tables.
Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in Teignmouth,
Devonshire UK. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1814
and graduated from Peterhouse. In 1817 he received an MA from
Cambridge and in 1823 started work on the Difference Engine
through funding from the British Government. In 1827 he
published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000. In 1828
he was appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at
Cambridge (though he never presented a lecture). In 1831 he
founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science
and in 1832 he published "Economy of Manufactures and
Machinery". In 1833 he began work on the Analytical
Engine. In 1834 he founded the Statistical Society of London.
He died in 1871 in London.
Babbage also invented the cowcatcher, the dynamometer,
standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting
lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the
heliograph opthalmoscope. He also had an interest in cyphers
and lock-picking.
[Adapted from the text by J. A. N. Lee, Copyright September
Babbage, as (necessarily) the first person to work with
machines that can attack problems at arbitrary levels of
abstraction, fell into a trap familiar to toolsmiths
since, as described here by the English ethicist, Lord
"One of the sad memories of my life is a visit to the
celebrated mathematician and inventor, Mr Babbage. He was far
advanced in age, but his mind was still as vigorous as ever.
He took me through his work-rooms. In the first room I saw
parts of the original Calculating Machine, which had been
shown in an incomplete state many years before and had even
been put to some use. I asked him about its present form. 'I
have not finished it because in working at it I came on the
idea of my Analytical Machine, which would do all that it
was capable of doing and much more. Indeed, the idea was so
much simpler that it would have taken more work to complete
the Calculating Machine than to design and construct the other
in its entirety, so I turned my attention to the Analytical
"After a few minutes' talk, we went into the next work-room,
where he showed and explained to me the working of the
elements of the Analytical Machine. I asked if I could see
it. 'I have never completed it,' he said, 'because I hit upon
an idea of doing the same thing by a different and far more
effective method, and this rendered it useless to proceed on
the old lines.' Then we went into the third room. There lay
scattered bits of mechanism, but I saw no trace of any working
machine. Very cautiously I approached the subject, and
received the dreaded answer, 'It is not constructed yet, but I
am working on it, and it will take less time to construct it
altogether than it would have token to complete the Analytical
Machine from the stage in which I left it.' I took leave of
the old man with a heavy heart."
"When he died a few years later, not only had he constructed
no machine, but the verdict of a jury of kind and sympathetic
scientific men who were deputed to pronounce upon what he had
left behind him, either in papers or in mechanism, was that
everything was too incomplete of be capable of being put to
any useful purpose."
[Lord Moulton, "The invention of algorithms, its genesis, and
growth", in G. C. Knott, ed., "Napier tercentenary memorial
volume" (London, 1915), p. 1-24; quoted in Charles Babbage
"Passage from the Life of a Philosopher", Martin
Campbell-Kelly, ed. (Rutgers U. Press and IEEE Press, 1994),
p. 34].