Charles Babbage may have spent his life in vain, trying to make a machine
considered by most of his friends to be ridiculous. 150 years ago, Babbage drew
hundreds of drawings projecting the fundamentals on which today’s computers are
founded. But the technology was not there to meet his dreams. He was born on
December 26, 1791, in Totnes, Devonshire, England. As a child he was always
interested about the mechanics of everything and in the supernatural. He
reportedly once tried to prove the existence of the devil by making a circle in
his own blood on the floor and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward. In college,
he formed a ghost club dedicated to verifying the existence of the supernatural.
When in Trinity College in Cambridge, Charles carried out childish pranks and
rebelled because of the boredom he felt from knowing more than his instructors.
Despite this, however, he was on his way to understanding the advanced theories
of mathematics and even formed an Analytical Society to present and discuss
original papers on mathematics and to interest people in translating the works
of several foreign mathematicians into English. His studies also led him to a
critical study of logarithmic tables and was constantly reporting errors in them.
During this analysis, it occurred to him that all these tables could be
calculated by machinery. He was convinced that it was possible to construct a
machine that would be able to compute by successive differences and to even
print out the results. (He conceived of this 50 years before type-setting
machines or typewriters were invented.)
In 1814, the age of 23, Charles married 22-year-old Georgina Whitmore. Georgina
would have eight children in thirteen years, of which only three sons would
survive to maturity. Babbage really took no interest in raising his children.
After Georgina died at the age of 35, his mother took over the upbringing. In
1816, Babbage had his first taste of failure when his application for the
professorship of mathematics at East India College in Haileybury was rejected
due to political reasons, as was his application, three years later, for the
chair of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Fortunately, his elder
brother supported his family while Babbage continued his work on calculating
At the age of 30, Babbage was ready to announce to the Royal Astronomical
Society that he had embarked on the construction of a table-calculating machine.
His paper, “Observations on the Application of Machinery to the Computation of
Mathematical Tables” was widely acclaimed and consequently, Babbage was
presented with the first gold medal awarded by the Astronomical Society. Babbage
was also determined to impress the prestigious Royal Society and wrote a letter
to its president, Sir Humphrey Davy, proposing and explaining his ideas behind
constructing a calculating machine, or the Difference Engine, as he would call
it. A 12-man committee considered Babbage’s appeal for funds for his project and
in May 1823, the Society agreed that the cause was worthy.
While constructing this machine, implementation problems arose as well as a
misunderstanding with the British Government, both of whom regarded this machine
as property of the other. This misunderstanding would cause problems for the
next twenty years, and would result in delaying Babbage’s work. Babbage also
apparently miscalculated his task. The Engine would need about 50 times the
amount of money he was given. In 1827, Babbage was overwhelmed by a number of
personal tragedies: the deaths of his father, wife and two of his children.
Consequently, Babbage took ill and his family advised him to travel abroad for a
few months. Upon his return, he approached the Duke of Wellington, then prime
minister, regarding the possibility of a further grant. In the duke, Babbage
found a friend who could really understand the principles and capabilities of
the Engine and the two would remain friends for the rest of the duke’s life.
Babbage was also granted more money. He continued work on the project for many
In old age, Babbage agreed, at the age of 71, to have the completed section of
his Difference Engine shown to the public for the first time. Babbage’s many
disappointments led him to say that he never lived a happy day in his life.
Babbage died in 1871, two months shy of his 80th birthday.