Considering it took until the 1930s for the first electro-mechanical computers to be created, and another 50 years for them to become commonplace domestic items, it is remarkable that the concept of a programmable computer was first propsed more than a century earlier.
The man behind the concept was Charles Babbage, a polymath and one of the leading innovative thinkers of the 19th century. Learn more about Babbage and his role in developing computers.
Who was Charles Babbage?
Charles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor and mechanical engineer who is generally credited as the first person to propose a programmable computing device, and create a mechanical computer.
Born in London in 1781 and raised in Devon, Babbage became interested in mathematics at school and went on to study at Cambridge, but was unimpressed with the level of maths tuition.
The idea of mechanically calculating mathematical tables first came to Babbage in 1812 or 1813 while at the university; he was shown a table of logarithms which contained numerous errors, which led him to posit a way to have them worked out systematically, instead of by purely human computation.
After graduation, he was invited to lecture to the Royal Institution on calculus and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816.
What computing devices did Babbage create?
In 1823 Babbage obtained government support to design of what he called the Difference Engine, a digital computing machine for the automatic production of mathematical tables. The Difference Engine consisted entirely of mechanical components; numbers were represented in the decimal system by the positions of 10-toothed metal wheels mounted in columns.
Babbage exhibited a small working model of the Difference Engine in 1822. He never completed the full-scale machine and his government funding was stopped - but did build several working parts of it, the largest of which can be seen at the Science Museum in London.
What else did Babbage create?
Babbage went on to propose an even more complex computing machine which he called the Analytical Engine, intended to be able to perform any arithmetical calculation; it is on this creation that his reputation as “the father of computers” was built.
The machine would use a series of punched cards connected by ribbons - Babbage’s inspiration for these came from the Jacquard loom, invented in 1804 - that would deliver the instructions, as well as a memory and central processing unit, or ‘mill’, to store information the machine generated.
“As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of the science,” he said. “Whenever any result is sought by its aid, the question will then arise - by what course of calculation can these results be arrived at by the machine in the shortest time?”
Babbage worked closely on the Analytical Engine with Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron. Lovelace was the first to see that the machine had the potential computation beyond the numeric, and might, for example, have the capability to compose music. The modern computer programming language ADA is named after her.
A large model of the Analytical Engine was under construction at the time of Babbage's death in 1871 but a full-scale version was never built. Researchers are currently trying to fund the construction of the full-sized machine in time for the 150th anniversary of his death in 2021.
What else should we know about Charles Babbage?
Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – a post also held by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking – between 1828 and 1839, though he wasn’t a typical resident don and actually never gave a lecture.
As well as being a mathematician, Babbage was a forward-thinking philosopher in the field of engineering and operational research – his theories are said to have influenced the layout of the 1851 Great Exhibition.
Remarkably, Babbage was also the inventor of the pilot – better-known as the cow-catcher - the metal frame attached to the front of trains that clears the tracks of obstacles, which became ubiquitous on US locomotives.
Sadly, he was also something of a snob and a misanthrope. He conducted campaigns against ‘public nuisances’, into which category he placed street musicians and children who rolled hoops on the roads.