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All About the Father of the Computer: Charles Babbage

The history of computing is filled with influential men and women, all of whom contributed to the state of technology today. However, it's hard to dispute Charles Babbage's nickname, "the father of the computer." Babbage's accomplishments, both practical and theoretical, established some of the standards and processes that influenced the advancement of (computer) technology for decades to come.

Early Life

From an early age, Charles Babbage was a dedicated scholar. An inquisitive youngster, Babbage would reportedly disassemble his toys to learn about their inner workings. A childhood plagued by illness afforded Babbage plenty of opportunity to indulge his love of literature and mathematics. Most of his education came from private tutors, again owing to his poor health. With the personal attention of a tutor, Babbage pursued algebra, language, and science with vigor. As Babbage grew older and healthier, he attended conventional school long enough to secure admission to Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge.

At the University of Cambridge

Babbage looked forward to attending Cambridge, but unfortunately, he found himself disappointed upon arrival. Instead of a wealth of challenging new knowledge, Babbage found a traditional approach deeply rooted in Newton's discoveries from more than a hundred years earlier. Desperate to push forward the bounds of his own knowledge and possibly even mathematics standards, Babbage formed the Analytical Society with another student. Inspired by religious groups at Cambridge that sought to bring a modern approach to theology, Babbage and his friends promoted European mathematical developments and proposed incorporating these new ideas into the mainstream. While he was a serious student, Babbage wasn't without a more whimsical side. He and a group of like-minded students started the Ghost Club, a group devoted to the exploration of paranormal phenomena. Always up for a challenge, Babbage set about testing whether supernatural elements could be detected and proven via the scientific method.

After Cambridge

Babbage excelled in mathematical studies at Cambridge, graduating in 1814, but found the going a bit tougher in the job market. Financially supported by his father's wealth, he repeatedly struggled to find fulfilling work. Babbage sporadically wrote and published works on mathematics, electromagnetism, and actuarial science. He also helped to found the Royal Astronomical Society, an assembly devoted to the study of astronomy and related sciences. His father's death in 1827 left Babbage wealthy and disinterested in earning a steady wage. He was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1828, but he used his position to research and publish his own material, rather than to instruct students.

Computer Pioneer

The term "computer" was known in Babbage's time, but it referred exclusively to human computers, people who calculated numbers for a living. Babbage named his first mechanical computer the Difference Engine, after the method of finite differences, a mathematical concept that allowed him to constrain this early machine to addition only. Several factors prevented the construction of Babbage's designs during his lifetime. With its thousands of gears, wheels, and spindles, construction would be complex and expensive, even for the best engineers of the time. Perhaps more problematic was Babbage himself: He held his ideas very close and often clashed with engineers who tried to modify his design or cut corners to save costs. His rivalry with George Biddell Airy over the usefulness of computing engines potentially distracted both men from their otherwise bright careers. And further preventing his ideas from becoming reality, Babbage constantly modified his designs, seeking perfection before ever producing a working proof of concept.

Background on Mathematical Tables

Part of Babbage's inspiration for his ideas on computing derived from mathematical tables. In the time before convenient access to calculators and computers, printed mathematical tables were frequently used. Sailors, scientists, and engineers used tables to complete calculations that were too difficult or time-consuming for them to work out. The source of these tables, however, was human computers: The answers given on the tables had been calculated manually. As a result, many of these tables were known to contain errors. These inaccuracies frustrated Babbage. The French government sought to work around this problem by breaking down the calculations into their components and assigning portions to different human computers. This assembly line approach kept each mathematical calculation simpler, decreasing the chance of error. Babbage hit upon the notion of going a step further by replacing the human computers with machinery that could replicate these simple tasks.

Difference Engine

After presenting his idea and securing government funding in 1822, Babbage began work on his first Difference Engine. He intended this new machine to solve simple algebraic equations to replace some of the calculations used to produce mathematical tables. By automating the addition of numbers and allowing the results to be printed in real time, Babbage felt confident that his machine could produce more accurate mathematical tables. Consisting of more than 25,000 parts, Difference Engine No. 1 would be an engineering marvel. Unfortunately, the project went ten times over budget, and after 20 years, he had failed to produce a real working prototype. Always on the lookout for his next interesting problem, Babbage seemingly lost interest and moved on.

Analytical Engine

In 1839, Babbage observed a Jacquard loom and was quite taken by the machine's capabilities. The first automated loom, Joseph-Marie Jacquard's device could replicate patterns and pictures on silk without direct guidance from its operator. The patterns were pre-selected and printed on punched cards. Inspired by this, Babbage began work on his Analytical Engine. Instead of a real-time calculator, the Analytical Engine could be rightly called a computer. It separated memory functions (the "store") from processing (the "mill"). Each column in the store could hold a single integer, entered via punched cards. The mill had indicators for the current operation (such as addition or subtraction) and the integers currently being manipulated. The results could be printed on paper or punched cards. In short, Babbage's Analytical Engine offered functions for input, output, storage, and processing. In many respects, it was the first true predecessor of the modern computer.

Ada Lovelace and Italian Followers

Babbage is variously called the father of the computer, the inventor of the computer, and the first computer scientist. But one of his correspondents and associates, Ada Lovelace, was the first computer programmer. There is handwritten evidence that she wrote at least one computer program that could be used on the Analytical Engine. Her program, detailed in her copious notes, contains an algorithm for generating part of the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers.

Lovelace was the only child of the poet Lord Byron and Lady Byron, a mathematician, and her thoughts went beyond computer programming. As one of Babbage's greatest supporters, she wrote more on the subject of his engines than perhaps anyone else. Her notes could be considered the first computer documentation. The concept of object-oriented computing did not escape her, as she supposed computing engines could go beyond numbers and manipulate any object that could be defined by its rules. She even seems to have considered the topic of artificial intelligence, as she opines in one of her notes that the Analytical Engine is capable of extraordinary feats but cannot be said to think.

In 1840, Babbage gave perhaps his only public lectures about the Analytical Engine. The talks were attended by prominent Italian scientists of the time, such as Giovanna Plana, inventor of an analog perpetual calendar. Mathematician Luigi Menabrea transcribed Babbage's words for publication. Lovelace translated his work into English and appended her own notes, which were actually longer than the original text and included the first published algorithm.

Legacy

Babbage's life story is one of great plans left unfulfilled. His constant need to search for new and interesting problems caused several of his inventions to wither away prior to their completion. His legacy, however, is one of unbridled success. His ideas were so revolutionary that modern teams have sought to bring them to fruition. The Science Museum in London completed his Difference Engine in 1985 and added its associated printer (possibly the world's first computer peripheral) in 2000. His Analytical Engine was never even completed at the design phase, as Babbage constantly tinkered with it, but even so, the Plan 28 project intends to build a working replica based on his notes.

Babbage's legacy also goes far beyond the engines he designed to encompass the people and achievements his ideas inspired. From Alan Turing's work to crack the Enigma code in World War II to the invention of ENIAC, the first general-purpose digital computer, to Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, computer scientists have drawn inspiration from Babbage's revolutionary ideas. We can only hope that in the years to come, more visionary thinkers will follow in his footsteps and continue to move computer technology forward.

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