Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine

by I.E. Lester

Charles Babbage was born on December 26th (most likely in 1791 - reports vary somewhat) in London, the son of a banker. Although a sickly child, his father's money would ensure he received good schooling, gaining admittance to Cambridge University where he would initially attend Trinity College before transferring to Peterhouse, from where he would receive an honorary degree without examination.

When he arrived he quickly discovered he was considerably more knowledgeable in mathematics than his tutors, and he quickly grew frustrated with their teachings. He disagreed with their usage of Newtonian calculus in place of the superior Continental system devised by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Babbage would become one of the founder members of the Analytical Society dedicated to promoting the use of Leibnizian calculus - which would later become the standard notation system.

He became a member of the Royal Society in 1816, and would play a pivotal role in the foundation of the Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society) in 1820.

During this period Babbage's attention was drawn to the problems of mathematical calculations. He considered that manual calculations using logarithms was a waste of time and effort, not to mention prone to human error. Babbage concluded that the best solution would be to design a machine capable of making these calculations quickly and without the risk of error.

On June 14th 1922 Babbage presented a paper entitled "Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables" to the Royal Astronomical Society in which he described his invention, the Difference Engine - a table-making calculator. The paper would win him the Royal Society's Gold Medal.

Babbage sought government support for the development of a working Difference Engine, and in 1823 met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer who granted him 1,500 pounds Sterling for the its development. He believed construction would take three years, but 1830 arrived and construction was still not completed.

This was partly due to a serious of personal tragedies occurring in Babbage's life during 1827. The year would see his wife, Georgiana, his father and two of his children all die, and Babbage himself would fall into ill health - a series of events that would see work on the project to cease until the end of 1828.

Even without these difficulties construction itself was not progressing well. There were many delays and cost escalations and by 1834 Babbage had spent 17,000 pounds of government grants and a further 6,000 pounds of his own money without an end in sight. The government halted grants putting development on hiatus, and formally ending the project eight years later in 1842.

These setbacks did not divert Babbage from his conviction of the value of his work, and from 1834 he would design an improved machine, the Analytical Engine, a punched-card-controlled general-purpose calculator. It is this design that would prove to be the true forerunner of the modern computers.

He would never construct a working computer, although in recent times his concepts have proven workable. A team from the Science Museum, London began building Babbage's Engine in 1985, using his detailed drawings. When completed in 1991 it fully vindicated his claims.

Away from his Difference Engine, Babbage had interests in many diverse fields.

He was elected to the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in 1828, a post formerly held by Sir Isaac Newton and now held by Stephen Hawking - although in the twelve years he held the post he never delivered a single lecture.

He founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 and the Statistical Society in 1834. He invented the "cow-catcher" (or "pilot"), the triangular shaped front piece on locomotives to clear obstructions from the tracks and the heliograph ophthalmoscope for studying the retina, the dynamometer car for measuring the performance of locomotives, Greenwich time signals, and was an important figure in mathematical code-breaking.

He designed the first speedometer and occluding lights for lighthouse signalling, and devised the first standard railroad gauge. His designed lathes and tooling machines, and was involved in the development of standard screw threads.

He published a table of logarithms from 1 to 108000 and compiled the first reliable mortality tables (a major boon to the insurance industry). He wrote a book entitled "The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures" in which he effectively created the field of operational research, passages from which would be quoted by Karl Marx in his "Das Kapital".

He was a leading figure in Victorian London Society, hosting Saturday evening soirées regularly attended by hundreds, including many of Europe's liberal intelligence. He stood for the British Parliament in 1832 in the London borough of Finsbury although he came last in the polls.

He determined that a fixed price postal service is more profitable than the charging and collecting of different sums relative to the delivery distance, which would lead to the first and second class mail system used in the United Kingdom to this day.

And in order to develop his ideas of using coloured lights in theatrical performances, he devised a ballet called "Alethes and Iris" where he had dancers in white having coloured lights projected upon them. The ballet however was never performed as the theatre manager feared fire.

He died in 1871 and, despite his many accomplishments, a relatively unknown and bitter man. Only one carriage would make up his funeral procession. The London Times printed a less than completely complimentary obituary whilst the Royal Society did not print one at all.

He was, however, recognised as a significant thinker, and his brain would be preserved for later examination - carried out in 1908 by Royal Society member Sir Victor Horsley. Full recognition of Babbage and his work would come later - and a crater on the lunar surface, near the north west limb, was named in his honour.

He is buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, the same cemetery as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, authors Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray, tightrope walker Charles Blondin - and where rock vocalist Freddie Mercury was cremated.