Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology

By Lance Day; Ian McNeil | Go to book overview


Babbage, Charles

b. 26 December 1791 Walworth, Surrey, England

d. 18 October 1871 London, England

English mathematician who invented the forerunner of the modern computer.

Charles Babbage was the son of a banker, Benjamin Babbage, and was a sickly child who had a rather haphazard education at private schools near Exeter and later at Enfield. Even as a child, he was inordinately fond of algebra, which he taught himself. He was conversant with several advanced mathematical texts, so by the time he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1811, he was ahead of his tutors. In his third year he moved to Peterhouse, whence he graduated in 1814, taking his MA in 1817. He first contributed to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1815, and was elected a fellow of that body in 1816. He was one of the founders of the Astronomical Society in 1820 and served in high office in it.

While he was still at Cambridge, in 1812, he had the first idea of calculating numerical tables by machinery. This was his first difference engine, which worked on the principle of repeatedly adding a common difference. He built a small model of an engine working on this principle between 1820 and 1822, and in July of the latter year he read an enthusiastically received note about it to the Astronomical Society. The following year he was awarded the Society's first gold medal. He submitted details of his invention to Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society; the Society reported favourably and the Government became interested, and following a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Babbage was awarded a grant of £1,500. Work proceeded and was carried on for four years under the direction of Joseph Clement.

In 1827 Babbage went abroad for a year on medical advice. There he studied foreign workshops and factories, and in 1832 he published his observations in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. While abroad, he received the news that he had been appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He held the Chair until 1839, although he neither resided in College nor gave any lectures. For this he was paid between £80 and £90 a year!

Differences arose between Babbage and Clement. Manufacture was moved from Clement's works in Lambeth, London, to new, fireproof buildings specially erected by the Government near Babbage's house in Dorset Square, London. Clement made a large claim for compensation and, when it was refused, withdrew his workers as well as all the special tools he had made up for the job. No work was possible for the next fifteen months, during which Babbage conceived the idea of his 'analytical engine'. He approached the Government with this, but it was not until eight years later, in 1842, that he received the reply that the expense was considered too great for further backing and that the Government was abandoning the project. This was in spite of the demonstration and perfectly satisfactory operation of a small section of the analytical engine at the International Exhibition of 1862. It is said that the demands made on manufacture in the production of his engines had an appreciable influence in improving the standard of machine tools, whilst similar benefits accrued from his development of a system of notation for the movements of machine elements. His opposition to street organ-grinders was a notable eccentricity; he estimated that a quarter of his mental effort was wasted by the effect of noise on his concentration.

Principal Honours and Distinctions

FRS 1816. Astronomical Society Gold Medal 1823.

Babbage wrote eighty works, including:
1864, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher.
1832, On the Economy of Manufacture and Machinery.

July 1822, Letter to Sir Humphry Davy, PRS, on the Application of Machinery to the purpose


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Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • How to Use the Dictionary xiii
  • A 1
  • B 33
  • C 122
  • D 187
  • E 228
  • F 247
  • G 277
  • H 315
  • German Organic Chemist. 347
  • I 368
  • J 374
  • K 391
  • L 412
  • Bibliography 418
  • M 451
  • N 513
  • O 528
  • P 535
  • Q 582
  • R 583
  • S 619
  • T 689
  • U 721
  • V 722
  • W 734
  • X 778
  • Y 779
  • Z 785
  • Index by Subject Area 790
  • Index of Topics 808
  • Index of Names 823


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