Charles Babbage: a Biography

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  • Topic: Charles Babbage, Difference engine, Computer
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  • Published : April 7, 2013
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“At each increase of knowledge, as well as on the contrivance of every new tool, human labour becomes abridged.” ~Charles Babbage

On December 26th, 1791, a young boy by the name of Charles Babbage was born to Benjamin Babbage, a rich London banker and Elizabeth Teape, in what is now Southwark, London. Little did they know that 41 years later, their little Charles would invent the first “computer” and that centuries later he would go on to invent numerous other innovative ways to solving problems and be known to many as the “Father of Computing”. Babbage was born as the industrial revolution was just beginning, and by the time he died, Britain was by far the most industrialized country the world had ever seen. Babbage played a crucial role in the scientific and technical development of the period. Charles Babbage is best known for inventing the Difference Machine and the Analytical Machine, both prototype computer/calculators that were designed to eliminate human error in mathematical calculations. Babbage's Analytical Engine was to be the world's first general use programmable computer, a machine designed not just for solving one particular problem, but to carry out a range of calculations ordered by its operator. Babbage also invented the locomotive part of the cowcatcher, lock-picking tools, the dynamometer (a device for measuring an engine's load-bearing performance), the Standard railroad gauge, occult lighthouse lights (the revolving type), the locomotive speedometer, Greenwich time signals (a means of transmitting time telegraphically), the heliograph ophthalmoscope (instrument for examining the interior of the eye), a printer to go with his calculating engines, and a recording device now known as a black box that’s is carried on nearly all commercial and military aircraft today. Babbage also wrote many books as well and his published works include: Table of Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108, 000 (1827), Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), and Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864). His writings on economic matters would greatly influence the work of later thinkers in that field. Figure 1: Benjamin Babbage, Father of Charles Babbage

Figure 1: Benjamin Babbage, Father of Charles Babbage
Like most children in upper-class England, Charles was brought up largely by nurses. As a child, he was unusually curious and very bright. His mother was attentive and caring to him, but his father was known to be much stricter. A letter Charles wrote when he was young describes his father as “Stern, inflexible and reserved”, and a “tyrant” with a “temper the most horrible to be conceived”. He also writes “Can such a man be loved? It is impossible”. From this we gather that Charles and his father didn’t have the best relationship. However, his father was a rich man, so it was possible for Charles to receive instruction from several elite schools and teachers during the course of his elementary education. As a child Babbage suffered several bouts of violent fever that interfered with his early education. He was about eight when he had to move to a country school to recover from them. His parents decided that his "brain was not to be taxed too much". Charles had many private tutors because of his bad health and finally when he became healthy again, he joined a 30-student private school. The academy had a big library, which Babbage used to study mathematics by himself and he learned to love it. In his 12th year of school, Charles attempted his first scientific experiment. Inspired by the Bible, he made a contraption that we was sure would let him walk on the waters of a local river- unfortunately, it didn’t work out as he planned and this exploit came close to costing him his life. When he came to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1811, he found himself far in advance of his tutors in mathematics. Disappointed with the math programs at...
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