Episode #1 of the course Inventors who changed the world
Most people have heard about the first computers in the 1950s with the powers of a simple calculator taking up whole rooms and using thousands of vacuum tubes that presented a cooling problem. But you probably didn’t know that over a hundred years earlier, a wholly mechanical calculator, Charles Babbage’s “Difference Engine,” was designed and mostly constructed during the 1830s; it was powered by a hand crank! When the London Science Museum finished constructing Babbage’s “Difference Engine 2” in 1991, it worked perfectly.
But it wasn’t the Difference Engine that earned Babbage the title “father of computing”; it was his second calculating invention, “the Analytical Engine”—a programmable computer with a CPU, memory, printer, and the ability to take its own output as input, making it “Turing Complete.” If Babbage had been able to construct his device, it might have worked. Babbage never tried, partly because it was a vastly more complex machine than the Difference Engine, which was never completed, and partially because by the time he designed it, the British government was already tired of funding his endless research and development. Efforts have been made toward constructing the Analytical Engine in recent years, but Babbage’s designs have proven difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the fact that his Difference Engine works makes people suspect the problem is not in his designs.
The Science Museum’s Difference Engine No. 2, built from Babbage’s design.
Babbage was a mathematical prodigy and a man obsessed with reason and accuracy. Born in 1791 London to a banker, Babbage taught himself algebra as a child, and when he got to Cambridge, he thought their math program was outdated and attempted to improve it. In college, he co-founded “the Analytical Society” with some friends. He also co-founded “the Extractor Society,” a group devoted to liberating any of its members should they be institutionalized for insanity.
A leading graduate student and then an esteemed professor for much of his life, Babbage involved himself, like most scientists of his time, in many areas of thought—in his case all connected with reason, math, order, and accuracy. As the son of a banker, and then as a member of the “Astronomical Society,” he became concerned with the problem of calculating accurate tables of data. This was a common problem in his time, when it was all done by hand, and this was the purpose of his first Difference Engine—to calculate tables of data using algebra. For about 15 years, the British government funded construction of the Difference Engine, plagued by the difficulty of engineering sufficiently precise machine parts. It went so far over budget and took so long that Babbage had moved on to design something far more interesting by the time his funding was cut off—the Analytical Engine, a fully programmable computer.
Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage. The Science Museum, London, UK.
Like the Difference Engine, the Analytical Engine’s mind would have been composed mainly of numbers on geared wheels stacked on axes—lots of them. It had a “mill,” the CPU, which was actually built, and a “store,” its memory. It would accept programs, written in numbers, on hole-punched cards. The world’s first coder, Countess Ada Lovelace, who corresponded copiously with Babbage during the engine’s design, wrote a program for it to calculate “Bernoulli numbers.”
Babbage is credited with a variety of ideas and inventions concerned with making the world a more orderly place. Inspired by his difficulty getting machine parts made, he wrote a book on improving manufacturing through better organization and division of labor. He also invented the plow-shaped thing on the front of trains, sometimes called a “cow-catcher”!
Late in life, Babbage wrote a book on “natural theology” in which he denied that science and religion must conflict, and presented a theory much like today’s “intelligent design” where God creates natural laws rather than governing every event in creation. In these writings, appropriately, Babbage seems to imagine God as the programmer of the world-machine, which surely sums up his unique vision, genius, and personality.
In our next lesson ,we turn to the World Wide Web and its creative inventor, Tim Berners-Lee.
“Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.” – Charles Babbage
“Perhaps it would be better for science, that all criticism should be avowed.” – Charles Babbage
“The economy of human time is the next advantage of machinery in manufactures.” – Charles Babbage
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