Charles Babbage
1791 - 1871

Have you ever heard the expression, "... is ahead of his time. " ? This means a person has an idea that is far beyond the ability of all his friends to understand at the time the idea came up. This is what happened to a man named Charles Baggage

The son of a banker, Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 in Devonshire, United Kingdom. At the age of 19, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge University. Soon he became very frustrated by the number of errors he found in the mathematics tables he was required to use in his math classes. Determined to correct this, Babbage committed his energies to building a machine which would calculate the facts needed and do them correctly. This machine he called the Difference Engine.

So, in 1822, he went to the British government and requested a grant to finance the building of this machine. He was given a partial grant in 1823 and instructed to begin immediately. However, it's unfortunate no one kept minutes of this agreement, because, in 1828, when Babbage returned for additional funds, no official could remember the original agreement.

Being an incredibly stubborn man, he financed the project himself for a year while he continued to ask the government for funding. He got his wish in 1830.

At this time, the construction of the Difference Engine had reached a very delicate stage. In order to continue, Babbage needed specialized tools forged to complete the task. For this, he hired engineer Joseph Clement. All was going well between the two men until 1834 when Baggage asked Clement to move his shop into Babbage's house. Clement refused. Babbage stopped paying him. Clement shut down his shop. Work on the Difference Engine came to a halt and no further work was to be done on the machine until 1992. (By this time we already had computers and finishing the machine was a modern college project just to see if it could be done. It was built and it did work.)

Unhindered by the "death" of the Difference Engine, Babbage was already off on another project. A machine which could do all math operations. This he named the Analytical Engine. As wild as it may seem, he got the idea from watching textile weavers making a rug. The weavers were using a system of punched cards which told the looms what treads to use at what time. So, it was off to the government to ask for more funding to build this new machine. Not surprisingly, it was not easy for him to get more money. His reputation had caught up with him and this time someone did remember the nearly $1 million previously given for a machine which was never finished.

For the next eight years, he financed the work himself through private and public contributions. In 1842 he went to the government one more time and was given a stern and forceful "NO!". After all , why should the government give him money for a new machine when the last one was abandoned. Babbage told them it would be more costly to finish the old one then it would be to build the new one. The government didn't budge.

Nine years later, in 1851, Babbage gave up on this machine also stating the technology needed to complete the machine was not available at the time. After his death in 1871, his sons took up the cause to finish the Analytical Engine. In 1910, they gave up.

Oddly enough, in 1890, an American by the name of Herman Hollerith became aware of Babbage's Analytical Engine. Mr. Hollerith build his own machine based on Babbage's idea of punch cards and electromagnetic relays to help th U.S. Census Department in the 1890 census. Although Hollerith's machine did not perform all the operations Babbage envisioned, it did work

With this new machine, Hollerith was able to open his own business - The Tabulation Machine Company. In 1924, that company changed its name and became - The International Business Machine Corporation - better known as I.B.M.! I.B.M became famous for its computers which can trace their ancestry back to Babbage's two unfinished engines.

Contributed by Steven Tuck

References:

  1. Reimer, Luette and Wilbert, Histroical Connections in Math, Vol. I, AIMS Educational Foundation, Fresno, CA. 1995
  2. http://www.ruku.com./babbage/
  3. html/hhtp://ei.cs.vt.edu/ history/babbage.html/

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