A strong case can be made that if Charles Babbage
hadn’t worked on computing engines when he did, we might not have mainframes and other platforms that we do today. Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer, and this design was later used as the basis for electronic devices. He is considered by many to be the father of the computer—and I thought it would be interesting to find out a little bit more about him.
Charles Babbage lived from 1791 to 1871. 1791 saw the French Revolution, Vermont became the 14th U.S. state, Thomas Paine published Rights of Man, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was finished and Mozart’s The Magic Flute premières (he dies later that year). In 1871, the King of Prussia was declared the first German Emperor and Otto von Bismarck became its first chancellor, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act, Henry Morton Stanley located Dr. David Livingstone and Heinrich Schliemann began the excavation of Troy. Interesting times.
Babbage led an interesting life and was involved in many different areas. He is credited with code-breaking during the Crimean war, he worked on astronomy with Herschel, and, of course, he studied mathematics. At the time, mathematical tables were calculated by people and were used for navigation, science, engineering and mathematics. To make calculations easier Babbage devised ways that they could be carried out quickly using machinery—mechanical computers. Unfortunately, these machines weren’t built during his lifetime. Even so, funded by the British government, he worked on steam-powered machines.
The important thing was not that the machines didn’t work, but that their basic architecture was similar to a modern computer. In his design, the data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction-based, the control unit could make conditional jumps, and the machine had a separate I/O unit. He came up with the idea in 1812 while looking at a table of logarithms, but it wasn’t until 1822 that he started work on his difference engine, which was designed to compute the values of polynomial functions. Joseph Clement came onboard to implement the design, but fell out with Babbage over costs around 1831. The prototype evolved into the first difference engine. If it had been built, it would have needed around 25,000 parts, weighed fifteen tons, and stood 8 feet tall.
Between 1847 and 1849, Babbage put together some drawings for an improved ‘Difference Engine No 2.’ At the time, he couldn’t find anyone to fund the project. Interestingly, it was constructed in between 1989 and 1991 at the Science Museum in London, using Babbage’s plans and 19th century manufacturing tolerances. It can return results to 31 digits. The Science Museum also built a printer (from Babbage’s design) for the Difference Engine, and a second copy of the Difference Engine. This is owned by multimillionaire Nathan Myhrvold, who has exhibited it.
Despite not successfully building his Difference Engines, Babbage went on to design, what he called the Analytical Engine. What makes the Analytical Engine special is that it wasn’t a simple mechanized arithmetic machine, but could be used for general purpose computation. It’s this design that makes Babbage stand out as the father of the computer. The Analytical Engine (if it had been built) would have been programmed using punched cards. It would have used loops of Jacquard’s punched cards to control a mechanical calculator, which could use as input the results of preceding computations. The Engine would also have employed sequential control, and branching and looping. Babbage continued working on this design until his death in 1871.
It’s also worth mentioning Ada Lovelace, who corresponded with Babbage during the development of the Analytical Engine. She is credited with developing the algorithm that would enable the Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. This has led to her sometimes being described as the first computer programmer. Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), Lady Wentworth. Lovelace knew Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. She died at the age of 36, which, coincidentally, was the same age that her father, Byron, had died in 1852.
Babbage’s work was hampered by a lack of funds and personality clashes. But if the hardware took 100 years or more to be put together into a working machine, his thinking knew no such restrictions, and he managed to come up with a way of working that has formed the basis for all modern (electrical rather than mechanical) computers.