Charles Babbage lived during the industrial revolution. As an innovative thinker and visionary, he was way ahead of his time. He conceived the idea for a computer 150 years before it was built. Babbage couldn’t build his Analytical Engine because the technology didn’t exist for him to do so. It turns out that his design concept was accurate. In fact, The London Science Museum constructed one of his computing machines from the original plans to demonstrate the validity of Babbage’s ideas.
Based on his drawings and description, Ada Lovelace (we profiled her last week), the first computer software programmer, wrote a program for Babbage’s machine but couldn’t actually test it since the machine didn’t exist. Though Babbage was unable to build either his Difference or Analytical Engine, his work had a profound impact on the field of mechanical engineering. Babbage was not recognized for his contributions to science until after his death.
Name: Charles Babbage
Birth Date: December 1792 – October 1871
Job Functions: Mathematician, Professor, Inventor and Economic Theorist
Field: He explored geology, chemistry, economics, electricity, actuarial mathematics, astronomy, statistics, and mechanical engineering.
Known For: Difference Engine, Analytical Engine and Father of the Computer
Charles Babbage was independently wealthy so he had the privilege of pursuing the things that mattered the most to him. He developed three themes by which to explore his practice of science:
- Importance of analysis, the dissection of ideas into their fundamental components.
- Value of symbolism, the tool for recording and manipulating ideas.
- Need for well, democratic institutions to support scientific research.
Babbage was also a thought leader. He created a think tank by organizing social gatherings to give other thought leaders in Europe a forum to discuss their ideas.
He is best known as the father of the computer, but “Throughout his life Babbage invented many mechanical items, including the cow-catcher on trains, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, lights for lighthouses, time-signals for the world’s most accurate clock in Greenwich, England, as well as the heliograph and ophthalmoscope.” Even though Babbage often shifted focus among the things that interested him, he spent a major portion of his life trying to literally build the first universal digital computer.
While in college, Babbage first conceived the idea for a computer. He was part of an academic society, the Analytical Society, and his role was “verifying tables of astronomical data.” At the time, many shipwrecks occurred because of erroneous navigational tables. Babbage believed that there should be a way for a machine to do calculations much faster and more accurately than humans could.
In 1822, when Babbage was about 30 years old, he worked on the idea for his Difference Engine, a machine that would be able to compile and print mathematical tables. At the time, he was a founding member of the Astronomical Society where the members wanted to update the Royal Nautical Almanac.Babbage worked out the concept for his Difference Engine, which would “calculate polynomial interpolations; it would draw curves through points on a graph. Babbage called this machine the Difference Engine, because it used the method of finite differences to compute the interpolations.”
He won a gold medal from the Astronomic Society for his idea and received funding from the British government to build a model. He quickly built a prototype but soon discovered that the full machine was more complex than he first thought. He lost the funding because progress was slow and it was a very expensive process. He spent seven years refining his design for the Difference Engine.
By that time Babbage had conceived of a more complex machine, the Analytical Engine which was a programmable automatic machine that could compute a single mathematical function in addition to being programmed to perform many different computations.
Babbage was also a political economist. He was one of the first to talk about the impact of the factory in economics and to discuss the division of labor. John Stuart Mill incorporated and discussed Babbage’s theories and ideas. It was also fundamental to Marxist theory of capitalist socio-economic development.
Why Charles Babbage Was Wise
- After he built the prototype for his Difference Engine and discovered his machine was more complicated, he spent years refining his design and also visited different English companies in to learn how they engineered complicated machinery.
- Babbage established the modern postal system in Britain by developing uniform postal rates.
- He helped to found the modern insurance industry by producing the first dependable actuarial tables of statistical life expectancies.
If you were independently wealthy like Charles Babbage, what would you be doing with your life? What ideas can you take from this profile to apply to your life? How can you use this information? What do you have to add to the conversation? Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Many readers read this blog from other sites, so why don’t you pop over to The Invisible Mentor and subscribe (top on the right hand side) by email or RSS Feed.
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