Investigation into the Father of Computing Charles Babbage

Essay by aussiebrown2002University, Bachelor'sB, February 2010

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Born on the 26 December 1791 Charles Babbage was to become not only a mathematician and philosopher, but also a mechanical engineer later to be recognised for introducing the idea of a programmable computer. From an early age Babbage had often been ill, however due to the wealth of his father he was taught at some of the most recognised schools. It was at Holmwood Academy when Babbage realised his love of mathematics and following his elementary education, Charles went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read mathematics. It was after his graduation when Babbage was hired by the Royal Institution to lecture on calculus, and two years later he was elected a member of the Royal Society and along with his peers from Cambridge set up the Astronomical Society.

It was whilst studying at Cambridge that Babbage began thinking about building a machine, which could calculate mechanically without human error.

“Babbage’s engines were among the first mechanical computers” , although it must be acknowledged that they were not actually completed, largely due to funding, as at the time many of the materials and machine tools that were needed to shape certain parts of the engine were not available, therefore the only way forward was for Babbage and his workers to construct and design them. However the consequence of the delays meant that the Government became worried and the financial support from them became limited, thus making Babbage’s life harder. Throughout Babbage’s life “numerical tables were calculated by humans called ‘computers’” , therefore as already mentioned human error was quite high, thus he used this as his main fuel in developing and calculating numerical tables. This he began in 1822 with what he called his ‘Difference Engine’, “made to compute values of polynomial functions” , and “unlike similar efforts of the time, Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine’ was created to calculate a series of values automatically’” . However, very little remains of his “prototype computing machines” . Although at the time many scientific institutions respected and recognised his works, his worst enemy appeared to be the British Government, due to the fact that they suspended funding for his ‘Difference Engine’, and after a prolonged waiting period, his project ended in 1842.

However after the collapse of his first work, Babbage began designing a more complex piece of machinery called the ‘Analytical Engine’, and it is with this design that his fame and recognition as a computer pioneer rests with. Its function was mainly to “perform any arithmetical calculation using punched cards that would deliver the instructions, as well as a memory unit to store numbers and many other fundamental components of today’s computers”. Babbage also intended for the ‘Analytical Engine’ to take on features that consequently are used in today’s computers, such as, “control, branching and looping” , thus indicating it’s importance in introducing functions that are carried out in computing. What makes the ‘Analytical Engine’ such a wonderful piece of work, was the dexterity that Babbage used, and how he was constructing ways of computing, that “would become reality 80-90 years later with the IBM revolution”.

“In 1824 Babbage won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society”, because of his inventions which calculated the mathematical and astronomical tables, which reiterates how important his work was and is to the world of technology. Many critics and academics refer to Babbage as the ‘Father of Computing’. This paternalistic description of Babbage shows the respect and recognition that many have of him and his work, and as Choney describes, there is no doubt that “his contributions to mechanical engineering and tabulation helped lead the way for other subsequent and more successful efforts that did result in what we now consider modern computing”. Somebody who stood strongly by Babbage was a lady called Ada Lovelace, who many argue was one of the very few people who actually understood Babbage and his ideas, and it, was she who created a program for the ‘Analytical Engine’. Hypothetically however, if the ‘Analytical Engine’ had ever been built, “her program would have been able to calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers”. In 1979 she was recognised as being the first computer programmer, however in 1981, “a satirical article by Tony Carp in the magazine ‘Datamation’ described the Babbage programming language as the ‘language of the future’”.

However, what we must take into consideration is that, even though Babbage in many academic circles is considered the ‘Father of Computing’, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that modern electronic computers are related to his works. The reason why he took on this title could be argued was because his ‘Difference Engine’ and his ‘Analytical Engine’ “which was intended as a general symbol manipulator, were inventions far more complex than the work of any of his contemporaries.” Also what we must remember is the fact that Babbage never actually completed his ‘Analytical Engine’, therefore again this draws criticism. On the other hand, even though it took until the mid 1900s to build computers, recognition can not be taken away from the fact that Charles Babbage was the brains behind the idea, and it must be mentioned that “both designs had the potential to be very powerful, especially for the time period.”Charles BabbageReportThroughout this investigation I have used sources mainly from the internet, which have included encyclopaedias’ such as ‘Wikipedia’, articles, websites dedicated to Charles Babbage himself and essays and information which have been written by academics on Babbage and his contributions to the development of computers.

Overall I found each of my sources are both relevant for the investigation and informative, however it seemed that after reading one article, for example off ‘Wikipedia’ there was not anything else new which I learnt by reading other articles. However what I did find extremely interesting and helpful for the essay was a piece of work written by Jared Rudenstein, called ‘The History and Contributions of Charles Babbage’. Not only did it reiterate the facts which I already knew about Babbage, but it also used certain critics and reporters such as Suzanne Choney, who I researched and found that she writes articles for ‘The San Diego Union Tribune’, for example, “A Real Difference”; An Idea to Calculate by Machine Set us on the Path to the Computer Age. One of the most helpful sources of information was the ‘Charles Babbage Institute, Centre for the History of Information Technology’; because it gave what many critics had already wrote about him. Being able to access these was useful in the sense that I was able to gain different views, which aided the conclusion that I came to.

For the majority of my sources they were informative, however as I have already mentioned once I read one, the others reiterated what they all said, but reading what the different critics wrote was interesting in finding different opinions about the ‘Father of Computing’.