1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage
English mathematician, engineer and computer pioneer
(1791-1871)




CHARLES BABBAGE, a distinguished English mathe-matician and mechanician, was born, 26th December 1792, at Teignmouth in Devonshire. He was educated at a private school, and afterwards entered S. Peter's College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1814. Though he did not compete in the mathematical tripos, he acquired a great reputation at the university. In the year after his gradua-tion he contributed a paper on the " Calculus of Func-tions" to the Philosophical Transactions, and in 1816 was made a fellow of the Royal Society. Along with Herschel and Peacock he laboured to raise the standard of mathe-matical instruction in England, and specially endeavoured to supersede the Newtonian by the Leibnitzian notation in the Calculus. With this object the three friends trans-lated, in 1816, Lacroix's Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus, and added, in 1820, two volumes of examples. Mr Babbage's attention seems to have been very early drawn to the number and importance of the errors introduced into astronomical and other calculations through inaccuracies in the computation of tables. He contributed to the Royal Society some notices on the rela-tion between notation and mechanism; and in 1822, in a letter to Sir H. Davy on the application of machinery to the calculation and printing of mathematical tables, he discussed the principles of a calculating engine, to the construction of which he devoted many years of his life. Government was induced to grant its aid, and the inventor himself spent a portion of his private fortune in the pro-secution of his undertaking. He travelled through several of the countries of Europe, examining different systems of machinery; and some of the results of his investigations were published in the admirable little work, Economy of Machines and Manufactures, 1834, which Blanqui has called "a hymn in honour of machinery." The great calculating engine was never completed; the constructor apparently desired to adopt a new principle when the first specimen was nearly complete, to make it not a difference but an analytical engine, and Government declined to accept the further risk. From 1828 to 1839 Babbage held the office of Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Astronomical and Statistical Societies. He only once endeavoured to enter public life, when, in 1832, he stood unsuccessfully for the borough of Finsbury. During the later years of his life he resided in London, and, surrounded by his workshops, still continued to devote himself to the construction of machines capable of performing arithmetical and even algebraical calcula-tions. He died at London, 18th October 1871. He gives a few biographical details in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, 1864, a work which throws considerable light upon bis somewhat peculiar character. His works, pamphlets, and papers, were very numerous; in the Passages he enumerates eighty separate writings. Of these the most important, besides the few already mentioned, are, Tables of Logarithms, 1826 ; Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives, 1826 ; Decline of Science in England, 1830; Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, 1837; The Exposition of 1851, 1851.







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