Charles Babbage: the brain that invented the computer


June 4, 2004

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Though Silicon Valley may be the heart of the commercialisation of all things digital, it is the British who can proudly boast having invented the computer. Indeed, so proud are the British of the work done by eccentric British mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, that the Science Museum in London has subsequently built the machines he conceived and the Royal College of Surgeons has preserved his brain - the brain invented the computer.

In Babbage's time, mathematical tables, such as logarithmic and trigonometric functions, were generated by teams of mathematicians. Babbage (1791-1871) became frustrated with the many mistakes in these tables which were produced for navigation, engineering, banking and insurance and dreamed of removing the human element from these calculations. He proposed the first computer, a machine he called "the difference engine", in 1822 - it was the size of a house, could store a program, was powered by steam and could even print results.

He worked on the Difference Engine for a decade, before his work opened his mind to the possibilities and he began work on the first general-purpose computer, which he called the Analytical Engine.

Babbage's equally celebrated assistant was Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace (1815-1842) and the daughter of English poet Lord Byron. Ada was perhaps the only person who understood Babbage's work at a detailed level.

As his assistant, she performed many of the functions of recognisable modern-day counterparts - she sought and received funding and grants from the British Government on several occasions (VC raising), she communicated the benefits of the machines to the public (PR) and she created instruction routines for the machine (computer programmer). Such was her influence, that the programming language ADA was named in her honour.Babbage's steam-powered Analytical Engine was primitive by today's standards, though it outlined the basic elements of a modern general purpose computer and was a breakthrough concept.

Consisting of over 50,000 components, the basic design of the Analytical Engine included input devices in the form of perforated cards containing operating instructions and a "store" for memory of 1,000 numbers of up to 50 decimal digits long. It also contained a "mill" with a control unit that allowed processing instructions in any sequence.

Babbage copied the idea of punch cards to encode machine instructions from the Jacquard loom.Babbage's reputation as a visionary and engineer was vindicated when several of the machines he designed, notably the second Difference Engine and its 2.5 tonne printer, were built by the London Science Museum to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1991.

The machines had not been built at the time, mainly due to lack of funds, increasing belief that Babbage was a crackpot. It was subsequently proven that that the critical tolerances required by his machines exceeded the metallurgy and technology available at the time.Built from his original plans, not only did they work, they worked exceptionally well.

The Difference Engine was accurate to 31 decimal places and when the team of engineers finished building a replica of what would have been the world's first computer printer, they were astound-ed at its complexity and feature sets.

Designed to automatically print the computational tables he had dreamed he might produce automatic-ally, the 2.5 tonne dedicated printing press was capable of being set to print different numbers of columns, with adjust-ments for the height between the lines, the space between columns.

There are some wonderful Babbage resources on the internet

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, (Australia's largest Telco), (Australia's largest employment site),,, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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