In our new blog series we’re taking a look at some of the most influential engineers that you may not have heard of.

In the last blog we looked at the life of Sir Frank Whittle whose invention of the jet engine has undoubtedly changed the world we live in today.

This time we look at Charles Babbage, who conceived the ‘analytical engine’ over 180 years ago and which is now recognised as the original ancestor of the modern day computer. If his plans had been acted upon at the time, could there have been a computer era in the time of Queen Victoria?

The story of Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was born in London in 1791. The son of a banker, he received a Cambridge University education at Peterhouse and was considered to be the top mathematician there.

Later in life and inspired by seeing Napoleon’s metric switch project in Paris in 1819, which included scores of tables to work out conversions, Babbage developed his first machine called the difference engine. It was designed to automatically make complex mathematical calculations by repeated addition, without the need for laborious references to countless tables – the people who made these tables were called ‘computers’ at the time.

He secured governmental funding for his machine in 1824 and presented his prototype in 1832, which was the first successful fully automatic calculator and proved to be one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. Babbage then worked on plans for the difference engine 2. However, it was his next machine, the analytical engine, which would prove to be the most influential in the history of computer science. He published a paper describing the computer in December 1837.

The analytical engine was designed to perform calculation using instructions delivered via a punched card. The machine also featured a memory unit (which he called the ‘store’) and other components similar to those featured in a modern day computer, including a CPU (which he called the ‘mill’).

Unfortunately, neither the difference engine 2 nor the analytical engine was built in Babbage’s lifetime, mainly due to funding cuts, political disagreements, and the lack of technological power at the time. Understandably, this gave Charles Babbage a reputation for being quite grumpy later in his life, but how would you feel if you had invented the modern day computer a 100 years ahead of time but didn’t get to see it built?

However, Babbage’s genius was confirmed in 1991 when the Science Museum in London built the difference engine 2 and the printer to go alongside the machine in 2000. There’s also currently a plan to build the analytical engine in a 3D environment to demonstrate the feasibility of the plans.

There’s no doubt that many others progressed computational science, such as Alan Turing and Konrad Zuse, but Babbage was the first to conceive of the first programmable computer. If Frank Whittle’s jet engine changed the world, then Babbage’s model for the computer set the scene for a complete revolution in the way we all live our lives. The fact that Babbage was so far ahead of his time can also serve to motivate engineers around the world: blue-sky thinking can sometimes pay off!

Fancy yourself as the next Charles Babbage? Make sure you check out our IT jobs.

Interesting Facts

  • Half of Babbage’s brain is preserved and displayed in the Museum of Science in London. The other half is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
  • Part of a wealthy family, Babbage inherited £7.81m in today’s money. He spent significant sums of this advancing his plans for the computer.
  • Babbage realised the importance of his machine ahead of time. He wrote: “As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of science”.
  • He possessed distaste for what he classified as ‘public nuisances’. He especially disliked the sound of the street organ and the perceived dangers of the hoop rolling games that were popular in 19th century London.

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