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Babbage, Charles

Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Community, People.

(1791-1871) UK mathematician and inventor, a founder of the Analytical Society in 1811, and a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1816; the first of his nearly 100 technical papers, "On continued products", appeared in 1813. His recognition of the necessity for accurate calculation of mathematical tables, as used in navigation and astronomy – after a particular bad set of calculations, he is famously reported to have said, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam" – led by May 1822 to his designing and building a calculating machine, using which he soon generated a table of logarithms for the positive integers up to 108,000. He then worked on a far more sophisticated machine, a full-size Difference Engine, intended to use punched cards in the computation and printing of mathematical tables; the 1832 demonstration version of this Engine – on view in the Science Museum in London since 1862 – is the first genuine automatic calculating machine. Impatient, not unduly practical, and fatally ill-tempered with associates, he was forced to abandon this device before it was completed; but by 1836 had matured the designs for the far more ambitious Analytical Engine which, if built, would have been the world's first Computer. It was this machine for which Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace, wrote programs, as described in Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers – A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and her Description of the First Computer (1992) edited by Betty A Toole. (In 1979 the computer language Ada was so-named in her honour.) Babbage spent intermittently the rest of his life on the project, generating many of the basic principles of the digital computer, but nineteenth-century technology restricted him to mechanical rather than electronic components, and consequently the machine was never finished – indeed, it was probably by definition unfinishable.

Writers who have extrapolated a full-blown success of Babbage's machines into Alternate Histories (see Steampunk) include Michael F Flynn, in In the Country of the Blind (1990), and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in The Difference Engine (1990), which transfers Ada's interest to the earlier machine; John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005), though it concerns itself more with Ada, is ghosted by Babbage as well; John Whitbourn's Frankenstein's Legions (2012) features Lovelace and Babbage in an England threatened by Continental Android warriors; Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (graph 2015) ends with the upbeat line "Lovelace and Babbage lived on and built a giant calculating Engine and used it to fight crime and have adventures!" Babbage engines have also become endemic in Steampunk (which see). The power of his ideas to inspire wide-ranging speculation in later writers is clearly demonstrated by the essays assembled in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time & Invention (anth 1996) edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (1947-    ). [JC]

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Charles Babbage

born London: 26 December 1791

died London: 18 October 1871

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