Who Invented the Computer? Charles Babbage

Who Invented the Computer? This is the first installment in our ongoing series.

Charles Babbage designed, but never built, the earliest functional computers.

Have you ever had a great idea that you constantly thought about? One you were certain would change the world? Only that, for whatever reason, you never followed through on it? We all have those ideas that never see the full light of day. Then one day someone else has the same thought and brings it to fruition, reaping acclaim and large financial rewards.

One historic individual who had one of these paradigm-changing ideas was Charles Babbage, the inventor of the “Greatest Machine Never Built.” Babbage was an English polymath, a mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer. He is considered by most to be the “father of the computer” for originating the concept of a digital computer.

Born in London in 1791 to a well-to-do family, Babbage early on showed an abnormal eagerness to learn. Frail health forced him out of the public grammar school and into the tutelage of private instructors who honed his desire.

Both infatuated with, and largely self-taught in, contemporary mathematics, he attended Cambridge University in 1810. Expecting a top-notch education in mathematics, Babbage was amazed and let down by the rudimentary level of knowledge possessed by his professors. He later wrote, “I was, to be honest, disappointed at their lack of knowledge in the field compared to mine.”

He continued his studies at Cambridge, often forming or joining a number of student organizations, including one called the Extractors Club that was dedicated to “liberating its members from the madhouse, if any should be committed to one.”

Finding his way in the world

Upon graduation in 1814, Babbage was slow to find a career, as his numerous applications for a teaching position were largely unsuccessful. One reason for this may have been his curmudgeonly personality: Notoriously thin-skinned and short-tempered, his interactions with others were often less than collegial.

Like many brilliant young polymaths, Babbage sometimes thought his judgment superior to other experts, whatever the field. At such times, he could be utterly insulting. He once wrote a letter to Alfred Tennyson, taking exception to an observation in Tennyson’s poem, “Vision of Sin.” The line reads, “Every moment dies a man, every moment one is born.”

Babbage’s mathematical acumen caused him to demand precision from Great Britain’s Poet Laureate, pointing out that the rate of birth in the world, at the time, exceeded the rate of death. He suggested that the next edition of the poem read, “Every moment dies a man, every moment 1 1/16 is born.”

Upon the death of his father in 1827, Babbage became independently wealthy and free to pursue his interest in mathematics, science, and engineering full-time. As an inventor/engineer, he designed and built a Dynamometer Car, to measure aspects of a locomotive’s performance, as well as an ophthalmoscope that enabled doctors to see into the human eye — a device continues to be part of routine eye examinations today. He also came up with a device to clear the tracks in front of a train, affectionately known as the cowcatcher.

In pursuit mathematical excellence

The area of interest that would bring Babbage renown involved mundane mathematical tables. Throughout history, such tables have been essential to navigation, science, and engineering. In the 19th century, the numbers in such tables were calculated by hand, a time consuming and expensive process prone to errors in calculation and transcription.

According to Babbage’s own account, it was while looking over a table of logarithms he knew “to be full of mistakes” that the idea of a machine to “recalculate numerical tables without error” came to him.

Infatuated with the idea, he drew up plans for what would become known as his “Difference Engine No. 1,” the function of which would be to tabulate polynomials easily and error-free. With funding from the government, Babbage hired a highly skilled machinist to help him.

Unfortunately, the machinist was, like Babbage, a bit of a prima donna and their relationship was somewhat rocky. They ultimately succeeded in building a small demo model, but by then the government had lost interest and refused further funding.

Had the Difference Engine been built, it would have been humongous, consisting of 25,000 parts and weighing slightly more than 8,000 pounds. The idea of an engine to compute logarithms stayed with Babbage and by 1837, he completed plans for a better machine, the “Analytical Engine.”

If at first you don’t succeed

This new design was ingenious and far ahead of its time. It contained the same logical structure as modern computers: an arithmetic logic unit, control flow with conditional branching (“if statements”) and loops as well as integrated memory.

Babbage devised a simple way to input data (programs) into his machine by repurposing existing technology. He borrowed an idea from the lace industry in France, the Jacquard Loom. The Loom utilized punch cards to simplify the process of manufacturing textiles and creating intricate designs and patterns.

In operation, a chain of punch cards would pass over a series of “sensing rods.” When an individual rod sensed a hole in the card, it would place a stitch in that position. A succession of Jacquard cards would operate like a succession of instructions into the Analytical Engine.

In addition to calculating algorithms, the design for the Analytical Engine included a number of attachments capable of producing hardcopy printouts, punch cards, and graph plotting. The finished product would even have been capable of producing stereotypes by making imprints into trays of Plaster of Paris material to be used as molds for making printing plates.

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, Babbage never constructed the Analytical Machine. Other than obtaining funding, perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting the machine off the drawing board was its prohibitive size. It would have been enormous, more than 25 feet long and almost 10 feet tall, with so many moving metal parts that steam power would have been the only means of operating it.

Try, try again

A modern working model of Charles Babbage's difference engine.

In 1846, Babbage improved on his idea of the Analytical Machine and designed an improved “Difference Engine No. 2.” This advanced design required fewer parts and had a more streamlined process, but it too never got beyond the design stage.

Babbage died in 1871 at the ripe old age of 81, having never seen any of his machines in operation. His ideas and concepts, however, have proven sound. Over the past 60 years, several organizations and individuals have collaborated to build full-size models of Difference Engine No. 2. It works perfectly, capable of doing everything we do with modern computers — just far more slowly.

Technology historians continue to debate Babbage’s influence on modern computers. While his designs contained the same logical structure as today’s machines, his impact has been somewhat muted for two reasons: None of his machines were built until long after he had died. And because his concepts and designs were so far ahead of his time, those who followed for the next century never considered building on his ideas.

Through it all, Babbage remained proud of his designs, especially the Analytical Machine, which he predicted, would have a great influence on the world. One day while speaking on the idea, he said, “As soon as the Analytical Machine exists, it will surely guide the future course of science.”

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.