|Technology today, in these last few
years of the twentieth century, is growing so fast it is
often hard to keep up with. The computer industry is
booming, advancing with every passing year. The industry
is still young, but its products are in such high demand
that rapid advancement of technology is hardly
surprising. What is surprising, however, is that it took
the industry a second invention and over one hundred
years before the power of computers was finally
recognized. Though computers weren't ever built until the
mid-1900s, the first idea for a computer was actually
developed starting in 1837. Charles Babbage, born to a
wealthy London family in 1791, was the brain behind the
idea, and is famous for his work developing plans for two
different computers. His first, the Difference Engine,
was partially completed in the early 1830s, but never to
the extent he had planned. The Analytical Engine, his
second and more complex design was never completed at
all, but both had the potential to be very powerful,
especially for the time period.
His machines were essentially the first computers in history. Though a crude calculator was built by mathematician Blaise Pascal in the 1642, it was very unreliable, and had far fewer capabilities than even Babbages Difference Engine. The Difference Engine could compute simple calculations, like multiplication or addition, but its most important trait was its ability create tables of the results of up to seven-degree polynomial functions. His engine, except for the printing mechanism, was close to being finished in 1832, but funds to complete the project were dropped, and so had to be his project. By 1837, Babbage had come up with a new idea: a computer that could understand commands and could be programmed much like a modern-day computer. He called it the Analytical Engine, and it was the first machine ever designed with the idea of programming. Babbage started working on this engine when work on his Difference Engine was halted and continued for most of his life. Unfortunately, due mostly to political and economic concerns, and of course to the high technological involvement of the project, Babbages Analytical Engine was never completed. His ideas were isolated at the time, and no other attempts at building such a computer were thought of again until well into the next century. Babbage, a true computer pioneer, is known as the "Uncle" of computers, due to his early, but isolated contributions to the field.
Charles Babbage was an exceptional man. Obviously very intelligent, his mathematical and mechanical genius was apparent even at an early age. As a child, he liked to take apart toys in order to figure out how they worked. Later, in school, he learned algebra on his own because he was fascinated by the subject. His interest in mathematics continued into high school, where, because of the time constraints of a heavy, prep-school course load, Babbage would go to school in secret from three until five in the morning to study calculus by himself. By the time he went to university in 1810 he had a good understanding of and a hugely motivated interest in the field of mathematics.
Babbage went to Trinity College in Cambridge in 1810 to start his first year of university. While he was there, he encountered some fellow mathematicians, George Peacock and John Herschel, with whom he could study calculus. During the time, the main focus of higher education was the humanities, so most of their calculus studies had to be conducted on their own. Babbage and his friends, called the Analytical Society, found that the French had the best understanding of calculus and that their texts were far superior to those used in the English system, and they decided to translate them into English. One of the results of the Analytical Societys work was the popularization of the dy/dx (from the previous x) notation now commonly used in differential calculus.
Through his studies at Cambridge and his work with the Analytical Society, Babbage became a well-respected mathematical scholar. At the age of twenty-five he became a member of the Royal Society, and was later awarded the title of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a title once held by Sir Isaac Newton and now by physicist Stephen Hawking. Babbages contributions to the field of mathematics made him very deserving of the award.
Babbages love for mathematics carried through all aspects of his life. He loved numbers and orders and he was a collector of facts of any kinds. In fact, his collection was so involved that he would stop the check and record the pulse of every animal he came across. He believed that there was some perfect order in the universe, and that if one could just gather enough facts and compile them into tables, a careful analysis of them all would lead to some great universal understanding. Babbage took his Newtonian ideas into the real world, and tried to win some money using them at the horse races. By calculating and organizing as many facts about as many horses as he could, he practiced his powers of prediction, which unfortunately did not measure up to his expectations.
Babbage was also fascinated by the supernatural world. He was interested in religion from a scientific standpoint, and believed God to be the ultimate programmer. He was curious about the darker side of religion as well, forming ghost-hunting organizations in college and harboring a fascination with the Devil. On one adolescent occasion, he went upstairs into his attic, drew blood from his fingers, and, with the blood, painted a circle on the floor just large enough for him to stand inside. Stepping into his circle, he chanted the Lords Prayer backwards and watched for a sign: a raven, a bat, a ghost, anything to let him know that the Devil was there. Nothing came to him, but he continued to try little tests in order to gain some understanding of the supernatural world. While in college, he made a promise with his friend that the first one who died had to visit the other while he was still living. His friend eventually died before Babbage, and again Babbage looked for some kind of sign. Babbage never found what he was looking for, and before long, his ideas about religion went from traditional to purely scientific.
Charles Babbage was an intellectual man, respected by almost everyone in his mathematical field; however, he had a strange personality to which some people had difficulty relating. Part of the reason his work on the first Difference Engine was stopped was because of a fight he got into with one of his engineers, Joseph Clement. Babbage was advised to check up on the work Clement was doing to make sure he was paying the engineer the correct amount. Clement was reluctant, but agreed to the checks. Eventually the process destroyed the trust between the two men, and their collaboration was halted in 1832, as was the funding for the project.
Babbage also got into political issues during the Analytical Engine-building process. Since these machines were so big and required so much material, not to mention the time Babbage devoted to them, the planning and construction of his engines, especially the Analytical Engine, was costly. Babbage applied for grants from the government to fund his project, because, after all, the government would probably get the most use out of the finished product. He was awarded some money, but not nearly enough to complete his work. After a while, when Babbage couldn't produce much of a product for the government, they started growing skeptical of his ability to finish the machine. Also working against him was one of Babbage's colleagues who contiguously urged the government not to fund the project, calling it "worthless." Interestingly enough, this same mathematician had tried to create a similar machine (to the Difference Engine) himself and had failed.
Babbage eventually stopped most of his work on his engines by 1848. In 1848, he designed the Difference Engine number two, based upon the improvements in time and space that had come about while thinking of the Analytical Engine. This model was later to be built in 1991 by the London Science Museum. In 1854, a Swedish printing press owner, George Scheutz completed a difference engine, complete with a printing mechanism, based upon a design of Babbages he had acquired in 1834. Babbage was impressed by the work and recommended that Scheutz win a medal from the Royal Society. No version of an analytical engine was ever completed. Despite the failure to realize his ultimate dream, Babbage's plans alone distinguish himself as a man ahead of the times. He was almost too ahead of his times, as his plans didn't spark any more development in the field, but the innovations are nonetheless remarkable, and stand as an inspiration to computer visionaries today.