Sue Young Histories

Charles Babbage 1791 – 1871

June 29, 2008

Charles Babbage 1791 –
1871Charles Babbage FRS 1791 – 1871 born in Marylebone, London, England was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer, though Simon Korsakoff did actually pre-empt him.

From 1828 to 1839 Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Royal Statistical Society in 1834.

Charles Babbage was a close friend of homeopaths and homeopathic supporters, he was the teacher of Mary Everest Boole, the daughter of his friend homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest. Mary Everest Boole was married to mathematician George Boole.

Charles Babbage was a friend of Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace and Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville, and he was part of a social set which included many homeopaths and homeopathic supporters including Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin, Harriet Martineau, homeopath Moncure Daniel Conway, Charles Lyell, George Everest and his brother, homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest, Robert Everest (?brother of George and Thomas, a geographer who lived in India), Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Henry Huxley, publisher John Chapman and Charles Dickens.

Charles Babbage introduced Charles Darwin to the idea that everything in nature worked according to specific laws, an idea which prompted Darwin to seek out the natural laws which governed the transmutation of species.

Charles Babbage was the mentor and (some people have suggested) lover of Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, the ‘first computer programmer’. Ada manipulated symbols according to rules for computers that Babbage had not yet built. Ada Lovelace also studied Babbage’s ideas on another machine, the Analytical Engine, which would use punched cards to “read” instructions and data for solving mathematical problems.

Charles Babbage also taught Mary Everest Boole, the daughter of his friend homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest. Mary Everest Boole was married to mathematician George Boole.

Mary Everest Boole spent ten years living in Paris as a child, and she knew Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, and she also knew Pierre Simon de Laplace, a close friend of Charles Babbage.

In her book _Indian Thought and Western Science in the Nineteenth Century _Mary Everest Boole argues that George Boole, Charles Babbage and Augustus De Morgan were ‘intensely Hinduised‘, and that these three men moved in circles heavily influenced by Indian philosophy, mathematics and astronomical ideas.

Indeed George Everest was extremely impressed with his friend, the famous Indian mathematician Radhanath Sickdhar who calculated the height of Mount Everest as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) of India in 1819, which involved thousands of Indians over four years and covered 1,600 square miles. George Everest called Radhanath Sickdhar a ‘rare genius’.

Charles Babbage was a friend of Henry Thomas Colebrooke who studied Sanskrit and saw the translation of the great Digest of Hindu Laws, a monumental study of Hindu law which had been left unfinished by Sir William Jones.

Henry Thomas Colebrooke translated the two treatises, the Mitacshara of Vijnaneshwara and the Dayabhaga of Jimutavahana, under the title Law of Inheritance. In 1805, William Wellesley appointed Henry Thomas Colebrooke Professor of Hindu law and Sanskrit at the college of Fort William. During his residence in Calcutta Henry Thomas Colebrooke wrote his Sanskrit Grammar (1805), some papers on the religious ceremonies of the Hindus, and an Essay on the Vedas (1805), for a long time the standard work in English on the subject.

Parts of Charles Babbage’s prototye programmable computer’s uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum. In 1991 a perfectly functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage’s original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage’s machine would have worked.

Nine years later, the London Science Museum completed the printer Babbage had designed for the difference engine, an astonishingly complex device for the 19th century. Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs.

The birthplace of Charles Babbage is disputed, but he was most likely born in 44 Crosby Row, Walworth Road, London, England. A blue plaque on the junction of Larcom Street and Walworth Road commemorates the event.

Babbage’s date of birth was given in his obituary in The Times as 26 December 1792. However, after the obituary appeared, a nephew wrote to say that Charles Babbage actually was born one year earlier, in 1791. The parish register of St. Mary’s Newington, London, shows that Babbage was baptized on 6 January 1792, supporting a birth year of 1791.

Charles’s father, Benjamin Babbage, was a banking partner of the Praeds who owned the Bitton Estate in Teignmouth. His mother was Betsy Plumleigh Teape. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth, and Benjamin Babbage became a warden of the nearby St. Michael’s Church.

His father’s money allowed Charles to receive instruction from several schools and tutors during the course of his elementary education. Around the age of eight he was sent to a country school in Alphington near Exeter to recover from a life-threatening fever. His parents ordered that his “brain was not to be taxed too much” and Babbage felt that “this great idleness may have led to some of my childish reasonings.”

For a short time he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South Devon, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a time.He then joined a 30-student Holmwood academy, in Baker Street, Enfield, Middlesex under Reverend Stephen Freeman. The academy had a well stocked library that prompted Babbage’s love of mathematics.

He studied with two more private tutors after leaving the academy. Of the first, a clergyman near Cambridge, Babbage said, “I fear I did not derive from it all the advantages that I might have done.” The second was an Oxford tutor from whom Babbage learned enough of the Classics to be accepted to Cambridge.

Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1810. He had read extensively in Leibniz, Joseph Louis Lagrange, Thomas Simpson, and Lacroix and was seriously disappointed in the mathematical instruction available at Cambridge. In response, he, John Herschel, George Peacock, and several other friends formed the Analytical Society in 1812. Babbage, John Herschel and George Peacock were also close friends with future judge and patron of science Edward Ryan.

Ultimately, Babbage and Edward Ryan married sisters. (In 1814 Edward Ryan married Louisa née Whitmore (died 1860). His friend Charles Babbage married her sister, Georgiana, in the same year).

In 1812 Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the top mathematician at Peterhouse, but failed to graduate with honors. He instead received an honorary degree without examination in 1814.

On July 25, 1814, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore at St. Michael’s Church in Teignmouth, Devon. The couple lived at Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire (where Babbage engineered the central heating system), before moving to 5 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London.

Charles and Georgiana had eight children, but only three — Benjamin Herschel, Georgiana Whitmore, and Henry Prevost — survived to adulthood. Georgiana died in Worcester on September 1, 1827. Charles’ father, wife, and at least two sons all died in 1827. These deaths caused Babbage to go into a mental breakdown which delayed the construction of his machines.

His youngest son, Henry Prevost Babbage (1824-1918), went on to create six working analytical engines based on his father’s designs, one of which was sent to Howard H. Aiken, pioneer of the Harvard Mark I. Henry Prevost’s 1910 Analytical Engine Mill, previously on display at Dudmaston Hall, is now on display at the Science Museum.

Charles Babbage died at age 79 on October 18, 1871, and was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. According to Horsley, Babbage died “of renal inadequacy, secondary to cystitis.” In 1983 the autopsy report for Charles Babbage was discovered and later published by one of his descendants. A copy of the original is also available. Babbage’s brain is preserved at the Science Museum in London.