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CHARLES BABBAGE – The Father of Modern Computer / Computing

Computer needs no introduction to this generation kids. Our day to day activities start and end with it. It has become a necessity for everyone. Charles Babbage was termed to be the inventor of computer. He was the first one to introduce computing.

Charles Babbage was born on 26th December 1791 in England. His parents were Benjamin Babbage and Elizabeth Teape. His father was a banker and was rich enough to buy an estate in London. His primary schooling was mostly done at home as he used to keep unwell when he was a child. Later he joined Trinity, Cambridge in 1810 and by that time he was interested in Mathematics. But he struggled to find a place among aristocratic students and later he was shifted to a group of like-minded students and formed an organization known as the Analytical Society. John Herschel, who was the leader of this group, became Babbage’s best friend for lifetime. He graduated in 1814 and completed his Masters in Arts in 1817.

He got married to Georgiana Whitmore in 1814 against his father’s consent and the couple had 8 children but only three of them survived to be adults. They lived a happy life and Babbage published more than dozen papers and did lot of research in Maths for the next seven years. He mostly devoted his time to a branch of Algebra called calculus of functions.

He traveled to Paris and there he got introduced to Gaspard De Prony who worked and completed a huge set of logarithm and trigonometry tables. He was able to divide the labor of computing these tables among ninety assistants. Babbage was hugely impressed by his works. Babbage was appointed as a founding member of the Astronomical Society in 1820. It consisted of a group of businessmen who were interested in revising the Royal Nautical Almanac. This book was largely used by navigators and surveyors as it consisted of lengthy tables which showed the positions of the heavenly bodies on every night of the year. It was always prepared years in advance and required a huge amount of calculation. So Babbage thought of a machine which can serve the purpose and can calculate polynomial interpolations. Graphs were made using the points and curves were drawn. Babbage named this machine as the Difference Engine.

It used finite difference methods to compute. He spent seven more years refining this machine developing new machining techniques. He wrote many papers on machinery and mechanical engineering.

In 1827, a tragedy happened in his life and Babbage broke down totally. His father, wife and two of his children died. He was shattered so much that he decided to move around some new places to deviate his mind. He left for Europe and during his travel he met many scientists. He returned to England with many more new ideas and in 1832 he wrote a book named On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures which was termed to be his most influential work during his life time. The book showed how machines can be used in industry and how they can be used most economically.

Babbage invented a new machine for the evaluation of functions and it very much resembled the modern computer. It read operations from a string of punched cards and performed those particular operations on individual numbers. It could also store and retrieve numbers. It was named by him as Analytical Machine as he was very much interested in Analytical Mathematics. It was far more different and complicated than Difference Engine and Babbage had to make new designs, plans and descriptions for Analytical Machine.

Babbage was largely assisted by Ada Lovelace. She used to translate and annotated a description of the Analytical machine. She was the one who wrote the instructions which would compute a set of values called Bernoulli Numbers. Now these set of instructions is called program. She was termed to be the world’s first computer programmer.

In 1842, British Government started supporting the development of Babbage’s computing machines but they stopped it as Babbage progressed slowly. This angered Babbage and for the next several years he started working more rigorously on his machines. In 1854, a father and son duo George and Edvard Scheutz got influenced by Babbage’s idea and they designed and built their own version. It was too smaller and lighter than Babbage’s machine and gears and levers were used in it. It was named as Scheutz Machine and it was as compact as a music box.

Babbage was so pleased with this machine that he publicly appreciated the works of Scheutz. Babbage also designed a system for coastal navigation and redefined design of his Difference Engine. He tried to redefine Analytical machine too but he died on 18th October 1871 leaving his machines unfinished. It was later constructed by his son Henry Prevost Babbage and he completed the section which involved the actual computation.

Babbage is actually connected to the modern computer through the work of Howard Aiken. He was a graduate student in Harvard University and he built a computing machine in the early 1940s. Aiken discovered Babbage’s papers and a model of his computing machine while he was designing his own device. Aiken promptly grasped what Babbage had accomplished and identified him as one of the founders of the field of computation.

Charles Babbage is buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery in London. One half of his brain is preserved in Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons while the other half can be seen in the London Science Museum.

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