Charles Babbage was born at Teignmouth in 1791 (although the older editions of Dictionary of National Biography erroneously give the date 1792), and was a sickly child, receiving a desultory early education, although he taught himself algebra, of which he was inordinately fond.
In 1811, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge but found himself more advanced than his tutors, (when his father asked one of the professors for any information that might prove useful for the prospective student, he received the reply, “Advise your son not to purchase his wine in Cambridge.”), so, in 1812, he founded with Herschel, Peacock and others, the Analytical Society, to promote D-ism (as opposed to the Dot-age of the university). These three conjointly translated Lacroix's Elementary Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus (1816), follow by two volumes of Examples (1820), giving an impetus to a mathematical revival in England, which introduced continental notation and analytical methods to the country. Babbage transferred to Peterhouse and graduated in 1814, with an honorary degree, was elected to the Royal Society in 1816, took an M.A. in 1817, and was instrumental in forming the Astronomical Society in 1820.
|Demonstration model of the Difference Engine|
From his early days at Cambridge, Babbage had been interested in the possibility of using machines in mathematical operations, using wheelwork to calculate a series by employing a ‘method of differences’ which was much more accurate than the operation of manual methods employed by so-called ‘computers’ (people employed to ‘compute’).
|The Difference Engine No. 2|
He constructed a small engine between 1820 and 1822, and presented it to the Astronomical Society in June 1822, for which he received the first gold medal awarded by the Society. The success caused Babbage to approach Sir Humphrey Davy, president of the Royal Society, with a proposal to construct a larger engine to produce the innumerable tables required for navigation, astronomical observations and so on. After favourable interviews, Babbage was awarded £1,500 from the Civil Contingencies Fund and work began in earnest to build the engine. This continued for four years, after which Babbage went abroad on a health cure for a year, where he observed continental practices and factories, and returned home in 1828. He re-applied for further funding, receiving the approval and support of the Duke of Wellington, who was favourably impressed by the progress already made. There followed a delay of about fifteen months, when Mr Clement, the engineer employed to construct the Difference Engine, objected to the removal of the works to other premises and sought substantial compensation, upon which being refused, he withdrew his labourers and removed the specialised tools necessary for the construction of the machine.
|The Analytical Engine|
During this delay, Babbage developed the concept of an improved version, the Analytical Engine, which he was sure would be much faster than the original machine, and presented his case to the government. In spite of prolonged communication, Babbage did not receive an answer to his question that he should proceed with the original version, and after eight years, in 1842, Mr Goulburn, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the project was to be abandoned as the costs had now exceeded £17,000, in addition to £6,000 of Babbage’s own money. This did not take into account the improvements made in both tools and methods, the benefits of which far outweighed the costs already expended.
The Analytical Engine was intended to use two sets of punched cards, similar to those used in Jacquard weaving looms, one set to work upon ‘variables’ and the other to work upon ‘operations’, allowing the machine to be ‘programmed’, rather than simply being a dedicated calculator. These machines have since been constructed, using Victorian tolerances, at the Science Museum and have been found to work perfectly. Charles Babbage went on to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post also held by Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking), although in eleven years he did not deliver any lectures, and he stood twice, unsuccessfully, as a parliamentary candidate.
|Organ Grinders - John Leech - Sketch from a Study Window|
In his latter years, he became an implacable foe of barrel organs; a public nuisance that he calculated had cost him a quarter of his productive time during the last dozen years of his life. He was opposed to any sort of street entertainment, and produced a table enumerating the worst offenders: -
“Organs, Brass bands, Fiddles, Harpsichords, Hurdy-gurdies, Flageolets, Drums, Bagpipes, Accordions, Halfpenny whistles, Tom-toms, Trumpets, The human voice in various forms; Shouting out objects for sale. Religious canting and Psalm-singing.”
And with similar precision he enumerates the encouragers of street music as: -
“Tavern-Keepers, Public Houses, Gin Shops, Beer Shops, Coffee Shops, Servants, Children, Visitors from the Country, and Ladies of Doubtful Virtue.”
His efforts did not have the desired effect, as itinerant musicians were hired expressly to play in front of his house, crowds followed him whenever he went out to find a policeman, anonymous threatening letters were sent him, dead cats and other offensive things were thrown down his area, and his windows were repeatedly broken. Babbage was not alone in his hatred of barrel organs, as Thomas Carlyle, author, historian and philosopher, had his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, soundproofed against the nuisance – “The question arises, Whether to go out and, if not assassinate him, call the Police upon him, or to take myself away to the bath-tub and the other side of the house?” Dickens railed against them and started a petition to have them banned, which was signed by Tennyson, Carlyle and Millais, amongst others.
|John Leech - Cartoon from Punch 1864|
John Leech, cartoonist for Punch, was particularly troubled by the noise of barrel organs, and wrote to his friend and biographer, the painter William Powell Frith, in 1864, lamenting, “Rather, Frith, than continue to be tormented in this way, I would prefer to go to the grave where there is no noise”. He died within a week, done to death by organ grinders.
Charles Babbage died in 1871, from renal failure secondary to cystitis, aged 80. His brain was removed and kept at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons; in 1908, Sir Victor Horsley, presented a descriptive paper on the brain and published an illustrated edition of his paper.
* Ligyrophobia - The fear of noise.