Famous Scientists

Charles Babbage

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Do you ever wonder who you have to thank for the powerful desktop or laptop you are now using for practically everything you do? You might say all thanks should be given to the computer companies of today but in fact, you have Charles Babbage to thank. The name might not be familiar to you just yet but read on because pretty soon, “Charles Babbage” will be on your mind every time you use your computer.

Who is Charles Babbage?

Charles Babbage was born on Dec. 26, 1791 in England. He was a polymath and became a mathematician, mechanical engineer, inventor, and philosopher. He had a lot of contributions to different scientific fields but his most famous work is probably coming up with the idea of a programmable computing device.

In fact, Charles Babbage is considered the “father of the computer” and is given credit for coming up with the first ever mechanical computer. It was very simple but it served as the blue print for other, more complex machines. Of course he had other works to his name in other fields and this is the reason he was often referred to as pre-eminent among other polymaths of his generation.

Try to pay a visit to the London Science Museum and you will find parts of his uncompleted works. Back in 1991, experts constructed a functioning difference engine basis on Babbage’s original designs. The engine was built to conditions that were around during the 19th century and the success of the completed difference engine indicated that the machine of Babbage would have functioned just fine.

His early life

There is some dispute about the birthplace of Charles Babbage but as stated in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Babbage was born at 44 Crosby Row at Walworth Road in London, England. A blue plaque has been placed along the junction of Walworth Road and Larcom Street to commemorate the birth of this brilliant man.

An obituary printed in The Times said he was born on Dec. 26, 1792 but a relative of Babbage wrote in to state that Babbage was actually born a year before in 1791. A baptismal certificate found in St. Mary’s Newington, London indicates that he was baptized on Jan.6, 1792 which supports the relative’s claim about the year of birth.

Charles Babbage was just one of four children born to Betsy and Benjamin Babbage. His father was a banker and he was the partner of William Praed. Together they founded Praed’s & Co. of Fleet Street London in 1801.

When he was 8 years of age, Charles Babbage was sent to Alphington near Exeter for schooling and to recover from a fever that nearly ended his life. For some years, he attended the King Edward VI Grammar School located in Totnes South Devin but he was in such poor health that he had to make the switch to private tutors.

Sometime later, he made his way to the 30-student Holmwood academy located in Bake Street in EinField Middlesex and he was placed under the tutelage of the reverend Stephen Freeman. The academy had a library where Babbage’s love of mathematics blossomed. As he was attending classes in the academy he was also learning from two other private tutors. At the age of about 16 or 17 Babbage went back to Totnes to study and had a tutor from Oxford. It was under this tutor that he learned enough about classic math to be admitted to Cambridge.

At Cambridge

Babbage went to Trinity College in Cambridge on Oct. 1810 and by that time he already taught himself some aspects of contemporary math. It was for this reason that he felt somewhat let down by the standard math instruction they had at Cambridge.

While in Cambridge, he teamed up with such notable names like John Herschel, George Peacock, and other friends to form the Analytical society. He was also a member of other clubs such as the Ghost club where they investigated supernatural happenings. The Extractors Club that he was a member of made it their mission to liberate members from the madhouse in the event that anyone was ever committed to one.

He transferred to Peterhouse in 1812 where he became the top mathematician although he did not graduate with honors. He did receive a degree without having to go through any examinations and that was in 1814. He was able to defend a thesis that was considered blasphemous with respect to the preliminary public disputation.

After Cambridge

It was easy for Charles Babbage after he left Cambridge for he was a most brilliant student. He became a lecturer at the Royal Institution where he talked about astronomy in the year 1815. A year after that, he was elected to become a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. In the same year, he became a candidate for a teaching job at the HaileyBury College and he went with recommendations from people like John Playfair and James Ivory. He lost the spot to Henry Walter.

Babbage and his machines

His machines were considered as one of the very first mechanical computers ever to be invented. The fact that they were not actually used for computing was not due to a design flaw. Rather, it was to be blamed on lack of funding and some personality problems.

Babbage was the director in charge of building steam-powered machines and they did achieve some success; they also suggested that calculations could be done mechanically. For ten years after that, the government funded his projects which amounted to about £ 17,000 but it happened that the treasury lost faith in him and the funding stopped.

While the machines he came up with were mechanical and bulky they had a basic design that is similar to the modern computer. It is for this reason why he is often looked at as one of the pioneers of computers.


Charles Babbage died on Oct. 18, 1871. He is buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Cause of death was “renal inadequacy”. One half of his brain is preserved in Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons while the other half can be viewed in the London Science Museum.

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