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Famous mathematicians: Charles Babbage

Famous mathematicians: Charles BabbageWho was he?

Charles Babbage was a nineteenth century English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer.

Why is he famous?

Charles Babbage was born in London on December 26, 1791, the son of Benjamin Babbage, a London banker. As a youth, Babbage taught himself algebra of which he was passionately fond, and was well read in the continental mathematics of his day. Upon entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1811, he found himself far in advance of his tutors in mathematics.

In his twenties Babbage worked as a mathematician. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816 and it was about this time that Babbage first acquired the interest in calculating machinery that became his consuming passion for the remainder of his life.

A mechanical calculator

In 1821 Babbage invented the Difference Engine to compile mathematical tables. On completing it in 1832, he conceived the idea of a better machine that could perform not just one mathematical task but any kind of calculation. This was the Analytical Engine (1856), which was intended as a general symbol manipulator, and had some of the characteristics of today’s computers.

The Analytical Engine was intended to use loops of punched cards to control an automatic calculator, which could make decisions based on the results of previous computations. This machine was also intended to employ several features subsequently used in modern computers, including sequential control, branching, and looping.

Perfection is never finished…

Babbage worked on his Analytical Engine from around 1830 until he died, but sadly it was never completed. It is often said that Babbage was a hundred years ahead of his time and that the technology of the day was inadequate for the task. However, one of Babbage's most serious flaws was his inability to stop tinkering. No sooner would he send a drawing to the machine shop than he would find a better way to perform the task and would order work stopped until he had finished pursuing the new line. By and large this flaw kept Babbage from ever finishing anything. Nevertheless Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer.