Charles Babbage - Obituary

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1872 , Vol. V, pp. 30-36.


R.W. Hartley

Prepared by Michael Steer

Charles Babbage KH. FRS was a polymath; mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, He originated the concept of a digital programmable computer. Babbage was one of four children of Benjamin Babbage and Betsy Plumleigh Teape. His father was a banking partner of William Praed in founding Praed's & Co. of Fleet Street, London, in 1801. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth. Around the age of eight, Babbage was sent to a country school in Alphington near Exeter to recover from a life-threatening fever. For a short time he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a time. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers

Charles Babbage, F.R.S., was born on the 26th December, 1792. Little is known of his parentage and early youth, except that he was educated privately. During the whole of his long life, even when he had won for himself fame and reputation, he was extremely reticent on that subject, and in reply to questions, he would uniformly express an opinion that the only biography of living personages was to be found, or, at all events, ought to be found, in the list of their published works.

At the usual age Mr. Babbage was entered at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated from Peterhouse in the year 1814. His name, however, does not appear in the Mathematical Tripos, he preferring to be Captain of the Poll to any honours but the Senior Wranglership, which he was not sure of obtaining. While he was at Cambridge he was distinguished by his efforts, in conjunction with the late Sir John Herschel and Dean Peacock, to introduce into that University, and thereby among the scientific men of the country in general, a knowledge of the refined analytic methods of mathematical reasoning which had so long prevailed over the Continent ; whereas we in our insular position, for the most part, were content with what has been styled " the cramped domain of the ancient synthesis."

The youthful triumvirate made a successful inroad on the prejudices and predilections which had prevailed up to that time. Keeping this object steadily in view, in the first place they translated and edited the smaller treatise on the Calculus, by Lacroix, with notes of their own, and an appendix (mainly, if not wholly, from the pen of Sir J. Herschel) upon Finite Differences. They next published a solution of exercises on all parts of the Infinitesimal Calculus, a volume which is still of great service to the mathematical student, in spite of more recent works with a similar aim. In this publication Mr. Babbage contributed an independent essay on a subject at that time quite new, the solution of Functional Equations.

By steps and stages, of which the records at our command are scanty, these pursuits gradually led Mr. Babbage on to that practical application of mathematical studies which may justly be considered to be his crowning scientific effort — we mean, of course, the invention and practical construction of the famous calculating engine or machine which the world has associated with his name. As a writer in the Dictionary of Universal Biography remarks: -

"The possibility of constructing a piece of mechanism capable of performing certain operations or numbers is by no means new; it was thought of by Pascal and geometers, and more recently it has been reduced to practice by M. Thomas, of Colmar, in France, and by the Messrs. Schültz, of Sweden; but never before or since has any scheme so gigantic as that of Mr. Babbage been anywhere imagined."

His achievements here were twofold. He constructed what he called a Difference Engine; and he planned and demonstrated the practicability of an Analytical Engine also. The difficulty of making the nature of such abstruse inventions at all clear cannot be doubted, since Dr. Lardner, no unskilful hand at mechanical description, filled no less than twenty-five pages of the Edinburgh Review with but a partial account of its action, confessing that there were many features which it was hopeless to describe effectually without the aid of a mass of diagrams. All that can here be said of the machine is, that the process of addition automatically performed is at the root of it. In nearly all tables of numbers there will be a law of order in the differences between each number and the next. For instance, in a column of square numbers - say 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, &c. - the successive differences will be 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, &c. These are differences of the first order. If, then, the process of differencing be repeated with these, we arrive at a remarkable simple series of numbers, 2, 2, 2, 2, &c- And into some such simple series most tables resolve themselves when they are analyzed into orders of differences ; an element - an atom, so to speak - is arrived at, from which, by constant addition, the numbers in the table may be formed. It was the function of Mr. Babbages's machine to perform this addition of differences by combinations of wheels acting upon each other, in an order determined by a preliminary adjustment. This working of differences gave it the name of the Difference Engine. It has been repeatedly stated that the construction of this machine was suddenly suspended, and that no reason was ever assigned for its suspension; but the writer in the Dictionary already quoted above states that - "In spite of the favourable report of a Commission appointed to inquire into the matter, the Government were led by two circumstances to hesitate about proceeding further. Firstly, Mr. Clements, the engineer or machinist employed as his collaborateur, suddenly withdrew all his skilled workmen from the work, and, what was worse, removed all the valuable tools which had been employed upon it" - an act which is justified as strictly legal by Mr. Weld, in his History of the Royal Society, though a plain common-sense man of the world may reasonably doubt its equity, as the tools themselves had been made at the joint expense of Mr. Babbage and the Treasury. "Secondly," says the same authority, " the idea of the Analytical Engine - one that absorbed and contained as a small part of itself the Difference Engine - arose before Mr. Babbage. Of course, he could not help the fact that "Alps upon Alps should arise " in such matters, and that when one great victory was achieved, another and still greater battle remained to be fought. But no sooner did Mr. Babbage, like an honest man, communicate the fact to the Government than the then ministers, with Sir Robert Peel and Mr. H. Goulburn at the head of the Treasury, took alarm, and, scared at the prospects of untold expenses before them, resolved to abandon the enterprise.

Mr. Babbage, apart from all help from the public purse, had spent upon his machine, as a pet hobby, no small part of his private fortune - a sum which has been variously estimated between £6,000 and £17,000. And so, having resolved on not going further into the matter, they offered Mr. Babbage, by way of compensation, that the Difference Engine as constructed should remain as his own property - an offer which the inventor very naturally declined to accept. The engine, together with the drawings of the machinery constructed and not constructed, and of many other contrivances connected with it, extending, it is said, to some 400 or 500 drawings and plans, were presented in 1843 to King's College, London, where we believe they are to be seen in the Museum, bearing their silent witness to great hopes dashed down to the ground, or, at all events, to the indefinite postponement of their realization.

In speaking at this length of Mr. Babbage's celebrated machine, we have a little anticipated the order of events, and must return to our record of the leading facts of his life. In the year 1828 he was nominated to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics in his old University, occupying in that capacity a chair which had once been held by no less a man than Sir Isaac Newton. This chair he held during eleven years. It was while holding this Professorship, namely, at the general election of November, 1832, which followed on the passing of the first Reform Bill, that he was put forward as a candidate for the representation of the newly-formed borough of Finsbury, standing in the advanced Liberal interest, as a supporter not only of Parliamentary, financial, and fiscal reform, but also of the "Ballot, triennial Parliaments, and the abolition of all sinecure posts and offices." But the electors did not care to choose a philosopher, so he was unsuccessful, and, we believe, never again wooed the sufifrages of either that or any other constituency.

The limits of this notice prevent us giving a full list of the works of which Mr. Babbage was the author, which extended to upwards of eighty volumes. Their names can be seen recorded at full length in the new library catalogue of the British Museum. Further information respecting them will be found in the twelfth chapter of Mr. Weld's History of the Royal Society, which we have already quoted. Two or three of them, however, we should specify. The best known of them all, perhaps, is his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a work designed by him at once to refute the opinion supposed to be implied and encouraged in the first volume of that learned series, that an ardent devotion to mathematical studies is unfavourable to a real religious faith, and also to give specimens of the defensive aid which the evidences of Christianity may receive from the science of numbers, if studied in a proper spirit.

Another of his works, which has found a celebrity of its own, is a volume called the Decline of Science, both the title and the contents of which give us reason to believe that its author looked somewhat despondingly on the scientific attainments of the present age. The same opinion was still further worked out by Mr. Babbage in a book on the first Great Exhibition, which he published twenty years ago. Another of his works deserving of mention here is one on the Economy of Manufactures which was one result of a tour of inspection that he made through England and upon the Continent in search of mechanical principles for the formation of Logarithmic tables.

It is about forty years since Mr. Babbage produced his Tables of Logarithms from 1 to 108,000, a work upon which he bestowed a vast amount of labour, and in the publication of which he paid great attention to the convenience of calculators, whose eyes, he knew well, must dwell for many hours at a time upon their pages. He was rewarded by the full appreciation of his work by the computers not only of his own, but of foreign countries; for in several of those countries editions from the stereotyped plates of the tables were published, with translations of the preface. Notwithstanding the numerous logarithmic tables which have since appeared, those of Mr. Babbage are still held in high esteem by all upon whom the laborious calculations of astronomy and mathematical science devolve.

Mr. Babbage was one of the oldest members of the Royal Society at the time of his death; he was also, more than fifty years ago, one of the founders of the Astronomical Society, and he and Sir J. Herschel were the last survivors of that body. He was also an active and zealous member of many of the leading learned societies of London and Edinburgh, and in former years at least an extensive contributor to their published Transactions. As a single illustration of these contributions, may be mentioned a paper read by him before the Royal Society in 1862, to explain the way in which human remains might become mixed with the bones of extinct mammalia in cave-deposits; for, as he justly observes, "whilst we ought to be quite prepared to examine any evidence which tends to prove the great antiquity of our race, yet, if the facts adduced can be explained and accounted for by the operation of a few simple causes, it is unphilosophical to infer the co-existence of man with those races of extinct animals."

As a testimony to his great merits and unwearied exertions in the field of science, he was proposed and unanimously elected the first Honorary Member of this Association in 1867. He died at his residence in Dorset Street, Marylebone, in October, 1871, at an age little short of eighty years.