Charles Babbage was a genius of the first order. He was one of the most original and versatile scientists in history, and we can’t hope to touch on all of his activities here. He was a mathematician, an engineer, a politician, a professor, a writer, an inventor, a cryptographer, a man about town, a founder of scientific organizations, and an expert on industry. His pioneering book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (18 32), was cited repeatedly by Marx in Capital and by John Stuart Mill in Principles of Political Economy. He was a human dynamo who needed only five or six hours of sleep a day and who was driven by a millennarian vision of man and machine that brought him within a hair’s breadth of the invention of the greatest of machines, the computer.
Born on 26 December 1791, in London, he was the oldest son of Benjamin and Betty Plumleigh Babbage. Benjamin was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense banker who had started out as a goldsmith in the small town of Totnes, a picturesque port in Devonshire, on the River Dart, about 200 miles southwest of London. Benjamin parlayed his capital in to a successful business as an independent banker, and he and his wife moved to London the year before Charles’s birth. He became a junior partner in an up-and-coming London bank, accumulated an impressive fortune, and retired to Totnes in 1803, when Charles was eleven. Benjamin could have been a character out of Dickens – stern, reserved, domineering, with a sharp temper and an excessive fondness for money. There was no love lost between Charles and his father, although his mother was a kind, loving, and patient woman, and he was always close to her.
Charles grew up much as any other well-to-do English boy. He attended small private schools near Totnes, where he studied mathematics, navigation, accounting – subjects that made up the bulk of the curriculum in the schools around the ports of Britain. Math was his favorite discipline; as Babbage recalled in his autobiography, he and a like-minded student used to “get up every morning at three o’clock, light a fire in the schoolroom, and work until five or half-past five” studying algebra. He also had an inventive frame of mind. One of his most memorable creations was a pair of wooden boards, linked together with hinges, for walking on water; he tested it on the Dart one day and almost drowned.
Charles entered Cambridge in 1810. Hardly a bookworm, he was a charming, gregarious, and athletic young man, with a fondness for whist and sailing. Even his serious pursuits bore a lighthearted touch. During his years at Cambridge, for example, the school was caught up in a controversy over the format of the Bible. Should the book be printed with or without explanatory notes? One side sought to make the word of God more comprehensible to the masses, the other to preserve its literal purity. Cambridge, which took its religion seriously, was littered with posters and broadsides advocating one or the other side of the issue.
At the same time, however, the university was less than zealous in its cultivation of the intellect, and the school, Newton’s alma mater and once the guiding light of European mathematics, had lost its luster. English mathematicians were trained in an inferior notation of calculus – the confusing dots of the Newtonian version as opposed to the clearly defined d’s of the Leibnizian system – and the rift between Britain and the Continent had widened to a point where most English mathematicians couldn’t decipher the publications of their Continental counterparts. English mathematics was falling by the wayside, and Babbage, Herschel, and most of the country’s bright young mathematicians and scientists were unhappy with the quality of their education.
Nothing might seem more petty and inconsequential to us today than the controversy between the dots and the d’s, but it was a significant matter in the history of science, residue of the great quarrel between Newton and Leibniz over the invention of calculus.
One spring day in 1812, Babbage picked up a broadside that demanded, in absurdly exaggerated terms, the publication of the unelaborated word of God. He couldn’t resist a parody. So he wrote out a plan for the establishment of a society for the propagation of “the principles of pure D-ism in opposition to the Dotage of the university.” The satire struck a sympathetic chord with his mathematically minded schoolmates. Over the objections of the university authorities, who frowned on independent student organizations, Babbage and his friends established the Analytical Society. The group was dedicated to the overthrow of the Newtonian way, and Babbage, the intellectual rabble-rouser who founded it, was on his way to making his mark in the world.
Like most undergraduate clubs, the Analytical Society was more talk than action. It had about a dozen active members and issued only one publication, Memoirs of the Analytical Society (1813), consisting of mathematical papers written in the Leibnizian style by Babbage and Herschel, before disbanding in 1814. (Herschel, the society’s president and Cambridge’s best undergraduate mathematician, graduated in 1813 and Babbage came down the following year.) But the spirit of the group lived on. In 1816, two years after Babbage had left college, he, Herschel, and George Peacock, another ex-Analytical, launched a more mature sally against the Newtonian dots with the publication of their translation of a popular French textbook on calculus. Four years later, the three men wrote a two-volume calculus workbook complete with solutions. The books accomplished what the Analytical Society had not. They were adopted by Cambridge teachers, and helped steer British mathematicians back to the mainstream.
In July 1814, the newly graduated Babbage married Georgina Whitmore, the youngest daughter of a prosperous family in Shropshire, and began looking for a job. He didn’t want an academic career, since he disliked academia and regarded universities as fatally dull and stuffy places. (At times, however, Babbage sought a professorship to supplement his income, and in 1827 he was named to Newton’s chair – Lucasion Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Busy with his own work and uninterested in teaching, he did not deliver a single lecture during his ten-year tenure and ignored most of the post’s other duties.) And he was bored by banking, his father’s business. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He considered something in mining, and asked a friend of his father’s, a rich country gentleman with extensive mining interests, for help. He (or so he wrote Herschel) also ran employment ads in several country newspapers. But nothing came his way. Even in the England of the industrial revolution, suitable positions for college-educated men were hard to find.
In 1815, Babbage was given a small house in London (most likely a wedding gift from his father) and wasted no time entering the local scientific scene. He gave a series of lectures on astronomy at the Royal Institution and joined Herschel and Peacock in translating the French text on calculus. He published several mathematical papers in The Journal of Science and in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1816, only two years after he had left Cambridge. Anybody who was anybody in British science belonged to the society, as did many nonscientists; the group was more like a good club than a bona fide scientific association, and the nonscientists often held sway. The situation annoyed Babbage to no end, and he eventually became one of the organization’s sharpest critics. In reaction to the society’s mixed membership, Babbage, ever the joiner, helped establish three competing organizations – the Royal Astronomical Society, The London Statistical Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
The late 1810s and early 1820s were the happiest time of Babbage’s life. His scientific reputation was growing – he published ten papers between 1815 and 1821, as well as the books on calculus – and his marriage was a joy. A sociable pair, he and Georgina liked to entertain and often visited friends and relatives in the country. Georgina gave birth to a child in 1815, and seven more offspring arrived during the next twelve years (but only three children survived into maturity). The family’s financial situation improved with the death of Georgina’s father, who left them a tidy inheritance that complemented Babbage’s allowance from his father. He had one or two servants and enough money to finance his research. Yet he was only a gentleman scientist, without a worthy position, a great goal, or high status.
He found all three in the Difference Engine.