Charles Babbage

Mathematician / Inventor

Born: 26 December 1792
Died: 18 October 1871
Birthplace: Teignmouth, Devonshire, England
Best known as:

The inventor of the Difference Engine

Charles Babbage was a 19th-century mathematician and inventor whose calculating machines earned him a top spot in the history of mechanical computing. Babbage's early career was devoted to practical applied science, particularly in manufacturing. But he is most famous for his work on what he called the Difference Engine and, later, the Analytical Engine. As early as 1822 he speculated that a machine could be used to compute complex mathematical problems and calculate and correct errors in logarithm tables and astronomical charts. He obtained government grants and began work on the Difference Engine, only to decide later that it would be easier to scrap the work and start fresh on a new idea, the Analytical Engine. The British government withdrew funding in 1842 and stuck the incomplete Difference Engine in the Science Museum, where it still sits. Charles Babbage, using his own money, spent the rest of his life working on the Analytical Engine, but never finished it. He was assisted by Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Augusta, the countess of Lovelace and an amateur mathematician. In spite of his failure to completely develop a working machine, Babbage (and Lady Lovelace) are legendary heroes in the prehistory of the computing age; he is sometimes called "the grandfather of modern computing."

Extra credit:

Charles Babbage created the first reliable actuarial tables, invented skeleton keys and the locomotive cowcatcher... In 1847 he invented an ophthalmoscope to study the retina, but didn't announce the invention and didn't get any credit for it... Lady Lovelace also joined Charles Babbage in his failed attempts to create an infallible system of betting on horse races... The work of Babbage and Lady Lovelace is central to the speculative novel The Difference Engine (1992), written by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.

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