Charles Babbage

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Engraving by Charles Babbage in Mechanics' Magazine , May 1, 1833
Charles Babbag's signature
Model replica of the analytical engine
Difference machine No. 1 by Charles Babbage from 1832 in the Science Museum London.

Charles Babbage (born December 26, 1791 in Walworth , County Surrey , England , † October 18, 1871 in London ) was an English mathematician , philosopher , inventor and political economist .

The Analytical Engine , a mechanical calculating machine he designed, is considered the forerunner of the modern computer .


Babbage in the
London Illustrated News in 1871

Born into two old Devonshire families , Babbage began studying at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1810 ; The focus was on mathematics and chemistry . In 1812 he founded the Analytical Society with John Herschel , the aim of which was to reform British mathematics and to spread advanced methods from mainland Europe (such as Leibniz's differential calculus ). In 1814 he graduated from Peterhouse in Cambridge . On July 2 of the same year, he married Georgiana Whitmore.

In 1815 Babbage gave a series of lectures on astronomy at the Royal Institution, on March 14, 1816 he was appointed a member of the Royal Society for his services in the field of mathematics, and in 1817 he achieved a master's degree in philosophy . In 1820 he also became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh . In the same year Babbage founded the Royal Astronomical Society with John Herschel and George Peacock , of which he was secretary until 1824. Sir William Herschel became the first president .

By 1822, Babbage had completed a working model of a calculating machine, and with support from the British government, work began on the difference engine no.1 in 1823 .

In 1826 Babbage published a pamphlet in which he put the life insurance business on a statistical basis with the help of mortality tables .

After the death of his father Benjamin Babbage (1753-1827) (whereby Charles Babbage came to an inheritance which guaranteed him a secure livelihood for the rest of his life) and the death of two sons and his wife within seven months, he joined one in 1827 one-year trip to Europe through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy. Among other things, he climbed the crater of the then active Vesuvius , met several members of the Bonaparte family , examined the Serapis temple in Pozzuoli and visited Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin. After his return he was politically active until 1834 and supported several liberal local politicians with moderate success.

Babbage became a professor of mathematics at the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University in 1828 (until 1839), but gave no lectures. His 1830 report, Reflections on the decline of science in England, and on some of its causes , which reflected his dissatisfaction with the state of the Royal Society , led to the establishment of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 .

His book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was published in 1832. This is an analysis of the technology and organization of industrial capitalism of its time, in which he wrote, among other things, about lowering wage costs by splitting a work process into differently demanding sub-processes, which is also called today " Babbage Principle " is known. In the same year, a first module of the difference engine from around 2,000 out of a total of 25,000 parts was completed by the precision mechanic Joseph Clement. In 1832, Babbage was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

In 1833 he began work on the analytical engine at his own expense. In 1834 he founded the Society for Statistics in London.

In 1842 the British government finally abandoned the difference engine no.1 project , and in 1846 Babbage stopped developing the analytical engine . From 1847 he worked on detailed plans for a difference engine no.2 (until around 1849), which managed with significantly fewer components than no.1 .

In 1854, Babbage was the first to decipher a Vigenère cipher by describing how to filter the appropriate key from the ciphered text. However, he never published his method, so scientists only became aware of his findings after his death.

In 1824 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society . In 1830 he was appointed a foreign member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences . In December 1832 he was accepted as an external corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences . The asteroid (11341) Babbage and the lunar crater Babbage are named after him.


“One evening I was sitting in the offices of the Analytical Society in Cambridge, my head propped on the table in a kind of waking dream and a logarithm table open in front of me. Another member came into the room, saw me half asleep, and shouted, 'Babbage say, what are you dreaming of?' To which I replied, 'I remember that all these tables (which I pointed to the logarithms) are from a machine could be calculated '. "

Scientific work

On the economy of machinery and manufactures , 1835

With the difference engine and the analytical engine, Babbage developed two mechanical calculating machines, of which he was unable to produce a functioning copy during his lifetime, but the latter is considered to be the forerunner of the modern computer . However, his interests and activities go far beyond his pioneering work in this area.

His analysis of factory capitalism , published under the title Economy of machinery and manufactures , became an important source for Karl Marx , who received this book extensively. The Babbage Principle , which deals with labor costs, is named after Babbage .

He put the life insurance business on a mathematical basis, dealt with cryptology , the navigation of underwater vehicles and proposed a theory about the formation of glaciers. Among his many inventions in addition to the calculators includes the ophthalmoscope (ophthalmoscope), he independently of Helmholtz developed, and one at the front end of locomotive -mounted rail guards , the "cow catcher". He also recognized that the width of the annual ring of a tree is influenced by the weather and thus allows conclusions to be drawn about the climate of past times.

For the mathematician Babbage, the reason for the development of calculators was the lack of reliability of numerical tables of mathematical functions . B. were created for ship navigation and the calculation of which errors often occurred. He approached this problem with the methods of industrialization : dividing the work into individual steps ( algorithmization ) and transferring them to machines ( automation ). Through the methods of the French Gaspard de Prony , who had been commissioned after the French Revolution to calculate mathematical tables in the new decimal system, he knew that intellectual and intellectual tasks such as manual tasks could be effectively organized through division of labor. Babbage took aim is to make the second step and machine design , which carry out the work automatically.

His calculating machine was described by Federico Luigi Menabrea and annotated in English translation by Ada Lovelace , sponsored by Babbage. Both writings are considered early pioneering works on programming.


Charles Babbag's Difference Engine was never finished in his lifetime. It was only between 1989 and 1991 that the Difference Engine No. 2 functionally reproduced. Later, hobbyists also recreated this machine using modern, precise toy building kits such as Lego and Meccano .

British researchers also want to use Babbag's drafts to recreate the analytical engine in a project calculated over a period of ten years and thus check its functionality.

Babbage dealt with scientific fraud in 1830 in " Reflections on the Decline of Science in England ". He summarized how research results are embellished by means of

  • Trimming: leveling irregularities
  • Cooking: quoting results that fit a theory; Leaving out results that contradict the theory.
  • Forging: Inventing all research results that fit into common doctrines or are presented with a desired goal. He also differentiates between falsifying with the intention of long-term deception and hoax .

Charles Babbage bequeathed his brain to science. It is now on display in a glass next to the replica of his machines in the Science Museum in London.

Babbage had a particular passion for fire. So it could be baked in an oven at 130 ° C for a few minutes. On his trip to Europe he also let himself down into the crater of Vesuvius to see the molten lava.


  • A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives. 1826.
  • Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. London 1830, (English, ).
  • Economy of machinery and manufactures. London 1832, (English, ).
    • German edition: The economy of the machine. Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 1999 ISBN 3-931659-11-9 .
  • The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a fragment. 1837.
  • Passages from the life of a Philosopher. London 1864 (autobiography).
    • German edition: Passages from a philosopher's life. Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-931659-07-0 .
  • Henry Babbage (Ed.): Babbage's calculating engines. Being a collection of papers relating to them, their history and construction. London 1889 (Cambridge University Press 2010).
  • Philip Morrison, Emily Morrison (Eds.): Charles Babbage and his calculating engines. Selected writings by Charles Babbage and others. Dover 1961.


  • Anthony Hyman: Charles Babbage, 1791–1871. Philosopher, mathematician, computer pioneer. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-608-93095-7 .
  • NT Gridgeman: Babbage, Charles . In: Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography . tape 1 : Pierre Abailard - LS Berg . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1970, p. 354-356 .
  • HW Buxton: Memoir of the life and labor of the late Charles Babbage Esq. FRS Los Angeles 1988.
  • JM Dubbey: The mathematical work of Charles Babbage. Cambridge, 1978.
  • Denis Roegel: A reconstruction of Charles Babbage's table of logarithms (1827). 2010 ( PDF).
  • K. Jäger, F. Heilbronner (eds.): Lexikon der Elektrotechniker , VDE Verlag, 2nd edition from 2010, Berlin / Offenbach, ISBN 978-3-8007-2903-6 , p. 33

Web links

Commons : Charles Babbage  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Charles Babbage  - Sources and full texts


Individual evidence

  1. ^ Foreign members of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1724: Babbage, Charles. Russian Academy of Sciences, accessed August 29, 2019 (in Russian).
  2. Christian father: 300 years of mechanical intelligence. Of calculating machines and think tanks. In: KITopen. April 5, 2019, accessed on June 28, 2020 (DOI: 10.5445 / IR / 1000118108).
  3. Difference Engines
  4. ^ John Markoff: It Started Digital Wheels Turning In: The New York Times . November 7, 2011.
  5. ^ Online at Gutenberg
  6. According to Babbage, one of the variants of this deception method. The general aim is to simulate a higher than the existing measurement accuracy.
  7. ^ Computer Pioneers - Babbage, Charles. Retrieved August 24, 2019 .