Charles Babbage and his world

M. V. Wilkes


Most people have heard something about Charles Babbage, F.R.S., whose work on computers in the nineteenth century was much ahead of its time. Babbage worked on two computing devices, neither of which he completed: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. It is the Analytical Engine that gives him a claim to major fame. Unfortunately, most of the details remained buried in his manuscript notebooks and were not unearthed until the modern computer age had begun. For that reason, it is rather overstating the case to describe him, as is often done, as the father of the computer. I shall not here be concerned with Babbage's technical achievements, but rather with the age in which he lived. It was an age in which rapid scientific and industrial progress was being made and in that respect it resembles our own. Babbage was born in 1791 and went up to Cambridge University in 1810. Steam engines were then rare, and railways and electric telegraphs lay in the future. The word ‘electricity’ denoted static electricity generated by friction, and there was no hint of the marvels that electric currents would bring.