Charles Babbage and the First Computers

I’ve recently been doing more research into scientific history, and among the many fascinating facts I’ve discovered is one that may surprise many Regency aficionados. We all know the era was a time of fancy balls, elegant soirees and country house parties . . . perhaps less well known is that it saw the invention of the first computer.

As a young child, scientist/inventor Charles Babbage was constantly taking apart his toys, wanting to know exactly how they worked. When he was ten years old, his mother took him to an exhibit of complex mechanical figures, known as automata. Fascinated, he asked so many questions about what made them tick that the inventor invited Babbage up to his private workshop, where he kept his special creations. The inventor’s name was Merlin, which was very fitting! As the young boy watched a miniature silver dancer twirl through series of graceful spins while the bird she was holding flapped its wings and moved its beak, he was completely enchanted by the moving gears and the magic of what they could do. It was a spell that lasted a lifetime.

Babbage went on to attend Cambridge University, where he studied math. Unhappy with how the subject was being taught, he and some friends soon formed a student club called Analytical Society to protest the old-fashioned symbols used for writing calculus problems. They wanted the more modern system, which was popular throughout the rest of Europe, instead of the one invented by Sir Isaac Newton (don’t ask.) The protest didn’t succeed, but it was a harbinger of how Babbage would remain stubbornly sure of his ideas, even when they went against the grain, for the rest of his life. He continued to look at the world around him and try to see how things could be done better.

The new ideas and new technology of the Industrial Revolution were turning the early 19th century world upside down. It was an exciting time for someone with imagination, and Babbage was one of the new breed of scientists leading the charge. His mind was constantly spinning with ideas on how to improve the ways things were done, and he used his practical skills to achieve many great accomplishments, from pioneering technical advances for lighthouse signaling to fine-tuning track designs for the first railroads. But it was in working on a way to create accurate mathematical tables that his genius really kicked into high gear.

Babbage was frustrated that many of the tables, which were calculated and typeset by hand, had so many mistakes. “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam,” he exclaimed to his good friend John Herschel, a famous astronomer. Herschel agreed with him that a machine would be far more accurate. So in 1821, Babbage decided to design one.

Math was hugely important in many aspects of everyday life in the 1800s. The trouble was, most of the standard printed math tables used in critical calculations were filled with errors. What Babbage was looking to create was a machine capable of crunching the numbers of complex equations like polynomials, logarithms and sines, which are all math functions that are used in such occupations as banking, insurance, ocean navigation, architecture, and military weapons technology. A section of the machine would then create a printing plate of the results, so that the accurate tables could be mass-produced. (For example, bankers use logarithms to calculate the rate of interest on an investment over a certain number of years. And rather than doing the tedious calculations by hand for all the variables, it’s far quicker and more efficient to have standard printed tables to use as a reference.) 

It took six years of sketching in his notebooks (he called them his “scribbling books”) but by 1827, he had finished drawings. The design, which he named the Difference Engine, required 25,000 parts, each of which had to be specially made by hand, and the finished machine would weigh around 4 tons and stand 8’ tall x 4’ wide x 11’ long. Its ingenious system of brass rods, gears and rotating horizontal number wheels (each one was marked with the digits 0-9), allowed the Difference Engine to quickly spin through complicated math problems, once its operator had manually entered an equation to be solved and turned the hand crank. A marvel of precision engineering, it could “carry” numbers from one column to another and shift sums along the horizontal and vertical axes.

The British government was very interested in his idea because accurate math tables would be very helpful for the army, the navy and the finances of the country. They invested £17,500 in the project (which would have purchased two fully equipped battleships) allowing Babbage to hire Joseph Clement, a master toolmaker, to start making the parts.

Work progressed slowly, as it was an incredibly complicated design. But finally, in 1832, a small demonstration model was finished, and Babbage was able to show that his concept was working. However, the Engine’s development stalled in 1833 when Clement quit in a huff over money. Babbage, however, was not discouraged. He had already started working on designs for a more sophisticated Engine.

It was right around this time that he met seventeen-year-old Ada Byron, (later Ada Lovelace) the daughter of Lord Byron, at a London party. Ada was a math whiz—she was called “the Enchantress of Numbers”—and the two of them struck up an instant friendship. Ada was fascinated by the Difference Engine and the idea that a machine could be made to solve such complicated math equations. When she and her mother returned to their home in northern England, she and Babbage kept up their friendship through letters, where they shared brainstorming ideas about the Engine’s possibilities.

During this time, Babbage made a trip to France, and was inspired by the mechanical jacquard looms he saw there. The looms were run by a series of punched cards that controlled the thread hooks, making it possible for them to weave textiles with very intricate patterns.  It was one of those “ah-ha” moments, and when he returned to England he took the idea of punched cards and adapted it to his Engine. And suddenly he saw a way of programming the machine to do a whole new level of functions.

It was this concept, the idea of making a set of instructions to control what was done, that changed his machine from a mechanical calculator into the world’s first computer.

 The Analytical Engine, as Babbage called his new machine, was designed in 1837, (he kept on revising it for the rest of his life) and had many of the basic components of a modern-day computer. The “store” serves as its memory, where calculations could be “saved” while the machine changed gears in mid-calculation to run another variation. The “mill” was its central processing unit. And like modern computers, it could perform “loops”, which means repeating the same sequence of operations on a specific group of numbers, and conditional commands, which means it could be programmed to do different calculations depending on the result of the previous calculation.

However, by this time, people had basically stopped paying attention to Babbage and his Engines. He received a lot of criticism for his endless sketching and tinkering, which seemed to be going nowhere. The British government had grown frustrated with waiting for an actual machine and stopped funding his work. One of the few people who was still excited about his ideas was Ada Lovelace. In 1843, after translating an article on the Analytical Engine written by an Italian scientist, she added her own notes, in which she sketched out how a sequence of operations could be used by the Engine to solve a certain type of math problem. For this she is credited with having written the first computer program. (There’s something very poetic about the Enchantress of Numbers and the young boy inspired by Mr. Merlin teaming up to make a machine do something so magical, even if it was only on paper.)

Babbage’s Engines never got built—technologically they were nearly 100 years ahead of their time. But for his conceptual thinking, he credited with having invented the first computer. (In 2002, a team of scientists and engineers used modern technology to finally build a full scale model of one of Babbage’s Engine designs, Difference Engine #2. It worked perfectly.)