By Steve Bishop
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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)
Charles Babbage was the son of Benjamin and Betsy Plumleigh Babbage. He was born in London. But soon moved to South West England. His father was warden of a church in Teignmouth, Devon. His grandfather was the major of Totnes, Devon. They were a rich family and so Charles was educated at top schools. He was a sickly boy and this interrupted some of his schooling. At one small private school he taught himself mathematics from books in the large school library.
In 1810 he went to study at Trinity College Cambridge, where he, Herschel and others formed the Analytical Society. Babbage later transferred to Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
When he got married to Georgina Whitmore in 1814 at Teignmouth, Babbage contemplated ‘going into the Church’. He didn’t because, as he wrote to Hershel: ‘this will not accord sufficient propriety (for a curacy is all I should get).’!
Babbage is best known for his calculating machines; the difference machine and the analytical machine. These machines paved the way for modern computing.
Babbage’s analytical machine – completed after Babbage’s death.
Babbage, in the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837), wrote:
“The object of these pages … is to show that the power and knowledge of the great Creator of matter and mind are unlimited.”
In it he describes God as a great programmer.
On miracles, he wrote (1837):
“The object of the present chapter [VIII Argument from laws intermitting on the nature of miracles] is to show that miracles are not deviations from laws assigned by the Almighty for the government of matter and mind; but that they are the exact fulfillment of much more extensive laws than those we suppose to exist.”
He draws parallels with the operation of his calculating machine and suggests that
“… these speculations have led to a more exalted view of the great Author of the universe than we have yet possessed.”
Babbage also created a table of logarithms, contributed to cryptology. Invented the cow catcher – a frame to clear the railway tracks in front of trains – and was the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University from 1828-1839. He helped found the Astronomical Society and the Statistical Society.
He died in London aged 79 on 18th October 1871. He is buried in Kelsal Green cemetery, London.
He was celebrated on a British first class stamp, to mark the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society
A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives (1826)
Table of Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108, 000 (1827)
Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830)
On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832)
Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837) http://www.archive.org/stream/ninthbridgewate00babbgoog#page/n11/mode/2up
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)
Hyman, Anthony. 1982. Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer. Princeton/ Oxford University Press.
A project to build Babbage’s analytical machine http://plan28.org/
Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. Look for future posts from him in this series on Christian Mathematicians.
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