In the late1970's, my father bought me "a new and improved" calculating machine called the "Radio Shack TRS-80" computer. This incredible machine allowed me to "read in" computer programs from an audio tape so I could do wonderful things, such as get beat at chess by a piece of electronics! Little did I realize back then that I would do an engineering thesis using a computer, and that computers would establish themselves in my career as "tools." It's hard to believe, but the computer actually got its start over 100 years earlier than my TRS-80 through the work of a Christian named Charles Babbage, dubbed "The Father of Computing."

Babbage: The Man

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791 (however some records indicate it could have been December 26, 1792 or even January 6, 1792) at his family's home in London. Charles' father, Benjamin (nicknamed "Old Five Percent"), was a banker and apparently a fairly wealthy man, having sent young Charles to excellent private schools of the time. His mother's name was Betsy Plumleigh Babbage.

Charles was sickly as a child. In his own words, "Having suffered in health at the age of five years, and again at ten by violent fevers, from which I was with difficulty saved, I was sent into Devonshire and placed under the care of a clergyman (who kept a school at Alphington, near Exeter), with instructions to attend to my health; but not to press too much knowledge upon me: a mission which he faithfully accomplished."

After leaving Alphington he was sent to a private academy at Forty Hill, Enfield, Middlesex to begin his formal education. Young Charles took a strong interest in mathematics and a strong dislike for the classics. After leaving the academy he continued his studies at home through a tutor from Oxford who brought him up to the university level. He studied a number of mathematics books during this time and did so well that after entering Trinity College in Cambridge (1810) he became dissatisfied with the quality and level of the teaching. He was well beyond Trinity's structured classes in mathematics.

As his thirst for mathematics grew he tried to obtain a copy of a book on differential and integral calculus by the Frenchman, Lacroix. The problem was that there was a war going on with Napoleon and locating a French mathematics book in England proved to be very difficult. He finally found and purchased a copy, but since it was written in French, he had to pay to have it translated to English.

Babbage left Trinity to continue his studies at Peterhouse, where he received a B.A. degree in 1814. For the next several years he wrote technical papers on a number of mathematical topics. Some were very important, but some were also very incorrect. Although Charles was brilliant, he, like any person, was not immune to making mistakes. He continued his pursuit of mathematics in college and received an M.A. degree from Cambridge in 1820.

Charles Babbage was an interesting person with many unusual traits. He is often thought of as "a funny sort of distracted character with a dirty collar." He found beauty in technical and engineering subjects but hated music. Being a man born into society, he attended the theater but spent his time figuring out how the scene-moving mechanisms and special effects worked, mainly because he held no interest in the actual performances. He had a fascination with fire and was lowered into Mt. Vesuvius so he could see the molten lava first-hand. Charles even tried his hand at politics but his impatience and criticism did not endear him to the public.

In 1864 he wrote a paper entitled "Observations of Street Nuisances" in which he derided street musicians for their wasting of time. Included in this paper was a calculation that 25% of his working power had been destroyed through the disturbances from street musicians. As a result, "Babbage's Act," which was targeted to stop such street nuisances, was enacted, although not enforced. Instead, he became a target of ridicule with people routinely standing outside his window making noise including a brass band that played for 5 hours straight with no breaks!