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Profiles in Christianity & Science: Charles Babbage

  • Ray & Gale Lawson Home School Enrichment Magazine
  • 2005 16 May
Profiles in Christianity & Science: Charles Babbage

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!

Babbage: The Scientist

In July of 1822 Charles wrote a letter to the president of the Royal Society concerning his concept for a machine that could calculate and print mathematical tables. Nearly a year later he was funded to start his work on this new machine. By 1827 he had spent the funds provided to him and began to finance his idea with his own money. This would not be something he could support on his own however. His calculating machine, which he called a "Difference Engine," would require an additional two tons of brass, as well as substantial amounts of hand-made steel and pewter clockwork. What he had done was design a mechanical computer! No keyboard, no mouse, no monitor; just an intricate collection of gears and mechanical devices!

In 1829 a group of Babbage's friend's were able to solicit additional funds from the Duke of Wellington. Although Babbage was given the money, the government hired an engineer, Joseph Clement, to perform the construction. Clement was a person with a large ego who made numerous inordinate demands of Charles. Charles decided not to advance Clement additional funds so Clement dismissed his workers and work on the Difference Engine ceased.

Rather than fret over what had happened, Babbage developed a concept for an even larger, more powerful Difference Engine; one that would provide 20 decimal places for a sixth-order difference, instead of his original design for 6 decimal places for a second-order difference. (Note: Difference equations are an advanced topic usually covered at the college level. Don't worry if you don't understand the details yet, just understand that trying to solve difference equations with a mechanical computer in the 1800's was a very revolutionary idea!)

Charles continued to ask for more funding but was told that the government did not wish to fund his new machine until he had his original one working. His efforts to raise money lasted another 8 years before he was finally told that his idea was "worthless." The government told him that for the amount of money they had invested, they should have received at least a "clever toy."

If only the government had realized the intellect of Charles Babbage and not been so short-sighted. They had little understanding of what Babbage was trying to do as evidenced by the following statement:

"On two occasions I have been asked (by members of Parliament), 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

Next week we'll explore Charles Babbage, the Christian in Part II of this series.

Ray & Gale Lawson have been homeschooling their 3 children since 1995.  Ray holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and works for Washington Group International in Aiken, SC.  Gale holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Carolina and has been “full time mom and teacher” since the birth of their first child.  They are members of Breezy Hill Baptist Church in Graniteville, SC and are active in Breezy Hill’s homeschool ministry.  Questions, comments and suggestions can be mailed to Ray at [email protected] or Gale at [email protected]


This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr ’05 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine as part of an ongoing series on Profiles in Christianity & Science.  For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com .