On Charles Babbage

Some digressions on the pioneer of computational machines

an uncertain start
Charles Babbage room, Totnes Elizabethan House Museum

The Totnes Elizabethan House Museum pays tribute to one of Totnes's favourite sons in the Babbage Room dedicated to the life and work of mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.

But was Babbage born in Totnes, as the museum would have us believe? Not so, judging by all the other biographies which fall into two camps. There are those such as [1] and [2] which plump for London, while many other sources like [3] and [4] go for Teignmouth in Devon. The obituary in The Times doesn't speculate on Babbage's birthplace, mentioning Charles's own reticence on the subject:

Little is known of Babbage's early life and parentage, except that he was born on the 26th of December, 1792, and was educated privately. During the whole of his long life, even when he had won for himself fame and reputation, he was always extremely reticent on that subject...

Even this date of birth was later disputed by a relative who provided evidence that it took place a year earlier.

The University of St Andrews biography of Babbage [5] points us to a solution to the mystery in "Charles Babbage:Pioneer of the Computer" by Anthony Hyman, Princeton University Press, 1982. Hyman, the maintainer of the Babbage Pages at the University of Exeter [6], recounts two anecdotes told by Charles regarding events in his earliest years suggesting that his parents' home was close to both London Bridge and Montpelier Gardens. He continues (on p11):

These two stories enabled me to solve the long-standing puzzle of Babbage's place of birth. Although he had himself stated that he was born in London the location was unknown. It was sometimes said that he was born in Teignmouth or Totnes, presumably from the family background. Indeed an exhibition celebrating his birthplace was even financed in Totnes, although a glance at the baptismal register suffices to make a Totnes birthplace exceedingly improbable. After following a number of false trails it occurred to me to enquire where Charles would have been baptized if he had been born halfway between London Bridge and Montpelier Gardens. The answer was at St Mary Newington. In the baptismal register, there was recorded for 6 january 1792: Charles, son to Benjamin and Betty Plumleigh Babbage. The birthday of 26 December was not in question; the year of birth was evidently 1791.

Two undisputed facts that do link Babbage to Totnes are that Charles's grandfather Benjamin Babbage was Mayor of Totnes in 1754 [2], and Charles himself attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes for a brief period [1].

a man with a difference
Babbage as a young man

In 1821 Babbage was examining two sets of supposedly identical astronomical tables when he noticed a series of errors in the manually evaluated results. Exasperated, he exclaimed

I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!

and so began a quest which would last the remaining 50 years of his life, and in the eyes of many, would lay the foundations for the modern computer industry.

Tom Standage, technology correspondent of The Economist, takes up the story in his 1998 essay A mechanical Moore's Law?:

Babbage started to design a vast calculating engine, far more powerful and ambitious than anything that had been attempted before. It would be capable of calculating successive values of mathematical series using repeated addition, thanks to a cunning mathematical recipe called the Method of Differences. Accordingly, Babbage named his design the Difference Engine.
Having secured funding of £20,000 from the British government, he contracted an engineer named Joseph Clement to build the machine. But a decade later, in 1833, fewer than half the parts had been completed, the funds had been exhausted, and Babbage and Clement had fallen out. In 1842 the government formally pulled the plug on the project when it refused to provide any more money on the advice of Sir George Airy, the astronomer royal, who denounced Babbage's plans as "worthless."
By this time, however, Babbage was working on an even more ambitious design he called the Analytical Engine. This was a direct precursor of today's computers: in particular, it had separate sections called the "store" and "mill," analogous to the memory and processor of a modern computer. But although he continued to refine the Analytical Engine's design until his death in 1871, Babbage was never able to raise the money to build anything more than a small experimental model representing part of the mill. He did, however, draw up plans for Difference Engine No. 2, an improved version incorporating new techniques he had devised while working on the Analytical Engine. But, in common with Babbage's other designs, it was never built in his lifetime.

Babbage's design for the Difference Engine No. 2 was vindicated by Doron Swade and his team at the Science Museum in London who built the machine minus the elaborate output printer component in 1991, the 200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. The printer was added in 1998, financed by a substantial grant from Microsoft through the good offices of their Chief Technology Officer, the charismatic Nathan Myhrvold. When operated it was capable of cranking out the values of seventh-order polynomial equations with 31-figure accuracy, as Babbage had predicted.

The Difference Engine No. 2, as partially built in 1991
anything for a quiet life

Always ahead of his time, like a New Labour cabinet minister Babbage was an enthusiastic proponent of the respect agenda. Charles had a profound dislike of noisy neighbours, and goodness knows there were plenty of those to be found in 1850's London; especially he despised street musicians, with their wearisome hurdy gurdies and tin whistles. After letters of complaint to The Times he was able to persuade legislators to push through what became known as "Babbage's Act", outlawing street nuisances. The act was unenforceable, and indeed the whole episode rebounded horribly, exposing Babbage to ridicule for the rest of his days.

This enduring harassment is described graphically by Professor J.A.N. Lee in his 1994 biography of Babbage [3]:

The public tormented him with an unending parade of fiddlers, Punch-and-Judys, stilt-walkers, fanatic psalmists, and tub-thumpers. Some neighbours hired musicians to play outside his windows. Others willfully annoyed him with worn-out or damaged wind instruments. Placards were hung in local shops, abusing him. During one 80-day period Babbage counted 165 nuisances. One brass band played for five hours, with only a brief intermission. Another blew a penny tin whistle out his window toward Babbage's garden for a half an hour daily, for "many months".
When Babbage went out, children followed and cursed him. Adults followed, too, but at a distance. Over a hundred people once skulked behind him before he could find a constable to disperse them. Dead cats and other "offensive materials" were thrown at his house. Windows were broken. A man told him, "You deserve to have your house burnt up, and yourself in it, and I will do it for you, you old villain". Even when he was on his deathbed, the organ-grinders ground implacably away.

This sorry state of affairs was alluded to in the opening paragraph of Babbage's obituary in The Times:

...He died at his residence in Dorset Street, Marylebone, at the close of last week, at an age, [in]spite of organ-grinding persecutors, little short of 80 years.

Before we dismiss Babbage's diatribes against his noisy neighbours as the foibles of an irascible English eccentric, in defence of his conduct there is some evidence of a physical explanation for his hypersensitivity. An autopsy conducted after his death showed that he suffered from restricted blood flow to the head, which may have caused an exceptional response to aural stimuli.

The image of the Charles Babbage Room in the Totnes Elizabethan House Museum is taken from their website.