The Father of the Modern Computer
Probably the most admired person in annals of computing science history is Charles Babbage. His work is considered visionary because it exceeded the scope of early 19th century European, British, and American calculator technology. Historians applaud Babbage for his theoretical logic for complex calculations with calculating machines, the Difference Engine of 1822 and the Analytical Engine of 1842. Babbage envisioned a calculating machine—a difference engine—capable of automatically producing error free calculations for mathematical tables publication, avoiding the errors normally produced by manual production of actuarial and scientific tables with arithmometers and comptometers (Wilkes, 2003).
His plan for a difference engine began while a student at Trinity College in Cambridge. John Herschel, a colleague and mentor at Cambridge, encouraged Babbage to fulfill his dreams after listening to a presentation. The proposed results were would be accomplished, for example, by representing a trigonometric function, such as sine or tan, as a polynomial. The degree of complexity of the function was determined by the required accuracy of the tables. By using a finite method, the calculation for said polynomial substitutes were reduced by repeated addition of only the differences in each resulting equation (Bromley, 2003).
In 1823, Babbage proposed to Parliament that building such a machine would aid the British government with its actuary tables as well as the scientific and business communities. To prove the project was viable, Babbage built a smaller prototype of the Difference Engine that handled only six digit numbers and was capable of processing the formula: T = x2 + x + 41 (Bromley, 2003). After a successful demonstration with the prototype, Babbage initially received ₤1500 funding from the British government (Swedin & Ferro, 2007). The support from the government grew eventually to more than ₤17,000 for the project (Bromley, 2003).
The Difference Engine, had it been built, would have had more than 25,000 parts and weighed more than three tons (White, 2004, p. 5). Despite the purported general-purpose processing of the Difference Engine, as a practical aid to printing tables, it is, in the mathematical sense, according to Broomley, an extremely limited instrument. Consequently, Babbage sought new avenues to solve his automated table production problems. Referring to the Broomley (2003) “Analytical Engine” text once more, Babbage conceived of the second difference engine to solve the equation T = x2 + x + 41. Once Babbage realized the second difference in the equation was a constant, he modified original configuration of the Difference Engine but it could not perform the required multiplications of the new equation T = x2 + x + 41.
To automate the second difference into the calculator operations, Babbage modified the gears of the Difference Engine so that the tabulated values of the second difference were feedback into the machine. The results of which would cause the values of the function to be calculated without an intermediate polynomial. The modifications Babbage imagined for the Difference Engine resulted in the conception of a new machine, the Analytical Engine. If the Analytical Engine had been built, it would have been in principle the first fully programmable, general-purpose, automatic digital computer (Wilkes, 1992).
The Analytical Engine contained the four basic components found in the von Neumann architecture required of modern computers: memory, CPU, input and output. The Analytical Engine design consisted of these four components: the mill, the store, the reader, and the printer.
The mill was the calculating unit, consistent with the CPU of a modern computer. The store was where the Analytical Engine held data prior to processing, which is consistent with memory and storage in modern computers. The reader and printer are self-explanatory and the equivalent to the input and output devices. Input for the Analytical Engine was performed using a series of punch cards similar Jacquard’s punch cards and the Hollerith cards of the electromechanical and electronic eras. (Bromley, “Analytical Engine,” 2003).
Popular legend would have the casual historian believe Babbage and the Difference Engine succumbed to the same engineering problems that befell Leibniz and the Step Reckoner. After further investigation of Babbage, the author discovered the reasons behind the failure to complete either Difference Engines or the Analytical Engine had little to do with the engineering skill or technological savvy of British machinist during the Industrial Revolution. Quite the opposite was true; the skills the Babbage staff gained while working on the Difference Engine fortified British engineering that proliferated throughout machine shops across the nation. Elements of the techniques employed by Babbage trained engineers supplanted known methods in the parts and tools fabrication industry and influenced the development of new machinery across Great Britain (Williams M. R., The Difference Engines, 1979).
What caused Babbage’s failure to complete either machine had more to do with his hubris, his personality, his eccentricities, his inability to cope with people or the ever-changing fabric of British society during the Industrial Revolution than any technological shortcomings (Bromley, 2003). Compounding the aforementioned factors contributing to his downfall was the loss of his father and his own chronic poor health.
The complete story of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and the Difference Engines he conceived is in the book A History of the Computer and Its Networks now available at these retailers Lambert Academic Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and More Books and other fine booksellers on the Internet worldwide.