Math in Computing

Mechanical and Electronic Calculating Devices

Who was Charles Babbage?

English inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage (1792–1871) is considered by some historians to be the “father of computing.” The main reason was his Analytical Engine, which is thought to be the true precursor of the modern computer.

One of his first ventures into calculating machines was the difference engine, which was based on Johann Müller’s design and some of Thomas de Colmar’s Arithmometer features (for more information about both, see above). The idea was sound, but the execution eventually lacked government funding, not to mention suffering from disputes with the artisan who was making the parts for the machine. Not only that, but Babbage’s ambitions may have caused the difference engine prototype to come to a halt. Initially, he wanted the device to go to six decimal places and a second-order difference; then he began planning for 20 decimal places and a sixth-order difference. This much-larger machine was an overwhelming concept for its time.

The abandonment of the difference engine did not stop Babbage, however. Again approaching the government for funding, he promised to build what he called the Analytical Engine, an improved device capable of any mathematical operation, effectively making it a general purpose, programmable computer that used punch cards for input. This new device would use a steam engine for power, and its gears would function like the beads of an abacus, with the main tasks of calculating and printing mathematical tables. For eight years, he attempted to get more money from the government, but to no avail. He would never build his Analytical Engine.

Although the Analytical Engine was never completed in Babbage’s lifetime, his son Henry Provost Babbage built the “mill” portion of the machine from his father’s drawings, and in 1888 he computed multiples of pi (π) to prove the acceptability of the design. This is often thought to represent the first successful test of a “modern” computer part.


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