Issue #5 - Charles Babbage

Welcome to the 5th issue of Heroes of Computer Science! Sorry this one took a bit longer, trying to enjoy the outside a bit more while the COVID situation in the UK is still OK…

As a sidetrack from the newsletter but relevant, if you’re still wondering about getting vaccinated, please do it (I’m linking to a specific point in the video, but the whole of it is useful). 💉

Anyway, if you read the 1st issue of this newsletter, the next name should be familiar.

Charles Babbage

Considered by some to be the father of the computer, Babbage was a British mathematician with a vast body of work in several fields.

He is best known for his Difference Engine and later in his life the Analytical Engine. Motivated by the many errors commonly committed in the calculation of in mathematical tables, Babbage was interested in finding a way to calculate them mechanically, thus erasing errors made by humans.

His machines were not effectively completed while he was alive mostly because of money issues, but they would have been among the first mechanical computers (i.e. physical pieces moved by a user to calculate results, as opposed to electrical computers powered by electricity). He did however organised the building of some steam-powered machines, mechanising calculations to some extent.

Although conceptualised almost 200 years ago, Babbage's large engines were organised similarly to modern computer architectures. There was a separation between data and program memory, operation was based on instructions (programmed with punched cards), and control units could make conditional jumps.

Further reading

There is wealth of books written by Charles Babbage, given his prolific polymath nature. From other writers, this one by Doron Swade looks the most promising/interesting one. Oh, also, while I was researching for this issue, I found a comic about:

(…) a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science.

Needless to say, I bought the first (second-hand) copy I found. 😬

If you ever come to London, where Babbage lived most of his life (and I live at the moment), you can find a green plaque in his name and, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, head to the Science Museum where you’ll find… half of his brain. Yes, really.

Like many eminent people of his era, they looked at his brain after he died, because they thought it might be important. The other half is also in London, preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons.