Babbage and his legacy

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was a mathematician, a mechanician, an economist and a polemecist. He lived at a time when analysis and rigorous experimentation were beginning to push the bounds of human knowledge beyond what even the most able individual could hope to master. Perhaps he was one of the last true polymaths.

In the twenty-first century we take for granted the existence of high performance computation. Our communications technologies, entertainment systems, vehicles and even domestic applicances have automatic computers embedded within them that are performing numerical and symbolic computations at an astounding rate. Our economy, our technology and our culture are mediated by commodity computing.

In Babbage’s day, and indeed right up until the mid-1970’s, much day-to-day computation demanded the use of pre-computed tables of logarithms and trigonometric functions. Preparation of such tables by hand is a Herculean, and error prone, task. In his twenties, Babbage became enthused by the possibility of building machines that would automate the procedures then used for table production by teams of human computers. This work eventually led him to the design of general purpose Analytical Engines that embody many of the features of modern computers. These were not vague fantasies, like the time machines and faster-than-light drives of current science fiction, but detailed engineering designs for mechanisms that performed arithmetic and stored intermediate results under the control of an externally supplied program.

Stories of pioneering intellectual breakthroughs are often presented as an unbroken and almost inevitable progression towards the final goal. The true fascination of Babbage, though, is that his work stands as an anachronism because it was not carried forward. There is little discernible link between Babbage’s prescient ideas and the development of twentieth century automatic calculators and computers which began in the mid-1930’s and came to fruition during and immediately after World War II. Babbage succeeded intellectually, but failed to change the world, and was almost completely forgotten.