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Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage
Born (1791-12-26)26 December 1791
London (likely Southwark)
Died 18 October 1871(1871-10-18) (aged 79)
Marylebone, London, UK
Nationality English
Citizenship British
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Known for Difference engine
Charles Babbage Signature.svg

Sir Charles Babbage (26 December 179118 October 1871) was an English mathematician, analytical philosopher, mechanical engineer and computer scientist. He was the first person to invent the idea of a computer that could be programmed. Unfinished parts of his mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum.

Charles Babbage was born in England, at 44 Crosby Row, Walworth Road, London. Babbage's father, Benjamin Babbage, was a banker in London who owned the Bitton Estate in Teignmouth. His mother was Betsy Plumleigh Babbage. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth.

His Brain is also on display at the Science Museum in London.


Babbage worked and wrote on many ideas of science, engineering and mathematics, but he is most famous for two machines he started and never finished. His Difference Engine would have been a much better calculator than any made before then. His Analytical Engine would have been the first real computer.

Knowing that there were many errors in the calculation of mathematical tables, Babbage wanted to find a way to calculate them mechanically, removing errors made by humans. Three different factors seem to have influenced him: a dislike of untidiness; his experience working on logarithmic tables and differential calculus; and work on calculating machines already done by Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz. He first talked about the principles of a calculating engine in a letter to Sir Humphrey Davy in 1822.

Babbage's engines were among the first mechanical computers. His engines were not actually completed because he did not have enough money. Babbage realized that a machine could do the work better and more reliably than a human being. Babbage controlled building of some steam-powered machines that more or less did their job; calculations could be mechanized to an extent. Although Babbage's machines were large machines they were organized in a way similar to modern computer architecture. The data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction based, control unit could make conditional jumps and the machine had a separate I/O unit. Ada Lovelace studied how to program them.


Charles Babbage grave Kensal Green 2014
Babbage's grave at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, photographed in 2014

On 25 July 1814, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore at St. Michael's Church in Teignmouth, Devon; her sister Louisa married Sir Edward Ryan five months later. The couple lived at Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire (where Babbage engineered the central heating system), before moving to 5 Devonshire Street, London in 1815.

Charles and Georgiana had eight children, but only four – Benjamin Herschel, Georgiana Whitmore, Dugald Bromhead and Henry Prevost – survived childhood. Charles' wife Georgiana died in Worcester on 1 September 1827, the same year as his father, their second son (also named Charles) and their newborn son Alexander.

  • Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815–1878)
  • Charles Whitmore Babbage (1817–1827)
  • Georgiana Whitmore Babbage (1818–????)
  • Edward Stewart Babbage (1819–1821)
  • Francis Moore Babbage (1821–????)
  • Dugald Bromhead (Bromheald?) Babbage (1823–1901)
  • (Maj-Gen) Henry Prevost Babbage (1824–1918)
  • Alexander Forbes Babbage (1827–1827)

His youngest surviving son, Henry Prevost Babbage (1824–1918), went on to create six small demonstration pieces for Difference Engine No. 1 based on his father's designs, one of which was sent to Harvard University where it was later discovered by Howard H. Aiken, pioneer of the Harvard Mark I. Henry Prevost's 1910 Analytical Engine Mill, previously on display at Dudmaston Hall, is now on display at the Science Museum.


Babbages Brain
Charles Babbage's brain is on display at The Science Museum

Babbage lived and worked for over 40 years at 1 Dorset Street, Marylebone, where he died, at the age of 79, on 18 October 1871; he was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. He had declined both a knighthood and baronetcy. He also argued against hereditary peerages, favouring life peerages instead.

Autopsy report

In 1983, the autopsy report for Charles Babbage was discovered and later published by his great-great-grandson. A copy of the original is also available. Half of Babbage's brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The other half of Babbage's brain is on display in the Science Museum, London.


Charles Babbage (5108336102)
Green plaque in London

There is a black plaque commemorating the 40 years Babbage spent at 1 Dorset Street, London. Locations, institutions and other things named after Babbage include:

  • The Moon crater Babbage
  • The Charles Babbage Institute, an information technology archive and research center at the University of Minnesota
  • The Charles Babbage Premium, an annual computing award
  • British Rail named a locomotive after him in the 1990s
  • The Babbage Building at the University of Plymouth, where the university's school of computing is based
  • The Babbage programming language for GEC 4000 series minicomputers
  • "Babbage", The Economist's Science and Technology blog.
  • The former chain retail computer and video-games store "Babbage's" (now GameStop) was named after him.

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