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Part 4: Charles Babbage's Bonkers Invention

Updated: Jul 28

Every once in a while, the right combination of intelligence, technology, and money comes around and we as humanity receive something remarkable. Think about DaVinci – his contributions to art, engineering, math, and science would not have been appreciated if he didn’t have access to the Medici’s and King Francois’ funding, nor would they have been appreciated without the advent of paper and the magnetic compass. Charles Babbage is another polymath who falls into this rare category.

Babbage was born into the upper class of early 19th Century Britain. It was apparent from an early age he was gifted in mathematics, but as his education went on it also became apparent he was too eccentric to fit within the traditional education environment. Following his university schooling, which he did not technically complete, he applied for several professor positions at various universities throughout Britain. It would take a recommendation from Pierre Simone LaPlace, as in LaPlace’s Demon, before he finally received a teaching position at the University of Edenborough.

Following his father’s death in 1827, Babbage received an inheritance equivalent to $12.6 million today. This large sum of money enabled him to continue working as a professor throughout the rest of his life while simultaneously never having to be bound by the structure of academia. He was free to explore any idea he wanted, and his explorations would range enormously from astronomy to book publishing to the economics of industrial production. However, none of these ideas would have the same societal impact as the Difference Engine.

Conceived in 1822, the Difference Engine was designed to compute values of polynomial functions utilizing a steam engine coupled to a series of gears, levers, and wheels to perform the calculations. However, the machine was never built to its full scale due to the high manufacturing precision and volume required to produce all 25,000 metal components. After several failed attempts, work on building the full-scale machine stopped in 1833. Its spirit would live on, though, in his next invention – the Analytical Engine.

The vision for the Analytical Engine was a machine that could not only perform more complex calculations than the Difference Engine, but also store the results of its calculations in a memory bank for use in subsequent or iterative calculations. A novel concept, right? But, in the pre-electricity Industrial Revolution, it was considered an extraordinary feat.

Although the Analytical Engine was groundbreaking, its full potential would not be realized without the collaboration of Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, a mathematician and writer, became acquainted with Babbage's work in the mid-19th century. She not only understood the concepts behind Babbage's Engine but also saw its potential beyond mathematical calculations. More on her in the next blog…

Babbage’s contributions to search engines cannot be understated. Both the Difference and Analytical Engine were technological marvels. Remember, they came around at a time when electricity was still 40 years away from being accessible to the masses, let alone the bulky computers which took up the space of a mansion later in the mid-20th Century. The concept of a user putting a query into a machine with the expectation of receiving an answer was now on the minds of many, and it would stay on those minds for a very long time.

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