Happy Birthday, Charles Babbage!

Charles Babbage, mathematician, philosopher, inventor, engineer, and member of the philosophical breakfast club, was born 220 years ago today, on December 26, 1791.

Sadly, Babbage is mainly known today for successes that were also failures: although Babbage invented the first general purpose calculating machine (the Difference Engines no. 1 and 2), and the first prototype of a modern computer (the Analytical Engine), he failed to build any of them completely–even though the British government gave him funds well beyond what any other natural philosopher or inventor had received from the public purse (I discuss the reasons for this failure in The Philosophical Breakfast Club).

One of his biographers has dubbed Babbage the “irascible genius,” and it is true that, by the end of his life, he was both. In part that is because he saw that few people in Britain, not only politicians but also natural philosophers, could really see the point of the extraordinary precision that the engines could bring to calculation. Babbage frequently expressed his frustration with this attitude, most pithily in this quotation:

Propose to an Englishman any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.

Today, when computers are so fully integrated into our science and our everyday lives, we can celebrate the birthday of the first true computing visionary.

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