Charles Babbage: The Underestimated Genius Who Invented the World’s First Computer

Charles Babbage invented the world's first computer. So why is it that you've probably never heard of him?

They’re among the greatest intellectuals of all time: Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and… Charles Babbage?

Babbage, born in 1791, was a brilliant, but eccentric, mathematician from England, who was so far ahead of his time that he never had the chance to prove his genius in his lifetime. But now, we know that he was the father of modern computing.

One day, while studying a book of astronomical calculations, he became frustrated when he came across numerous errors. In those days, all calculations were performed by humans, and the potential for inaccuracies was great. These calculations weren’t trivial: they were often used to navigate the seas, and so one wrong number could mean death for an entire crew.

When Babbage discovered a series of errors in man-made calculations, he became indignant. “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!” he said.

Then, he had a brainstorm: he would create the world’s first fully automated calculator, which he called the Difference Engine. This wasn’t the pocket-sized version you’re used to—Babbage’s prototype was designed to be constructed from 8,000 separate parts, weighing in at 5 tons of cast iron, steel, and bronze. It’s not operated with a giant battery, but with a hand crank.

Babbage’s invention sounded revolutionary, but he would need money to construct the Difference Engine. The British government was willing to finance his efforts for a decade, but when he still hadn’t completed his giant calculator by that time, they refused to give him any more money. He wasn’t able to find another investor, and was forced to shelf the project forever.

“He was so far ahead of his time in his thinking that many people opposed what he was trying to do on the grounds that they just didn’t understand,” Tim Robinson, a docent at the Computer History Museum, told NPR.

But more than two centuries after Babbage came up with his idea, Doran Swade, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, decided it was high time to put Babbage’s theory to the test. Working only with materials and technology that would have been available in Babbage’s day, Swade and his team spent 17 years constructing two Difference Engines, to Babbage’s exact specifications. And to Swade’s delight, Babbage was proven right after all: his grandiose invention really did work.
“I still never fail to receive pleasure from watching people’s reaction when they first see this extraordinary spectacle,” said Swade. “Their jaws literally drop.”

Today, the huge Difference Engines are on display at the Science Museum in London and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Visitors are able to turn the machine’s hand crank to calculate results, and are delighted to see the low-tech monstrosity come to life. If you get the chance, go and take a look for yourself—it may not have quite the RAM you’re accustomed to, but this computer is one for the ages.

Learn more about Charles Babbage and his amazing invention in Charles Babbage and The Countess, by Patricia Warren.