Today we are going to tell you few things about the first computer in history and about Charles Babbage, its inventor.
Babbage (1791-1871) was an English multidisciplinary scholar, a genious of the Leonardo da Vinci type: he was a mathematician, engineer, inventor and an influential philosopher as well.
Eccentric, unconventional, nonconformist and complex figure, Babbage kindled polemics and controversies, inspired or co-founded important academic Societies (such as the Analytical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science or the Astronomical Society, today named The Royal Astronomical Society), preferred to write books rather than teaching and lecturing during his tenure as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambdridge University (Isaac Newton, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking are among holders of this most prestigious chair) and in his late years declined both a knighthood and a baronetcy.
His inventions were halucinating various, ranging from the pilot for locomotives (adopted later) up to the ophtalmoscope which was not adopted because of the inside-the-box mentality of the evaluating ophtalmologist to whom the invention was entrusted.
Just 4 years later another brilliant and multifaceted mind, the German Hermann von Helmholtz independently re-invented the ophtalmoscope and quickly become worldwide famous for having revolutionized the ophthalmology domain of medecine.
But Babbage also invented the first computer and even the first computer-printer ever.
And first things first, almost all inspiration roots of this invention were French.
To name just a few: Gaspard Monge, Gaspard de Prony, the idea of applying the principles of mass production in arithmetics, as well as the punched cards invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard for his loom.
He and his collegues in the Analytical Society had early awareness of the fact that the French had the best understanding of calculus and that French literature in the domain was far superior to the one used in the English system and consequently they’ve translated the specialized French texts into English.
So that was the background on which the issue of mathematical tables started to obsess Babbage.
Back then calculations were pre-made by hand and the multiplication of the resulting tables sheets was done by hand copying.
Mathematical tables were particularly important at the time, being used for example in navigation and applied sciences, hence presenting military interest which explains fundings that various governments provided to support development of accurate tables.
Babbage knew the tables were full of mistakes which occured during both processes of calculation and copying and was determined to figure out some sort of automated and error-free solution to solve this.
So, sponsored by the British government, his efforts resulted in the Difference Engine mechanical calculator blueprint at first.
The design stipulated considerable engineering efforts as the Difference Engine comprised some 25.000 components (requiring high precision execution) which were to form up a 14 tons, 2.4 meters high machine.
Definitely not a mobile device, isn’t it?
But we’re talking about the year 1822 so the British government was only interested in a reliable calculation machine meant to be much faster and more economically effective than employing lots of people to do a job with unreliable outcome.
Despite the massive funding, a final prototype was not to be completed thus making the sponsor to run out of patience and interrupt the financing of the project.
This happened mainly because of Babbage’s working style: he kept improving the designs over and over again, never getting happy or at least reasonably satisfied with what he had just done and continued to do so until his death (commemorated today, October 18-th, by the way).
So the first Difference Engine was only partially (therefore almost uselessly) constructed, then Babbage conceived the designs of the Analytical Engine then he went on designing the Difference Engine 2 and even a printer for it, none of these machines having actually been constructed.
In other words, the first computer ever was only theoretical and so were all other mechanical computer machines created by Babbage.
But make no mistake: this doesn’t mean the designs were erronated.
In order to celebrate the 200-th anniversary year of Babbage’s birth, the Science Museum in London decided in 1985 to assemble the Difference Engine 2 according to the original specifications and got it completed in 1991, the exact celebration year.
And in 2000 the same Science Museum went on even further and assembled Babbage’s printer, again based exclusively on the original specs.
Once finished, it turned out, much to the perplexity of all people involved in the construction of the two machines, that they both worked perfectly.
A few inadvertences were noted but their presence was so bizarre given the impeccable context that engineers understood they were deliberately placed there by Babbage as a means of protection against espionnage.
So why Babbage’s mechanical Analytic Engine is now considered to be the first computer?
Well, because it was programmable (using punched cards), the results of a calculation could be used as input for the next calculation process and it provided features such as sequential control, branching and looping.
But let’s also mention that his printer (meant as peripheric for the Difference Engine) allows adjustment of the line height, margin widths and number of columns and is able to print in two fonts simultaneously.
Everything being exclusively mechanical and flawlessly designed more than 150 years ago!
Before finishing, let’s just warn you that well… none of our products, be it GdPicture.NET SDK, PaperScan or ORPALIS PDF Reducer can run on Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Although our programmers cover quite a broad range of computer languages, they have absolutely no skills in Babbage’s machine.
But next week we are going to tell you who had.
See you , folks!