"Some of my critics have amused their readers with the wildness of the schemes I have occasionally thrown out; and I myself have sometimes smiled along with them. Perhaps it were wiser for present reputation to offer nothing but profoundly meditated plans, but I do not think knowledge will be most advanced by that course; such sparks may kindle the energies of other minds more favorably circumstanced for pursuing the enquiries."
Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871)
Babbage was born to a wealthy banker and his wife in London on Boxing Day, 1791. At an early age, he suffered from severe ill health, with violent fevers at the ages of five and ten. His father decided to send him to Devonshire to live with a clergyman for his health. He was sent to a school at Alphington, near Exeter. After this preparatory schooling, he was sent to a private academy in Enfield, Middlesex. Unsurprisingly, the young Babbage was interested in mathematics and especially good at algebra.
After leaving the academy, Babbage was taught at home by a tutor who had been educated at Oxford to get him up to Oxbridge standard. In 1910, this was acheived as he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, to study mathematics. He was not enthralled with the place, largely due to his depth of study of the subject before joining the university. He was later to write: ""Thus it happened that when I went to Cambridge, I could work out such questions as the very moderate amount of mathematics which I then possessed admitted, with equal facility, in the dots of Newton, the d’s of Leibnitz, or the dashes of Lagrange. I thus acquired distaste for the routine studies of the place and devoured the papers of Euler and other mathematicians scattered through innumerable volumes of the academies of St. Petersburg, Berlin and Paris, which the libraries I had recourse to contained... Under these circumstances it was not surprising that I should perceive and be penetrated with the superior power of the notation of Leibnitz."
In 1812, encouraged by his friend Edward Bromhead, he set up the Analytical Society with John Herschel, George Peacock and six others. The first product of this society was the book 'Memoirs of the Analytical Society', written by Babbage and Herschel, giving a history of calculus. It was also at this time that he began to show a desire to build a mechanical device for calculating mathematical tables, driven on by the inaccuracy of human calculation. This was something he was never fully to achieve, despite all the other brilliant advances he was behind.
In 1814, Babbage moved from Trinity College to Peterhouse College, whence he graduated with a B.A. In this year also, he married Georgina Whitmore and settled in London, publishing two papers on mathematical functions over the course of the next two years. In 1816, the Analytical Society's translation of Lacroix's 'Sur le calculation differential et integral' was published, and in 1820 a book on examples of calculus followed.
In 1815, Babbage was elected to the Royal Society. He was not enthralled with this group either, and made this comment: 'The Council of the Royal Society is a collection of men who elect each other to office and then dine together at the expense of this society to praise each other over wine and give each other medals.' Are you noticing a trend here? Once again, Babbage created his own society, the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1820. He served as Secretary of this society for four years and then held the position of vice-president. He was also elected to Edinburgh's Royal Society.
On the 18th of June, 1822, Babbage announced his plan for a Difference Engine to the Royal Astronomical Society in a paper entitled 'Note on the Application of Machinery to the Computation of Astronomical and Mathematical Tables'. He was not financially positioned, however, to build the machine, and so he lobbied the British Government for their support, initially gaining it. By 1827, however, he had not enjoyed as much success as he had hoped in the machine's building, and was suffering severe financial difficulties. Added to this, during this year his wife died along with two of his children and his father. These shocks affected Babbage's health, and he was advised by his doctor to spend a year abroad.
After his return, Babbage had fresh zeal, and he returned to his task, gaining additional funding when the Duke of Wellington, Chancellor of the Exchequer and other members of the Government visited his workshop. In this year also, he took the position as Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, a post previously held by Isaac Newton and later by Stephen Hawking. During his eleven years in the position, however, he never taught a lecture. Obviously something about the faculty disgusted him again, as in 1830, he published his controversial 'Reflections on the Decline of Science in England', the inspiration of which caused the foundation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in the following year. This must have been some balm to him, as it led him to publish 'On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures', his most influential work, in which he laid down a theory which is today known as Operational Research.
In the mid-1830s, Babbage conceived the idea of the Analytical Engine, a machine designed to perform various mathematical operations with punch-cards generally acknowledged to have been the forerunner of modern computing. However, the Government, who had already spent £17,000 on funding the Difference Engine in addition to Babbage's own £6,000, were unwilling to fund this latest project until the Difference Engine had materialised. Due to various Government changes and short-sighted ministers, the matter was drawn out over 8 years, with the end result being no support for the engine.
Babbage gave up research on the Analytical Engine in 1851, dying 20 years later in obscurity, a bitter, disappointed old man. In the 1990s, an analytical engine following Babbage's plans was built, proving the genius of the man. However, the 'Mathematical Timon', who longed to forfeit his life for a few days living 500 years in the future, is more likely to have been comforted by the scientific calculator or numerous computers used in our society, all of them drawing inspiration, in small or large measures, from his work.
Update: The left side of the great man's brain is currently being exhibited at the Science Museum in London.