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A Steam-powered Computer!

Posted by: Murali Madhavan On June 22, 2011 11:55 AM

Charles Babbage’s Cambridge education ended in the spring of 1814 when he graduated. That he did not attach much import to the formal qualifications was evident from that fact that he refused to attempt an Honors degree. In his own words, he valued the University education more for the friends he made there and for the books it enabled him to access, and far less for the formal degree it conferred on him.

Soon after the graduation, Babbage married Georgina, an acquaintance of his, against his father’s wishes. The senior Babbage was opposed to his son setting up a family before he had started earning his own livelihood. But Charles paid scant heed, and with his wife spent a long and romantic honeymoon in Devon.

And in the autumn, the couple moved to London where they survived, pooling their allowances. And it was in London that Charles Babbage started to move in the circles that would set him on the scientific and inventing path.

Charles continued his mathematical studies, and also setup chemistry and mechanics labs in his quarters to perform experiments on his own. And with the help of a friend, he managed to get a membership of the Royal Society- a hallowed scientific institution which had once been chaired my Sir Isaac Newton himself.

Charles published a 111-page long paper in the Society’s journal, on the subject of Calculus and earned some fame from it. It enabled him to secure an invitation to give a series of lectures at the Royal Institution. These lectures were well received, and Charles Babbage began to be noticed in the scientific circles.

And soon, Charles was working with the Astronomical Society, an organization he helped found, and which worked towards furthering the study of Astronomy in England. It was here that Charles was to venture into the thing that made him famous.

The Astronomical Society assigned him and a friend, Herschel, to help compile and expand the Astronomical Tables called the Nautical Almanac. This was a tedious job that required clerks to sit and cross-verify each other’s work, and the mathematicians were often frustrated by the slowness and inaccuracy of the work.

“I wish to God these calculations could be done by a steam engine!” Expostulated Babbage one day, in frustration. And true to his words, he started work in the direction of a mechanical contraption that could eliminate the human errors.

Charles had one major advantage- he was the only mathematician who had his own workshop and a lathe! And he had the mechanical aptitude to attempt such a construct.

This happened in the year 1821, and in less than a year’s time Charles had built a working model of a calculating machine! The machine could do calculations to six places, and had wheels and axles and frames which he partially got built from a professional lathe workshop and partly himself.

And in 1822, he had enough confidence in the machine to announce it to the world.

Did the machine catch the world by storm? Did it work reliably enough? Read on to the next part, to know the answers!


Note: This is Part 2 of my series on Charles Babbage and his computing machines. You can read the first part here: click here

Reference: Charles Babbage and the Engines of Perfection: Bruce Collier and James MacLachlan: Oxford University Press
Tags: Computing Vignettes
 
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