Tech mahindra
Tech mahindra

The Disgruntled Calculus Student

Posted by: Murali Madhavan On June 22, 2011 11:50 AM

This English Mathematician is credited to be the first person to develop a machine that could do calculations.

He burst on the scene a whole century after Isaac Newton, the greatest mathematician of all time. Cambridge University had lost its leading position in the Mathematicalarena to French and German scientists in the period that followed Newton’s demise in 1727.

The teachers at Cambridge had been so overawed by Newton’s brilliance that they had lost all original thinking, and the mathematical training provided by Cambridge consisted of little more than memorizing pieces from Newton’s work.

Charles Babbage decided to change all that!

He had arrived at Cambridge in 1810, armed with the best Calculus textbook available at that time, written by a French mathematician by name Sylvestre-Francois Lacroix, for which he had shelled out the princely sum of 7 Pounds; this was a huge cut out of the 300 Pound annual allowance he had from his father, but he did not regret it! For him, Mathematics held a prime place- after all, he had been such a keen student that at one stage early in his student life he had got up at 3 am every day, braving the biting cold, to study Algebra!

His first disappointment with Cambridge came when he had some doubt in the book and went to one of the Cambridge professors; the Professor could not understand it either and chastised Babbage for bringing up such an unusual book which would not have any practical value in the examinations.

Babbage concluded that any mathematical education he wanted, he would have to get on his own. He suggested to his friends that they should get together and start a society to popularize the Calculus book by Lacroix. This was taken up by them in earnest, and very soon, the Analytical Society was formed with a dozen students as members. Between 1812 and 1814, the society did sterling work, in translating Lacroix’s book from French to English, and also in publishing another work containing example problems in Calculus.

But apart from his interest in Calculus, Babbage was an extremely outgoing and gregarious man who often threw parties, took part in rowing and sailing with one group, and engaged in philosophical discussions with another! He was a good player of card and board games, and also took an interest in Chemistry, setting up a lab in one of his own rooms to conduct experiments.

From this point- how did Babbage go on to build calculators and computing machines?
Read on to the next part…

Tags: Computing Vignettes
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