Posted by: Murali Madhavan On July 20, 2011 07:00 PM
Tags: Computing Vignettes
Charles Babbage built the Difference Engine - or a small model of it- at his home workshop in 1822 . And he was satisfied that it worked well enough, so he went ahead and publicized it. He also wrote a detailed description of the device in a mail to Sir Humphrey Davy ( of the Miners’ Lamp fame) – who headed the Royal Society at that time.
His claims were taken so seriously that the British Government gave him a grant of 1500 Pounds to build a production version of the machine. And he set off to work immediately!
The machinery would involve some 20 wheels all interacting with each other with great precision. Charles contacted an Engineer friend of his, Marc Brunel, who had a factory, and with funding from the government and some money of Charles Babbage’s own, a skilled craftsman from Brunel’s establishment called Clement began to build the machinery. The work went on for 8-odd years!
During the course of the work, Charles became interested to know how other factories worked, and began to tour industrial establishments all over the country. He built up considerable expertise on industrial practices during these visits.
And even when his time was being consumed by the machine, the mathematician in him kept luring him into other areas. He was invited to use his mathematical prowess and organize an insurance company. He found the new challenge exhilarating, and began to research into calculations for charging premiums for insurance policies, taking various factors into account. And in 1826, he published a book which was meant for the use of insurance consumers, and which showed a comparative study of the offerings from various Insurance firms. The book was a great success!
During the same period, Babbage also worked on correcting the accuracy of Logarithmic tables. In 1827, he managed to publish a set of tables which were totally free from error. In fact these tables continued to be used till 1900!
But while he savoured the taste of these successes for a short while, fate had something cruel in store for him.
In Feb 1827, his father died. He had left him a good fortune. But within a short time after the inheritance, his child died suddenly at the tender age of 10.
And before he and his wife Georgina could even think of recovering from the shock, Georgina developed an illness, and died within a month. Her newborn child also died!
Charles Babbage was devastated, having lost all his nearest kith and kin within months of each other.
How did he cope with these successive tragedies? Did he recover from them sufficiently to bring his Difference Engine to a fruition?
Read on to the next part…
Note: This is Part 3 of my series on Charles Babbage and his computing machines. You can read the previous parts here:
Part 1: The Disgruntled Calculus Student
Part 2: A Steam-powered Computer!
Reference: Charles Babbage and the Engines of Perfection: Bruce Collier and James MacLachlan: Oxford University Press
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