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When Charles met Ada…

Posted by: Murali Madhavan On August 08, 2011 04:17 PM

Having lost his wife and two children in bewilderingly quick succession, Charles Babbage was a devastated man.

His mother Betty moved in with him to look after his remaining four children. Charles himself tried to find solace in his long time friend from Cambridge days, John Herschel. But solace was not to be found so easily, and so Charles embarked on a tour of Europe, and, at his mother’s insistence that he take a companion with him, allowed a mechanic by name Richard Wright to accompany him. He entrusted the supervision of the work on the Difference Engine to Herschel, and set off in 1827 to cross the channel and enter the Continent.

Charles and his companion toured extensively in Europe. One day, in the spring of 1828, while at Rome, Charles got a pleasant surprise. A local newspaper carried the news that he had been elected to the chair of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. It was a great honour, as it was a position once held by none other than Sir Isaac Newton himself.

Charles’ first reaction was to refuse the post, as he did not wish to be distracted from the project of building his Difference Engine. But his friends prevailed upon him to accept the position, and he did so reluctantly, going on to hold the position for 10 years without actually going to live in Cambridge and lecturing there on a regular basis.

Charles Babbage returned from his tours by the end of 1828, having been mightily impressed by the importance given in the other European countries to Science, and was filled with fervent zeal to do something of importance in England. He embarked on a several activities at once. He entered politics, promoting several candidates and standing for elections himself. He also made earnest attempts to reform the Royal Society, and when he failed, he promoted his own parallel scientific organization. In addition to all this, he continued the construction of the Difference Engine, looked after his family, and managed to squeeze in the time to write a 400-page book on the Economics of Manufacturing.

In elections, he contested from the new constituency of Finsbury in North London, and though the society of mechanics and the scientific community in general rooted for him, he lost by a substantial margin. He ended his political career two years later, when he was again defeated in a by-election.

Charles felt that the Royal Society was dominated more by non-scientists, and to fix this problem he promoted his own scientific organization called the British Association for the promotion of Science, BA in short. It prospered, and he became a permanent fixture in it.

All these activities had brought him to social limelight, and he became a famed society host, throwing fine parties which became an important part of the London social scene.

And what of the difference Engine? By 1828, Charles had spent 6000 Pounds on it, but the government had only reimbursed him to the tune of 1500 Pounds. Government agreed to provide more funding, but it was slow in coming. The Chief Engineer of the Project, Clement, was going about his task slowly. By 1830, he had produced thousands of parts, but hadn’t managed to assemble them together.

Charles decided that the whole of the factory would have to be co-located in his own premises for it to be effective. With government help, a huge two storey workshop was built on Charles’ premises. But Clement was not cooperative. He did not want the factory to move, because using the funding for the difference engine he had bought a lot of tools and hired a number of workers.

Charles employed his own workers to assemble the parts that had been manufactured so far. By 1832, all the parts that were produced had been assembled. The calculating section was almost complete, but the printing section largely remained undone. After a lot of further wrangling, the assembled portion was transferred from Clements’ workshop to Charles’s premises in 1834. But the work had ground to a halt.. The government and spent 17000 pounds, and Charles himself had spent several thousands from his own pocket. Government refused to provide further funding.

Soon, for Charles, the working part of the Difference Engine had become no more than a curiosity he exhibited to his guests during his numerous parties.

But was that the end? Far from it.

By the time the work on the Difference Engine was stopped, Charles Babbage’s eager mind had already embarked on a project – one far more ambitious than even the Difference Engine. This was a grand machine which would not merely add and subtract, but could actually solve equations! He called this the Analytical Engine.

But tragedy struck Charles again- his only beloved daughter, Georgina, died suddenly in 1834 of an illness, at the tender age of 17. To deal with his grief, he threw himself more vigorously into his work.

Did he succumb to this latest addition to the series of tragedies nature continually served on him?

No, for he had met the charming Ada Lovelace in the meanwhile!

Now – who was this Ada?

More in the next part….

Tags: Computing Vignettes
 
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