Shropshire History

Charles Babbage


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Charles Babbage was born in 1791 in London (a blue plaque on the junction of Larcom Street and Walworth Road commemorates the event). He was one of four children of Benjamin Babbage and Betsy Plumleigh-Teape. His father was a partner of William Praed at the bank Praed & Co of Fleet Street, London. In 1808, the Babbage family moved to East Teignmouth and Babbage was sent to schools at Alphington near Exeter, King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes and Holmwood Academy in Enfield.  With the help of tutors, he managed to be accepted by Cambridge University, where he went in 1810. He was apparently disappointed with standard of mathematical instruction available at Cambridge, having been self-taught beforehand. He and several friends formed the Analytical Society, Ghost Club and the Extractors Club. Babbage obtained his degree in 1814 and by the following year was lecturing at the Royal Institution on astronomy.


During this whole period, Babbage had to depend on his father's support and in 1814 married Georgina Whitmore. They went to live at Dudmaston Hall and, while there, he engineered the central heating system. After only a year, they moved back to London and set up home in Marylebone to have a large family. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. In 1819, Babbage and his friend Herschel visited Paris and the Society of Arcueil, meeting leading French mathematicians and physicists. Babbage then worked with Herschel on the electrodynamics of Arago's Rotations, the results of which were published in 1825. Babbage then calculated actuarial tables for insurance companies, based on mortality rates from 1762 onwards.


Babbage helped to form the Astronomical Society, whose initial aims were to reduce astronomical calculations to a more standard form and to circulate data. These directions were closely connected with Babbage's ideas on computation and, in 1824, he won its Gold Medal for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables. Upon his father's death in 1827, Babbage inherited a large estate (equivalent to £7.8 million today), making him independently wealthy. After his wife's death in the same year, he spent time travelling. In 1828, he became professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, a position he had three times failed to obtain. Babbage had a wide interest and got involved in mathematics, philosophy, inventing and mechanical engineering. He is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Full details of his career are summarised in Wikipedia.


Babbage died in 1871 and his brain was preserved, being currently on display at the Science Museum. He wrote several publications, ie


A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives” (1826) 

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of Its Causes” (1830) 

On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” (1835) 

The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment” (1837)

Table of the Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108000” (1841)

The Exposition of 1851” (1851) 

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher” (1864)