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Charles Babbage

If John von Neumann is the father of modern computing, then the English mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage can be considered its grandfather. Babbage designed, though never built, a Difference Engine and an Analytical Engine, the world's first computing machines.

Babbage worked as a mathematician in Cambridge University where he received his MA in 1817 and later, like Newton, whose mathematical principles he espoused, occupied the Lucasian chair in mathematics. As a scientist, Babbage was obsessed with facts and statistics and lived in a rationalistic world where it was assumed that if all facts, past and present, could be known then all future events were determinable. His statistical publications include "Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows" and "Table of Constants of the Class Mammalia," the minutiae of which included the heart rate of the pig. Babbage founded the Statistical Society in 1834.

A prolific disseminator of ideas and an eclectic inventor, Babbage's varied range of inventions reflected the diversity of his interests. Fascinated by the railroad, which was invented in his native England in 1823, Babbage devised a standard rail gauge width as well as a cowcatcher (for the front of trains). He also recorded inventions related to lighthouse signalling, code breaking, and the postal system. He founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the (Royal) Astronomical Society.

Although remembered today primarily for his calculating engines, Babbage left a legacy in the fields of political theory (he was an ardent industrialist) and operations research (where his 1832 publication, "On the Economy of Manufactures," cataloged the manufacturing processes of the day).

Charles Babbage died in London on October 18, 1871.

This was last updated in April 2005

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