Mathematician of the Month – Babbage

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To the humble PC that is displaying this text as I type it, Charles Babbage is its father. A British mathematician and engineer, Charles ‘Father of Computers’ Babbage was very picky about his Math. In fact, he even wrote to Lord Tennyson (apparently some sort of famous poet) and asked him to correct the lines of his poem ‘Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born’ to ‘Every minute one and a sixth is born’. Of course, he was refused.

Having come into a lot of riches courtesy his dad, he spent all his money inventing rather exciting gadgets including the speedometer and the cowcatcher, which kept cows with wander lust off the railway track. Indubitably, his greatest invention was the calculator. The first one he ever invented was called the ‘Difference Engine’.

The British Government, sold on the idea of this Difference Engine, gave him £1 million so he could build it. After 11 years of trying and trying, Babbage gave it up for a better idea. Furious that their money was wasted, the government refused to give him any more. Not to be deterred, he continued on as before because, well, he was rich!

The Difference Engine version 2.0 was going to be bigger and better. It could do more than just add and subtract. It would be able to do multiplication, division and also printing. Babbage envisioned that the new machine would use similar technology to that of carpet making looms. Unfortunately, he died before the machine could be built.

In 1890, an American guy by the name of Herman used Babbage’s ideas to build a much simpler machine. If his name sounds familiar, it is because he went on to found International Business machines aka IBM. However, it wasn’t till 1944 that the machine of Babbage’s dream was built. The first calculate needed 10sqms to house it and it weighed 30 tons! The Science Museum in London built a model of the original Difference Engine in 1992. That one was only 2 meters high and over 3 meters long. Can you imagine what owing a computer those days would look like? Yikes!

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