Charles Babbage

Students everywhere, I expect, are thoroughly assimilated into digital culture and not especially interested in its origins and folklore–of which, as it turns out, there is a great deal. Take, for example, Charles Babbage. Babbage was a nineteenth-century polymath who is arguably the father of the computer. The amount of human error involved in mathematical work troubled Babbage, so he set out to invent the difference engine, a steam powered mechanical computer engineered to produce error-free mathematical tabulations.

Babbage’s invention has fascinated people since its inception, and unless I miss my guess, you will see in the course of your teaching career at least a few students interested in the history of computer technology. If so, then this reading on Charles Babbage and the vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet that accompanies it should serve as a short but thorough introduction to this obscure but important and fascinating historical figure.

If your students are up to and for it, you might also consider putting William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s (they are, incidentally, the progenitors of cyberpunk) work of alternate history and speculative fiction, The Difference Engine, in front of them. I like Gibson’s early work (his Neuromancer is a defining text of the cyberpunk genre, and a masterpiece in any case), don’t know much about Sterling, but found the novel fascinating.

Addendum: Please see the comments below from my esteemed high school chum Terry on the role of Ada Lovelace in creating the “software” to make Babbage’s engine actually perform more than basic mathematical tasks.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

2 responses to “Charles Babbage

  1. Hi Mark,

    Enjoying your posts, as usual.

    Here is a comment on the Baggage one.. I am cc’ing Scout, who is, I think it is safe to say, a big Ada fan.

    Any mention of Charles Babbage should probably include Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithm, and who, arguably, made the machine useful. If Babbage may be the father, Ada may be the mother.

    Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the engine, supplementing it with an elaborate set of notes, simply called Notes. These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Lovelace’s notes are important in the early history of computers . She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.[10] Her mindset of “poetical science” led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.[6]



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