Babbage was known as a "mathematical Timon". In his later years he came to suffer from a mechanist's misanthropy, regarding men as fools and grubby thieves. By 1861 he said he had never spent a happy day in his life, and would gladly give up the rest of it if he could live three days 500 years thence.

Laughed at by costermongers and viscounts, met with diffidence by his lessers, the impatient Babbage grew angry, like the cave-dwelling Timon, with a changing world. Nevertheless, as his friend Lionel Tollemache wrote, "there was something harmless and even kindly in his misanthropy, for... he hated mankind rather than man, and his aversion was lost in its own generality".

Like Shakespeare's Timon, Babbage would have made a fascinating leader. (Sheepshanks, of course, disagreed: "I don't know any Government office or any other office for which he is fit, certainly none which requires sense and good temper".)

What a delightful, if distracting, place it would be where Babbage was in charge. Consider his plan in Economy of Manufactures for a "simple contrivance of tin tubes for speaking through". (Babbage calculated it would take 17 minutes for words spoken in London to reach Liverpool.) Or his plan for sending messages "enclosed in small cylinders", along wires suspended from high pillars (he thought church steeples could be used for this purpose.)

In Passages, Babbage relates how, as a youth, he nearly drowned while testing his contrivance for walking on water. In Conjectures on the Conditions of the Surface of the Moon, we find him describing his 1837 experiments cooking a "very respectable stew of meat and vegetables" in blackened boxes (with window glass) buried in the earth. Toward the end of his life we find him mulling the prevention of bank note forgery and working in marine navigation we realize that, with his harlequin curiosity about all things, with his wonderfully human sense of wonder, Babbage escapes pathos and attains greatness.


Some of my critics have amused their readers with the wildness of the schemes I have occasionally thrown out; and I myself have sometimes smiled along with them. Perhaps it were wiser for present reputation to offer nothing but profoundly meditated plans, but I do not think knowledge will be most advanced by that course; such sparks may kindle the energies of other minds more favorably circumstanced for pursuing the enquiries. (On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 1832, preface to second edition.)

Every moment dies a man/Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
(A correction to Tennyson's "Ev'ry moment a man dies/Ev'ry moment one is born".)

If unwarned by my example, any man shall undertake and shall succeed in really constructing an engine ... upon difference principles or by simpler means, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be fully able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the value of their results.[2]



Babbage, Henry P. (ed). 1889. Babbage's Calculating Engines: Being a Collection of Papers Relating to Them, Their History, and Construction, E. and F. N. Spoon, London.

Babbage, H. P. 1910. "Babbage's Analytical Engine", reprinted in Randell, Brian (ed). 1982. Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 19-54.

Babbage, Neville F. 1991. "Autopsy Report on the Body of Charles Babbage ("the father of the computer")", Medical Jour. of Australia, Vol. 154, pp. 758-9.

Bromley, Alan G. 1982. "Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 4, No. 3.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 1988. "Charles Babbage's Table of Logarithms", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 10, No. 3.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, (ed). 1989 The Works of Charles Babbage, Pickering and Chatto, London. 11 Volumes.

Cohen, I. Bernard. 1988. "Babbage and Aiken", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 10, No. 3.

Davies, Donald Watts. 1990. "Babbage's Friend", (CQD), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 12, No. 2.

Dubbey, J. M. 1978. The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage, Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, viii, 236 pp.

Froehlich, Leopold. March 1985. "Babbage Observed", Datamation, Cahners/Ziff Pub. Assoc.

Gridgeman, N.T. 1979. The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage (review), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 1, No. 1.

Halacy, Dan. 1970. Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, Macmillan Co., New York.

Harrison, Thomas J. April 1986. "Charles and the Computer", Measurement and Control, Vol. 19, pp. 84-91.

Hyman, Anthony. 1982. Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton NJ.

Hyman, Anthony. 1989. "Babbage Studies", (CQD), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 11, No. 3.

Huskey, Harry and Velma. 1980. "Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 299-329.

Huskey, Harry and Velma. 1981. "Charles Babbage and Lady Lovelace", (anecdote), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 3, No. 4.

Huskey, Velma. 1985. "Who Was the Mysterious Countess?", (anecdote), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 7, No. 1.

Kean, David W. 1966. The Author of the Analytical Engine, Thompson Book Co., Washington DC. 21 pp.

Morrison, Philip and Emily. 1961. Charles Babbage and his Calculating Machines, Dover Publications, New York, 400 pp.

Nagler, Harry. 1980. "Napier and Babbage", (anecdote), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 2, No. 2.

Robert, C. J. D. 1987. "Babbage's Diff. Eng. No.1 and ... Sine Tables", (CQD), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 9, No. 2.

Slater, Robert. 1987. Portraits in Silicon, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, Chapter 1.

Smillie, K. W. 1981. "Mr. Babbage's Calculating Machine", (review), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 2, No. 2.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1980. "The Printed Papers of Charles Babbage", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 169-185.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1981. "The Trinity House", (correction), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 3, No. 1.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1983. A. Hyman: Charles Babbage (review), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 5, No. 1.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1983. "Babbage's Letter to Quetelet", May 1835, Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 5 No. 3.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1988. "Babbage and the Scheutz Machine ...", (anecdote), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 10, No. 2.

van Sinderen, Alfred. 1988. "Babbage and Bowditch", (CQD), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 10, No. 3.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1983[3]. "Babbage, Charles" in Ralston, Anthony, and Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. 1983. Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Engineering, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1987. "Babbage's Expectations for the Diff. Engine", (anecdote), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 9, No. 2.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1988. "Babbage and the Colossus", (CQD), Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 10, No. 3.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1991a. "Babbage's Expectations for his Engines", Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 141-46.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1991b. "Pray, Mr. Babbage ...", A Play, Ann. Hist. Comp., Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 147-54.

Wilkes, Maurice V. 1992. "Charles Babbage - The Great Uncle of Computing?", Comm. ACM, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 15-16, 21.

Significant Publications

Babbage, Charles. 1825. "Observations on the Application of Machinery to the Computation of Mathematical Tables", Memoirs of the Astronomical Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 311-314.

Babbage, Charles. 1832. Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, Charles Knight, London.

Babbage, Charles. 1837. "On the Mathematical Powers of the Calculating Engine", unpublished MS, reprinted in Randell, B. (ed). 1973. The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, pp. 19-54.

Babbage, Charles. 1864. Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Longmans and Green, London reprinted Augustus M. Kelly, New York, 1969.


[1] Reprinted from DATAMATION, March 1985
[2] Quoted in the Babbage exhibit at the Science Museum, Kensington, attributed to Babbage in 1864.
[3] Also in the 3rd edition, 1992.

In 1991, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Babbage, the Science Museum in Kensington, England, constructed a complete Difference Engine from the drawings left behind by Babbage. They found only two major errors in the drawings; they were easy to remedy. Doron Swade, Curator at the Science Museum
with the Difference Engine.

Copyright J. A. N. Lee, September 1994.

Last updated 94/09/30