Monday, September 29, 2008


As some of my friends may know, I have gone back to college, again. By a stingy count, this would be the fourth time. The first was Saddleback Community College in the 70's where I endeavored to get through all the basic transfer courses. The second was Brooks College where I studied Interior Design; the third, University of Washington for Anthropology. Now I am at Seattle Central Community College studying Web Design/Development. (A generous count would have to include Massage school, Italian classes and an Algebra class required for entry to UW.) Speaking of Algebra - I could get another degree in the Web Design but then I would have to take algebra again. Now I bought into all that, "you'll need your algebra" crap when I was younger and more gullible, but I've been kicking about this earth for fifty years now, and I have never needed algebra for any sort of daily task that I can remember. So I'll just get the certificate, thank you very much.

Also, as many of you know, I love obscure trivia and random information so one of my homework assignments last week really appealed to me; research and write about Charles Babbage.

OK, OK, I can hear all my nerdy friends saying, what's so obscure about Babbage? (Or I could hear it if any of them actually read my blog!) So, he may not be new and interesting to everyone, but he was to me, and this is what I learned:

Charles Babbage – 1791-1871
Babbage developed the first mechanical computer, known as the “Difference Engine.” He was a mathematician who sought to avoid the human errors of mathematical tables. The Difference Engine computed polynomial functions, and by using the principles of “finite differences” as seen in this equation: f(x + b) − f(x + a), the need for multiplication and division was eliminated. This machine was the first to calculate automatically. He never completed the machine, but it has since been replicated and proven to work.

His next machine was the “Analytical Engine” which was the first programmable computer (using punch cards). Ada Lovelace wrote a program for the Analytical Engine, and is hence known as the first computer programmer. Unfortunately, Babbage never completed this machine either. Strangely enough, punch cards continued to be used for computer programming up to the 1980’s when my friend was in college and required to take computer programming in order to get his degree in Landscape Architecture! (Proving of course, that our institutes of higher learning are often, though not always, behind the times, even when trying to keep up with them.) Fortunately my friend talked the professor into giving him a passing grade so he could graduate and become a successful and published L.A.

Charles Babbage had many other accomplishments. He broke the “autokey cipher”, thought to be unbreakable, as well as the Vigenere cipher. He also invented the “pilot” which is a metal frame on locomotives, which keeps the track clear of unwanted things such as cows – also known as a “cow-catcher”. His concern for railroads continued with his invention of the “dynamometer car” which measured the performance of the engine, and he created the standard railroad gauge.

Insurance companies can thank him for the first reliable actuarial tables, and I’m sure Sherlock Holmes and all the B movie makers of the world are indebted to him for the invention of the skeleton key. We must also thank him for uniform postal rates, Greenwich time signals and occulting lights. I particularly like the occulting lights because I love the idea that a light house can communicate with a ship watchman, warning him not only of a land mass, but of what exact landmass he should steer clear.

My father, who practiced optometry for forty-five years, used an opthalmoscope several times a day, so I’m sure he would thank Babbage also. Unfortunately, Babbage gave his opthalmoscope to a physician for testing and forgot about it, as did the physician. My father might not have used one if Hermann von Helmholtz had not come along and invented it again. Something anthropologists call independent invention (as opposed to diffusion).

In addition to the things he invented, Babbage also came up with theories (some were about god and his wisdom in creating the world, which I will not go into). Notably, he came up with the theory of dividing labor amongst those with different skill sets and pay grades, thereby saving money. It was known as the Babbage principle and was criticized by Karl Marx.

Babbage, for all the good he brought to the world, didn’t seem to like the world, (or maybe just its people) much. He was curmudgeonly, but he managed to get married and have nine children (only three survived to adulthood). He hated music and particularly hated street performers. He was well known for this too, and was constantly harassed by bands and performers who would set up nearby his house and perform solely to irritate him. Quite a guy.


At 11:54 AM, Blogger Kellie said...

As a nerdy Victorianista, I LOVE all the info about Charles Babbage posted here. May I recommend reading Gibson & Sterling's steampunk novel the Difference Engine? And when you've read it, could you please explain it to me?


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