You may not have heard of Charles Babbage before, but you have him to thank, in part, for the fact that you’re able to read this article on a computerised device today.
Although there is some dispute over his place and date of birth (it is thought to have been either London or Teignmouth in 1791), Babbage spent much of his childhood in his family home in Teignmouth and it is this, plus his Devonian ancestry, which lands him a place in our list of remarkable people of Devon and Cornwall.
Charles Babbage had a somewhat turbulent early education – being moved between various schools, academies, and private tutors – but it culminated in him being accepted to Cambridge University to study mathematics. During his time there he lived by the motto ‘Let’s leave this world a wiser one than we found it.’ It’s fair to say he managed to do that!
In 1820 Charles Babbage played a key part in founding the Astronomical Society. The society aimed to standardise astronomical calculations, and it was with this in mind that Babbage designed the Difference Engine – the technology for which would eventually develop into what we now know as a computer – to calculate mathematical and astronomical tables.
The Difference Engine was never constructed, although Babbage had enough funding to do it, but it would have contained around 25,000 parts, weighed over 13,000kg, and been 2.4m tall. Thank goodness technology has evolved since then!
Although Babbage is best known as the “grandfather of the computer”, he put his hand to a remarkable number of other things in his lifetime as well.
He helped to establish the modern postage system, making it possible for a uniform rate to be charged, and later for parcels to be sent via post.
He is credited with creating “a simple device to record the direction of shocks for use in areas liable to earthquakes” (now called the seismograph).
He built the first known campervan – a coach complete with a cooker, commode, and wardrobe – and spent 18 months touring in it before selling it on.
And he even had time to dabble in politics, geology and philosophy.
He is reported to have once had a conversation with Charles Darwin, saying that he saw God as a deity who constantly changed and “updated” living creatures, similar to a programmer allowing for nature to evolve and replace itself with a stronger species. Darwin is said to have agreed, saying he was arriving at the same conclusion.
Charles Babbage was certainly a forward-thinker and in many respects a man ahead of his time. He died in 1871 and it would be another century before the computer he laid the foundations for started to be put into widespread use. But we certainly have a lot to thank him for today.
For other Cornish men click here