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Charles Babbage

"Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all."

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  Charles Babbage (1792 - 1871)

Charles Babbage's greatest claim to fame is that he didn't build the world's first computer - although he sure tried hard enough.

Babbage was something of a zealot in the cause of mathematical accuracy - this was a man who once wrote to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and demanded he change the lines: "Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born" to "Every moment dies a man, Every moment one and one-sixteenth is born".

But in spite of his eccentricities (Babbage also nurtured an almost pathological hatred of organ grinders), he almost, almost, became the first man to invent the modern computer.

Babbage's big mistake was being born in an age which had the basic knowledge to design such a machine, but no technology with which to build it.

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In 1822, fed up with the: "intolerable labour and fatiguing monotony" involved in the endless calculation required for scientific tables (a task he believed ranked: "among the lowest occupations of the human intellect" - no argument here!), Babbage came up with a preliminary model of his Difference Engine - a machine, he was sure, that would remove this drudgery forever.

The Royal Society, gathering together to pore over Babbage's crank-driven toothed-wheels and shafts, found the idea: "highly deserving of public encouragement", and convinced the British government to award him £1500 in funding. Babbage confidently predicted his mechanical marvel would be complete within 3 years.

Unfortunately, a working model of the Difference Engine proved considerably more difficult to build than a desktop prototype. Although Babbage spent the next 10 years modifying, enhancing, and re-designing the device - and the British government another £17,000 - in the end, public funding was withdrawn and Babbage was forced to walk away from his brainchild.

A sucker for punishment, by 1833 Babbage had embarked on an even more ambitious project - his Analytical Engine: "a machine of the most general nature". Babbage's Analytical Engine was to be the world's first general use programmable computer, a machine designed not just for solving one particular problem, but to carry out a range of calculations ordered by its operator.

Designed to include both a ‘store’ and a ‘mill’, the Analytical Engine's ‘store’ would retain up to 100 forty-digit numbers awaiting their turn at the ‘mill’. Once operated on, results would also be returned to storage, to be held until needed for further use or printed out. Babbage had quite accurately (if somewhat vaguely) described the modern computer memory and processor.

The Analytical Engine was to be programmed by a series of punched cards, (in much the same way as Konrad Zuse would instruct his Z-series machines in the next century) but would have no ‘inbuilt programming’, or specific purpose, as had the majority of machines designed in Babbage's time.

Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, Babbage's confidant and cohort - and one of the few people to actually understand the potential of his machine - compared the Analytical Engine with the Jacquard-loom: "We may most aptly say that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

But if building the Difference Engine had proved problematic, it soon became apparent that constructing a working Analytical Engine was impossible - the technology simply didn't exist.

Just as well, really. Even if building the Analytical Engine had been possible, the finished machine would have been a frightening - and dangerous - device.

Driven by steam, the Analytical Engine would have been roughly the size of a train engine, comprised of an incredibly complex intermeshing of thousands of clockwork parts - the smallest imbalance in any of which would have caused the machine, at the very best, to shake itself to pieces.

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Babbage's drawings and plans still exist - parts of the original mill and printer were even built, years later, by his son (and now reside in the PowerHouse Museum in Sydney) - but the Analytical Engine itself never saw the light of day.

Ironically, the Difference Engine fared a little better. With Babbage's advice, Swedish printer Pehr Georg Scheutz finally built a modified version of Babbage's original machine.

Charles Babbage watched as the Scheutz Difference Engine took out a gold medal at the Exhibition of Paris and, a few years later, was commissioned for the Registrar-General's Department of the same government that had abandoned his original research.

He died a bitter man.

Augusta Ada Byron