Charles Babbage (1792-1871), English mathematician and mechanician, was born on the 26th of December 1792 at Teignmouth in Devonshire. He was educated at a private school, and afterwards entered St Peter's College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1814. Though he did not compete in the mathematical tripos, he acquired a great reputation at the university. In the years 1815-1817 he contributed three papers on the "Calculus of Functions" to the Philosophical Transactions, and in 1816 was made a fellow of the Royal Society. Along with Sir John Herschel and George Peacock he laboured to raise the standard of mathematical instruction in England, and especially endeavoured to supersede the Newtonian by the Leibnitzian notation in the infinitesimal calculus. Babbage's attention seems to have been very early drawn to the number and importance of the errors introduced into astronomical and other calculations through inaccuracies in the computation of tables. He contributed to the Royal Society some notices on the relation between notation and mechanism; and in 1822, in a letter to Sir H. Davy on the application of machinery to the calculation and printing of mathematical tables, he discussed the principles of a calculating engine, to the construction of which he devoted many years of his life.
Government was induced to grant its aid, and the inventor himself spent a portion of his private fortune in the prosecution of his undertaking. He travelled through several of the countries of Europe, examining different systems of machinery; and some of the results of his investigations were published in the admirable little work, Economy of Machines and Manufactures (1834). The great calculating engine was never completed; the constructor apparently desired to adopt a new principle when the first specimen was nearly complete, to make it not a difference but an analytical engine, and the government declined to accept the further risk (see Calculating Machines). From 1828 to 1839 Babbage was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Astronomical (1820) and Statistical (1834) Societies. He only once endeavoured to enter public life, when, in 1832, he stood unsuccessfully for the borough of Finsbury. During the later years of his life he resided in London, devoting himself to the construction of machines capable of performing arithmetical and even algebraical calculations.
He died at London on the 18th of October 1871. He gives a few biographical details in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), a work which throws considerable light upon his somewhat peculiar character. His works, pamphlets and papers were very numerous; in the Passages he enumerates eighty separate writings. Of these the most important, besides the few already mentioned, are Tables of Logarithms (1826); Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives (1826); Decline of Science in England (1830); Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837); The Exposition of 1851 (1851).
See Monthly Notices, Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 32.