Babbage’s triumph over brutal reality

by Adrian Johnstone, Royal Holloway, University of London and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A red rose on a gravestone
Image by Goran Horvat from Pixabay

Charles Babbage is famous for his amazing technical skills in designing a computer, but also infamous for his apparent spiky and obsessive personality.

He certainly seems to have had poor social skills in that he often immensely irritated the people who funded his work. Part of the reason he never managed to complete a working version of his computer is that his funders pulled the plug on him. If only he had had better people skills to complement his technical skills and creativity, perhaps we would have had computers a century earlier! However, perhaps we should be less harsh. He wasn’t a total social misfit: his salons (Victorian high society parties) were extremely popular, and attended by what would now be considered celebrity A-listers. They often centred around demonstrations of science and engineering wonders, so presumably he could be the life and soul of the party… as long as he had a technological wonder to talk about. The young Ada Lovelace attended one such salon and was enthralled by his machines. Encouraged by her mathematically trained mother, Lady Byron, she studied maths and in 1840 collaborated with Babbage on a description of his Analytical Engine.

More to the point, if you consider the context of Babbage’s life, he suffered extremes of grief. In one year alone, 1827, he buried three of his children as well as his wife. Of his eight children only three survived beyond the age of ten. That was the brutal reality of the pre-antibiotic world.

In this context perhaps it is better to think about his work and achievements, as a response to adversity. That he achieved so much is a triumph of ambition over terrible loss.

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This article was funded by UKRI, through Professor Ursula Martin’s grant EP/K040251/2 and grant EP/W033615/1.

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