Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, Historically Significant Signed Letter

Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, Historically Significant Signed Letter

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Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, Historically Significant Signed Letter:

The historical significance of this letter isn't only that Charles Babbage is addressing his attempts at working with Lord Rosse to persuade the Government of England to grant additional funding for his Analytical Engine, but also that the letter is dated just over a month before Babbage's last attempt at asking England for funds. Had England went ahead and funded Babbage's endeavors, the advances towards the modern-day computer could have very well taken a different course."There would not have been the '100 dark years' between Babbage's death and the beginning of the electronic era in the 1930s when pioneers reinvented all the essential principles of computing largely in ignorance of Babbage's designs." -Doron Swade

Babbage is rightly credited as being the first computer pioneer.While Babbage never had the opportunity to see his Analytical Engine or Difference Engines constructed, he did succeed in building a model of the Analytical Engine (or the Thinking Machine) that was one-seventh of the size of its original design. This was the first time an automatic calculator had been constructed as well as the first successful transference of human intelligence to machine. After witnessing the machine for himself, contemporary Harry Wilmot Buxton wrote, "The wonderous pulp and fibre of the brain had been substituted by brass and iron; he had taught the wheelwork to think."

Furthermore, the blueprints for his Difference Engine No. 2 were dusted off over a hundred years after his death (1871) in the 1980's by Doron Swade, Museum Curator of the Science Museum in London England. Doron believed in the potential of the design and sought funding to bring it to life. He connected with Microsoft's Chief Technology Officer, Nathan Myhrvold, who agreed to fund the endeavor to the tune of $2 million dollars with the caveat that a second replica of the design would be built for himself. The first replica was completed in 2002 and the second in 2008.

When asked by BBC why Myhrvold funded the project he responded, "It is the intellectual origin of the industry I have been in and the way I have made all my money.It takes you back 150 years to a branching point in history and allows you to speculate what might have been had this engine been finished."

Difference Engine No. 2 (Designed by Babbage from 1847-1849)

The Difference Engine No. 2 in action is described as, "Mechanical poetry in motion." -Nathan Myhrvold

The true marvel of witnessing a functioning Difference Engine No. 2 is that while it's a mechanical machine, it's a visible representation to the logic in which modern-day computing works. While not a perfect 1:1 representation, the computational addition in which all computational calculations are possible (subtraction, multiplication, division...) works in a similar fashion to how Charles Babbage designed his Analytical Engine and Difference Engines.

The Difference Engine No. 2 replica weighs 9,000 lbs, measures 11 feet long and is 7 feet high, and consists of 8,000 individual parts, 248 of which are the computational gears.

Nathan Myhrvold & Doron Swade Discuss Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2


The following letter was then drawn up, and placed in Lord Derby’s hands by LordRosse:—

June 8, 1852.MY LORD,

Itakethe liberty of drawing your Lordship’s attention to the subject of the construction of a Difference Engine, forcalculating and printing Astronomical and Nautical Tables, which was brought under the notice of the Government so far back as the year 1823, and upon which the Government of that day desired the opinion of the Royal Society.

I annex a copy of the correspondence which took place at that time, and which your Lordship will observe was laid before Parliament.

The Committee of the Royal Society, to which the subject was referred, reported generally that the invention was one “fully adequate to the attainment of the objects proposed by the inventor, and that they considered Mr.Babbageas highly deserving of public encouragement in the prosecution of his arduous undertaking.”—Report of Royal Society, 1 stMay, 1823.Parliamentary Paper, 370, 22 ndMay, 1823.

And in a subsequent and more detailed Report, which I annex also, theystate:—

“The Committee have no intention of entering into any consideration of the abstract math­e­mat­i­cal principle on which the practicability of such a machine as Mr.Babbage’s relies, nor of its public utility when completed. They consider the former as not only sufficiently clear in itself, but as already admitted and acted on by the Council in their former proceedings. The latter they regard as obvious to every one who considers the immense advantage of accurate numerical Tables in all matters of calculation, especially in those which relate to Astronomy and Navigation, and the great variety and extent of those which it is the object and within the compass of Mr.Babbage’s Engine to calculate and print with perfect accuracy.”—Report of Committee of Royal Society, 12th Feb., 1829.

Upon the first of these Reports, the Government determined to construct the machine, under my personalsuperintendence and direction. The Engine was accordingly commenced and partially completed. Tables of figures were calculated, limited in extent only by the number of wheels put together.

Delays, from various causes arose in the progress of the work, and great expenses were incurred. The machine was altogether new in design and construction, and required the utmost mechanical skill which could be obtained for its execution. “It involved,” to quote again from the Report of the Committee of the Royal Society, “the necessity of constructing, and in many instances inventing, tools and machinery of great expense and complexity (and in many instances of ingenious contrivances likely to prove useful for other purposes hereafter), for forming with the requisite precision parts of the apparatus dissimilar to any used in ordinary mechanical works; that of making many previous trials to ascertain the validity of proposed movements; and that of altering, improving, and simplifying those already contrived and reduced to drawings. Your Committee are so far from being surprised at the time it has occupied to bring it to its present state, that they feel more disposed to wonder it has been possible to accomplish so much.” The true explanation both of the slow progress and of the cost of the work is clearly stated in this passage; and I may remark in passing, that the tools which were invented for the construction of the machine were afterwards found of utility, and that this anticipation of the Committee has been realized, as some of our most eminent mechanical engineers will readily testify.

Similar circumstances will, I apprehend, always attend and prolong the period of bringing to perfection inventions which have no parallel in the previous history of mechanicalconstruction. The necessary science and skill specially acquired in executing such works must also, as experience is gained, suggest deviations from, and improvements in, the original plan of those works; and the adoption or rejection of such changes, especially under circumstances similar to those in which I was placed, often involves questions of the greatest difficulty and anxiety.

From whatever cause, however, the delays and expenses arose, the result was that the Government was discouraged, and declined to proceed further with the work.

Mr. Goulburn’s letter, intimating this decision to me, in 1842, will be found in the accompanying printed Statement. And that the impediments to the completion of the engine, described by the Royal Society, were those which influenced the Government in the determination they came to, I infer from the reason assigned by Mr. Goulburn for its discontinuance, viz., “the expense which would be necessary in order to render it either sat­is­fac­tory to yourself or generally useful.” I readily admit that the work could not have been rendered sat­is­fac­tory to myself unless I was free to introduce every improvement which experience and thought could suggest. But that even with this additional source of expense its general usefulness would have been impaired, I cannot assent to, for I believe, in the words of the Report I have already quoted, the “immense advantage of accurate Numerical Tables in all matters of calculation, especially in those which relate to Astronomy and Navigation, cannot, within any reasonable limits, be over-estimated.” As to the expense actually incurred upon the first Difference Engine, that of the Government was about 17,000 l. On my own part, and out of my own private resources, I have sacrificed upon this and other works of science upwards of 20,000 l.

From the date of Mr. Goulburn’s letter, nothing has been done towards the further completion of the Difference Engine by the Government or myself. So much of it as was completed was deposited in the Museum of King’s College, where it now remains.

Three consequences have, however, resulted from my subsequent labours, to which I attach great importance.

First, I have been led to conceive the most important elements of another Engine upon a new principle (the details of which are reduced accurately to paper), the power of which over the most complicated analytical operations appears nearly unlimited; but no portion of which is yet commenced. I have called this engine, in contradistinction to the other, the Analytical Engine.

Secondly, I have invented and brought to maturity a system of signs for the explanation of machinery, which I have called Mechanical Notation, by means of which the drawings, the times of action, and the trains for the transmission of force, are expressed in a language at once simple and concise. Without the aid of this language I could not have invented the Analytical Engine; nor do I believe that any machinery of equal complexity can ever be contrived without the assistance of that or of some other equivalent language. The Difference Engine No. 2, to which I shall presently refer, is entirely described by its aid.

Thirdly, in labouring to perfect this Analytical Machine of greater power and wider range of computation, I have discovered the means of simplifying and expediting the mechanical processes of the first or Difference Engine.

After what has passed, I cannot expect the Government to undertake the construction of the Analytical Engine, and I do not offer it for that purpose. It is not so matured as toenable any other person, without long previous training and application, even to attempt its execution; and on my own part, to superintend its construction would demand an amount of labour, anxiety, and time which could not, after the treatment I have received, be expected from me. I therefore make no such offer.

But that I may fulfil to the utmost of my power the original expectation that I should be able to complete, for the Government, an Engine capable of calculating astronomical and nautical Tables with perfect accuracy, such as that which is described in the Reports of the Royal Society, I am willing to place at the disposal of Government (if they will undertake to execute a new Difference Engine) all those improvements which I have invented and have applied to the Analytical Engine. These comprise a complete series of drawings and explanatory notations, finished in 1849, of the Difference Engine No. 2,—an instrument of greater power as well as of greater simplicity than that formerly commenced, and now in the possession of the Government.

I have sacrificed time, health, and fortune, in the desire to complete these Calculating Engines. I have also declined several offers of great personal advantage to myself. But, not­with­stand­ing the sacrifice of these advantages for the purpose of maturing an engine of almost in­tel­lec­tual power, and after expending from my own private fortune a larger sum than the Government of England has spent on that machine, the execution of which it only commenced, I have received neither an acknowledgment of my labours, nor even the offer of those honours or rewards which are allowed to fall within the reach of men who devote themselves to purely scientific investigations. I might, perhaps, advance some claims to consideration, founded on my works andcont­ri­bu­tions in aid of various departments of industrial and physical science,—but it is for others to estimate those services.

I now, however, simply ask your Lordship to do me the honour to consider this statement and the offer I make. I prefer no claim to the distinctions or the advantages which it is in the power of the Crown or the Government to bestow. I desire only to discharge whateverimaginedobligation may be supposed to rest upon me, in connexion with the original undertaking of the Difference Engine; though I cannot but feel that whilst the public has already derived advantage from my labours, I have myself experienced only loss and neglect.

If the work upon which I have bestowed so much time and thought were a mere triumph over mechanical difficulties, or simply curious, or if the execution of such engines were of doubtful practicability or utility, some justification might be found for the course which has been taken; but I venture to assert that no mathematician who has a reputation to lose will everpubliclyexpress an opinion that such a machine would be useless if made, and that no man distinguished as a Civil Engineer will venture to declare the construction of such machinery impracticable. The names appended to the Report of the Committee of the Royal Society fully justify my expressing this opinion, which I apprehend will not be disputed.

And at a period when the progress of physical science is obstructed by that exhausting in­tel­lec­tual and manual labour, indispensable for its advancement, which it is the object of the Analytical Engine to relieve, I think the application of machinery in aid of the most complicated and abstruse calculations can no longer be deemed unworthy of the attention of the country. In fact, there is no reason why mental aswell as bodily labour should not be economized by the aid of machinery.

With these views I have addressed your Lordship, as the head of the Government; and whatever may be my sense of the injustice that has hitherto been done me, I feel, in laying this rep­re­sen­ta­tion before your Lordship, and in making the offer I now make, that I have discharged to the utmost limit every implied obligation I originally contracted with the country.

I have the honour to be,

&c., &c., &c.,


Dorset Street, Manchester Square.

June8, 1852.

As this question was one of finance and of calculation, the sagacious Premier adroitly turned it over to his Chancellor of the Exchequer—that official being, from his office,supposedto be well versed in both subjects.

The opinion pronounced by the novelist and financier was, “That Mr.Babbage’s projects appear to be so indefinitely expensive, the ultimate success so problematical, and the expenditure certainly so large and so utterly incapable of being calculated, that the Government would not be justified in taking upon itself any further liability.”—Extract from the Reply of Earl Derby to the application of the Earl of Rosse, K.P., President of the Royal Society.


The answer of Lord Derby to Lord Rosse was insubstance—

That he had consulted the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who pronounced Mr.Babbage’s projectas—

· 1. “Indefinitely expensive.”

· 2. “The ultimate success problematical.”

· 3. “The expenditure utterly incapable of being calculated.”

Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, Historically Significant Signed Letter:

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