A 19th-Century Mathematician Finally Proves Himself In the mid-1800s, Charles Babbage got fed up with doing complex calculations by hand, so he designed what he called a "Difference Engine." He never built the machine in his lifetime, but 150 years later, engineers built the engine to Babbage's specifications — and the 5-ton calculator actually works.
NPR logo

A 19th-Century Mathematician Finally Proves Himself

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121206408/121274644" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A 19th-Century Mathematician Finally Proves Himself

A 19th-Century Mathematician Finally Proves Himself

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121206408/121274644" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now let's hear next about a man who never got to see his life's work completed. Charles Babbage is considered by many to be the father of modern computing. And now a five-ton computing engine built more than 120 years after his death is on display at the Computer History Museum in California's Silicon Valley. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Babbage's massive engine stands taller than most men and fills half a gallery. Its 8,000 parts of cast iron steel and bronze fit together in a tight weave. But you can't just plug in this engine. It's powered by hand crank.

TIM ROBINSON: It absolutely is a good workout.

SYDELL: Tim Robinson is a docent in the museum. He recently retired from a career in computer systems. As he turns the crank, the parts move in synchronicity. Wheels with numbers align to make perfect calculations.

ROBINSON: What's special about it is it's the first automatic calculating machine - that is, a machine in which you set it up to solve a particular problem. Its operation's entirely automatic. As long as you keep turning that crank, it will produce new results.

SYDELL: And most importantly, accurate results that are pressed into a mold to make printing plates for books. Babbage was a citizen of Victorian England, a nation that relied on its navy to maintain its vast empire. The books were filled with mathematic calculations necessary for navigation.

ROBINSON: And if the tables had an error, you get the wrong answer, a ship could either get lost or run aground, so lives and property were thought to be at stake.

SYDELL: The story goes that one day Babbage, a mathematician, came across so many errors in a book, he exclaimed: I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam. He was inspired to design his difference engine. He got money from the British government. But after 10 years of work, the government wouldn't give him more.

ROBINSON: He was so far ahead of his time in his thinking that many people opposed what he was trying to do on the grounds that they just didn't understand.

SYDELL: And then, in the 1980s, Dr. Doron Swade, then a curator at the Science Museum in London, started reading about him.

DORON SWADE: And when I got to the point where it said by betrayal because of limitations of Victorian engineering, I sort of quickly flipped ahead to say, well, okay, did the engine work when they did build it, when these limitations no longer applied, and was staggered to discover that nobody had actually ever tried.

SYDELL: The museum's Tim Robinson...

ROBINSON: I think now he is recognized as a true genius. If the rest of the world had appreciated the significance of what he was trying to achieve, things might've turned out differently.

SYDELL: Differently because if Babbage had actually completed his engine, he might've had the support to build what historians consider to be his greatest design, the analytic engine, which shares many features with early computers.

ROBINSON: It would have been programmed on punch cards. The kind of cards that were being used at that time to automate weaving looms.

SYDELL: Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, met Babbage during one of his London soirees. She helped Babbage put his ideas in writing, and she often understood the implications of his work better than he did.


TILDA SWENTON: (as Ada Augusta Byron King) Now, I'm dreaming of an engine like Babbage's.

SYDELL: Tilda Swinton played Ada Lovelace in this 1997 film, "Conceiving Aida."


SWENTON: (as Ada Augusta Byron King) That will one day allow us to predict an infinite series of numerical outcomes, and it could immediately be put to all sorts of practical uses.

SYDELL: The Computer History Museum's Tim Robinson.

ROBINSON: Ada recognized that you could actually use numbers to represent things other than just quantity. They could represent letters of the alphabet. They could represent musical notes. They could represent positions on a chess board. And so she speculated what might be achieved. And you know, thinking about computer chess in the 1840s is kind of way out there, right?

SYDELL: Even today, when Dr. Doron Swade turns the crank of Babbage's bronze and steel engine in London, people are amazed when they see it work.

SWADE: I still never fail to receive huge pleasure from watching people's reaction when they first see this extraordinary spectacle. Their jaws literally drop.

SYDELL: Swade believes if Babbage had completed the difference engine in his time, it might have inspired a Victorian information age. Instead, he died an embittered old man with a tarnished reputation.


SYDELL: The difference engine at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California will be on display through the end of next year. Then it goes to Seattle, where it will become part of a private collection.

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: Even if you can't make it to the Computer History Museum in time, you can see an amazing video of Charles Babbage's five ton engine in action at our Web site, NPR.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.