To many, the name Charles Babbage (1792-1871) conjures up the picture of an eccentric 19th-century Englishman who tinkered...


CHARLES BABBAGE: Pioneer of the Computer

To many, the name Charles Babbage (1792-1871) conjures up the picture of an eccentric 19th-century Englishman who tinkered with calculators and designed the forerunner of today's multi-purpose stored program computer: a quirky mathematician obsessed with a grand scheme. They would be surprised to learn that Babbage was a polymath, a sophisticated traveler, a devoted husband, a political and social reformer and friend of the eminent. Freelance writer and Oxford scholar Anthony Hyman does his hero up proud in this definitive biography--not only describing the many facets of the life, but also providing the socio-cultural background for Babbage's many outspoken proposals. Babbage was the well-born son of a family of goldsmiths turned bankers. His Cambridge days included jaunts on the Cam, as well as the formation of an elite ""Analytical Society"" with such lights as John Herschel. Babbage combined a Newtonian world-view with a Continental radicalism and respect for science and technology. He deplored England's failure to see the need for educational reforms or the utility of applying science to industry. (The government had backed his first difference engine, but never came up with sufficient funds for a fullscale model to be built.) Babbage was a Benthamite in education and politics; he lobbied for decimal coinage, an equitable income tax, the penny post. In 1832 he wrote prophetically that the factory would occupy center stage in England's future, and his carefully calculated estimates of value and price were acknowledged influences on Marx and John Stuart Mill. Babbage was also religious, conceiving God as the supreme programmer of infinite programs. Hyman paints a picture of an eminently logical and democratic man, ambitious and proud, who turned an inquring mind on an enormous range of matters great and small. (Late in life, Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace worked with him; and we learn the sordid details of her dying years of compulsive gambling, debt, and the evil vengeance of her vindictive mother.) Apart from some extraneous minutiae, a first-rate portrait of an exceptional intellect.

Pub Date: May 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982