Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer

Author Melinda Penner Published on 04/23/2015

Charles Babbage was born in London in 1791 and is considered the father of the computer and one of the most influential scientists in history. He was an Anglican Christian who believed science and the Bible are compatible. He believed we should use our best knowledge and imagination to know God as best we can. He believed the authenticity of Scripture and used his scientific endeavors to demonstrate its reliability and to understand it better. He understood that theology is a knowledge-based study and that science has limits of what it can prove or disprove.

Babbage’s scientific expertise spanned a variety of fields. He invented the first mechanical computer. In 1821, Babbage was asked to evaluate the accuracy of the astronomical tables. He formulated his idea for mechanical computation, though his machines were never completed. He later developed designs for a machine capable of broader computations and programming, using punch cards. His plans were used to build a functioning difference engine in 1991, proving that his theories were workable.

He also analyzed the efficiency of the British postal system and proposed the idea of standard postage, which was adopted. He published a book on the economy of manufacturing and proposed what came to be known as the Babbage principle—the idea of division of labor. Having workers specialize instead of doing a variety of tasks, some of which involve activities below their skill level, results in more efficient productivity and profitability. Babbage was a pioneer in absolute measurement, and worked on a project to tabulate all the constants of nature. His work in measurements was essential in building the machinery for manufacturing in the industrial revolution. He studied railways and showed the superiority of the broad gauge for railways; and he invented the cowcatcher.

Babbage wrote books exploring his religious convictions. He acknowledged three sources of knowledge: a priori, general revelation from creation, and special revelation from God. He wrote about the design argument and the works of the Creator that are open to our examination, which provide a firm basis for Christianity. He wrote in support of miracles, responding to David Hume’s objections: “We must not measure the credibility or incredibility of an event by the narrow sphere of our own experience, nor forget that there is a Divine energy which overrides what we familiarly call the laws of nature.”

After his death, Babbage’s son used his father’s designs to create six small demonstration pieces of the difference engine. One was sent to Harvard where Howard Aiken later discovered it. It influenced his design of the Mark 1 electro-mechanical computer, which was built by IBM and used during WW2.