Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage

1791 - 1871
by David F. Coppedge

There’s a humorous scene in the movie Back to the Future III, in which Doc operates a crazy contraption he had built in a barn. He and Marty had been transported back from 1985 to the Old West. He asks Marty to turn a valve, then he pulls a lever on the large wooden machine. Marty watches quizzically as wheels turn, gears engage, steam hisses, and all kinds of racket ensues. Finally, as Doc proudly smiles, an ice cube tumbles down a chute into his cup of tea. Go back even further in time, and a contraption even more amazing, though never built, was conceived in the mind of our scientist of the month, a genius named Charles Babbage. Like Doc, Babbage was a man trapped in the wrong century, because he envisioned not the first ice cube maker, but the first general purpose computer– in 1832! This is one of history’s classic “if only” stories. If only Babbage had finished it, if only the British government had approved the funding he needed, then computers might have been household items a century earlier. Despite this failure, Charles Babbage did succeed in many things, and was always strong in his Christian faith during a period of tremendous intellectual and social change in Britain.

Born in 1791 as son of a wealthy banker, young Charles grew in love with mathematics, a subject he nearly taught himself: in fact, he could have taught his tutors. He excelled to the point of occupying the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge for 11 years, the same position Newton had held. In personality, Babbage was too smart for the common people. Like cowboys trying to “figger” a scientific genius, they thought him stuffy, arrogant and eccentric. His obsession with facts, figures and statistics contributed to his “geek” reputation; he might be found measuring the amount of food consumed by zoo animals, the proportion of sexes among poultry, or the causes of broken windows, which he wrote up in a “Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows” (conclusion: drunks and boys cause 3%). Like a good Baconian, Babbage believed that facts were worth collecting and preserving, because “the preservation of any fact might ultimately be useful” and he wanted to set an example others might emulate. Unfortunately, he expected everyone to possess his basic civility and honesty; such naivete predisposed him to victimization. Socially, Babbage had friends in high places and got along with his intellectual colleagues, but stupid and thoughtless people irritated him: street musicians, especially. When he tried to get them outlawed, because they ruined his concentration, the townspeople retaliated by tormenting him mercilessly, purposely playing out-of-tune violins, tin whistles, and brass instruments outside his windows. This went on for years. The rabble who considered him a grouchy recluse or an “old villain” did not know they were harassing one of the intellectual geniuses of the 19th century, a man their descendants would honor (too late for Babbage’s own satisfaction) as a seminal figure in the development of the computer.

Charles Babbage turned his mathematical genius to many things. He believed in practical science. A railroad aficionado when the technology was young, he invented the first cowcatcher in Britain, and applied his statistical knowledge to argue for standardized wide gauge track. The industrial revolution was in full swing during his prime. Babbage became the world’s first “efficiency expert.” He is considered a pioneer of a field that, 100 years later during World War II, became extremely important for industry and the military: Operations Research, the mathematical study of how to get the most productivity in the shortest time at the lowest cost. Babbage was hired to advise the government on postal rates. His analysis, like modern “time and motion studies,” demonstrated that a flat rate stamp was the best fee for moving mail efficiently. The idea seems contrary to common sense; why should someone sending a letter across town have to pay the same price as someone sending it across the country? Nevertheless, he showed that it made economic and practical sense, and today we still enjoy the benefits of that research. Babbage also invented an ophthalmoscope (a device for examining the interior of the eye), a skeleton key, and a speedometer.

The Beginnings of General Purpose Computing

Model of the Difference Engine.

The story of his computer is a tale often told. It’s an interesting and complex mix of genius, politics, love and frustration. In 1827, Babbage received government funding to build a machine for the construction of mathematical tables. As construction began on the project, he found he had to design many of his own tools. Disputes with contractors frustrated him. Worse, before he completed a working model of his proposed Difference Engine, he conceived of an even better one, which he dubbed the Analytical Engine, and changed plans midstream. By this point he calculated it would cost more to complete the old model than to begin the new one, but this was a hard sell in Parliament; politicians were understandably reluctant to release more funds when there was nothing to show for the money already spent. Though Babbage never profited monetarily from the invention, one politician railed, “We have got nothing for our £17,000 than Mr. Babbage’s grumblings.” (What Babbage possessed in intelligence, apparently, he lacked in diplomacy and the art of persuading politicians.) “We should at least have had a clever toy for our money,” his political enemy continued. Sir George Airy, the famous astronomer, dubbed the contraption “worthless” and it didn’t help that Britain was in the woes of a depression in the 1840s.

The First Programmer

Babbage did have one ardent supporter, however. After his wife died at age 35 in 1827, Babbage developed a Platonic friendship with Lady Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron. Her enthusiasm for the project matched his, and she helped him keep the dream alive. Some have called her the first computer programmer (a bit of a stretch), since she wrote some sample problems the engine might solve. And what an engine it would have been: a room-sized complicated contraption of gears, levers, wheels, rods, cylinders and racks, all driven by steam. Babbage was inspired by the Jacquard Loom, a French invention that wove complex patterns in cloth with the use of punched cards. Babbage incorporated punched cards into his design. He envisioned his engine as being programmable such that it could solve any problem, even calculus, using Newton’s method of numerical approximation. Lovelace envisioned it someday composing music or generating graphics.

Consider how far ahead of his time his design was: it would be fully programmable, have input, a central processor, memory, and a printer for output— all worked out in Babbage’s head long before these became everyday concepts. Despite 50 years of work on this idea, Babbage was to die in obscurity in 1871, nearly forgotten by his countrymen. His drawings and descriptions gathered dust despite a feeble posthumous attempt by his son to build the Analytical Engine. (It is rumored that Bill Gates bid on this device when it was auctioned recently for $300,000.) A working model has never been built, though many have thought about doing so (BBC News, 2010). As recently as March 2019, a group called Plan28 was still researching Babbage’s thousands of pages of notes in order to begin building a working model of the Analytical Engine, not that it would be practical useful to supplant smartphones and PCs, but just for appreciation of Babbage’s visionary project. Babbage, though embittered in old age at short-sighted politicians, never lost confidence that his idea was a good one and that its eventual success, with numerous benefits for humanity, was only a matter of time.

Later Computers Built on Babbage’s Concepts

Steps toward fulfillment of the general-purpose computer were slow at first. Punched cards became important in the early 20th century after Herman Hollerith employed them for the U.S. Census in 1890, and later founded a company that in later years defined the cutting edge of computer technology: International Business Machines, or IBM. John Hudson Tiner describes the delayed renaissance of Babbage’s vision:

In 1937, Howard H. Aiken, a student at Harvard University, came across Babbage’s description of the analytical engine. He caught the enthusiasm Babbage had for creating a calculating machine.

Technology had improved enough to do it. Aiken, working with IBM, constructed Mark I, the first general-purpose calculating machine. An electronic computer replaced it a few years later. Charles Babbage had been a hundred years ahead of his time.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Christian Faith Under Victorian Influences

As for his personal faith, Charles Babbage believed the Bible and was convinced that science and faith were not in conflict. He was close friends with other Christian intellectuals of the day, including John Herschel and William Whewell. Sadly, he was also undiscerningly cozy with liberal religious scientists like Charles Lyell, whose work he admired, unaware of the erosion of faith Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism and long ages would cause for many believers, especially the young Charles Darwin. Babbage did strongly support the pre-Darwinian belief in Natural Theology, the proposition (as fully expounded by William Paley) that design in nature demands a Designer. That Babbage identified that Designer as the God of the Bible is clear, because he fully accepted the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ. Tiner says that “While a student at Cambridge, Charles Babbage met with others who were Christians. They resolved to dedicate their lives to God.”

The Earl of Bridgewater had left a sum of money in his will to direct leading scientists to write treatises “for the purpose of advancing arguments in favour of Natural Religion.” By the time Babbage was 46 and fully involved in developing his calculating machine, eight prominent British scientists had published their entries in what had become a well-known and popular set of books, the Bridgewater Treatises. The suite included works by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers on “The Adaptation of External Nature to the Intellectual and Moral Constitution of Man,” William Buckland on geology, William Whewell on astronomy and physics, William Kirby on zoology, John Kidd on the same subject as Chalmers, Charles Bell on design in the human hand, and Peter Mark Roget on animal and vegetable physiology. Perhaps Babbage felt the series need a ninth, like the Beethoven Symphonies, so in 1837 he added his own unofficial submission. He said, “I have, however, thought, that in furthering the intentions of the testator, by publishing some reflections on that subject, I might be permitted to connect with them a title which has now become familiarly associated, in the public mind, with the evidences in favour of Natural Religion.”

Employing his skill at mathematics and statistics, Babbage tackled the subject of the Biblical miracles: specifically, to counter the arguments of David Hume who had called miracles violations of natural law, and therefore impossible. Though slightly off topic from the rest of the series, Babbage felt “I was led so irresistibly, by the very nature of the illustrations employed in the former argument [of the first eight treatises], to the view there proposed, that I trust to being excused for having ventured one step beyond the strict limits of that argument, by entering on the first connecting link between natural religion and revelation.” In other words, he wanted to take the arguments of natural theology beyond the conclusion of an unspecified Designer, and link them to the historical accounts in Scripture. Babbage set out to prove mathematically that the Biblical miracles were not necessarily violations of natural law.

Analysis of the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise

Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (hereafter, NBT) is available online and makes for interesting reading, especially for those who admire the recondite and embellished prose of the Victorian intelligentsia. Some caveats must be noted, however; with the benefit of historical hindsight. It is obvious that Babbage was (as we must confess ourselves to be) a product of his times.

First, as mentioned before, Babbage uncritically accepted the old-earth arguments of Lyell, which were becoming popular at the time, as irrefutable scientific facts. He speaks, for instance, of “the facts in which all capable of investigation agree—facts which it is needless to recite, they having been so fully and ably stated in the works of Mr. Lyell and Dr. Buckland” that indicate “distant and successive periods.” Babbage conflated the “facts of nature” with the interpretations imposed on those facts. To Babbage, the existence of fossils and geological strata provided a clear, unmistakable record of vast ages of time that was so obvious, one would have to make leave of his senses to deny it. If Babbage could have learned contrary evidence that large deposits of strata and fossils could have formed rapidly, indeed must have, including formations that some geologists long claimed must have required millions of years, such as the Redwall Limestone in Grand Canyon, it might have tempered his dogmatism. Instead, jumping on the Lyellian bandwagon forced Babbage to conform the Bible to these “facts of nature” rather than trust the authority of Scripture and doubt the fallible interpretations of man – a fallacy made by some creationists today.

Predictably, therefore, we find Babbage in NBT making excuses for why the Genesis creation account might not mean what it clearly says. In Chapter IV of his treatise, he argues that we cannot trust the transmission or translation of the ancient texts of Genesis to be accurate. Arguments like this, unfortunately, hand skeptics the rope to hang all of Christianity: if we cannot trust what the Bible says about the history of the world, how can we trust its claims about eternal life? Though his doubt apparently applies only to the early chapters of Genesis, since he appears to find the rest of the text reliable, he should have known that science has very limited interpretive validity when investigating the unobservable past, and is frequently wrong. And why did he not tremble to contradict Jesus Christ, who treated the writings of Moses, including the creation account, as historically factual?

This leads to a second caveat: the myth of scientific progress. Babbage wrote like a positivist, assuming, as was common in Victorian Britain, that science was an upward, progressive path to nearly infallible truth. It was easy to fall into this assumption, seeing the progress taking place rapidly all around during the Industrial Revolution. Victorians were obsessed with progress, and since so much of the progress was due to scientific discovery, it was easy to grant science more powers than it can muster. Babbage did not have our vantage point, with two world wars, the atomic bomb, the Darwinian Revolution, Social Darwinism, eugenics and many other fatal evidences that science is not the value-free, objective, progressive enterprise he assumed it to be. Babbage knew nothing of Kuhn, Popper and the revolutions in philosophy of science that have made moderns (and post-moderns) demote science from unwarranted triumphalism. Nor did he foresee how the Darwinian Revolution and the rise of Big Science institutions would trample the very Biblical faith he professed. One must read the NBT, and any other writings of the time, with the maturity of hindsight.

A third caveat regards Babbage’s position on natural law. Nineteenth century scientists were obsessed with natural law; Newton, the British hero, had demonstrated that nature ran with clockwork regularity that could be described in mathematical terms. Newton’s successors extrapolated the faith far beyond what Newton himself believed, to the point where Enlightenment scientists and thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries subjugated all of reality to natural laws, inviolable, and presumably as simple and straightforward as Newton’s laws of motion. The search for natural laws got out of control. By the end of the 19th century, Freud was searching for natural laws of human behavior; others were seeking to describe biology and earth history with equations. They could not have known that the 20th century would bring quantum mechanics, relativity, and chaos theory. Ultra-Newtonianism, expressed in LaPlace’s claims that could one know the motions of all particles, one could predict the future, was dealt a death blow by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which revealed a fundamental unpredictability in the very fabric of physics. Scientists today despair of finding laws of planet formation or animal behavior or human psychology that would allow them to predict such phenomena with any meaningful degree of accuracy. The faith in unviolable law lives on among some cosmologists who believe that one day scientists will derive a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, a set of physical laws that will describe the universe. Many philosophers today, however, believe this to be a chasing after wind.

A bizarre example of Babbage’s faith in Newtonianism can be seen in chapter IX of NBT, in which Babbage claims that every word we utter is indelibly impressed on the earth, according to the law of action and reaction. He believed anything anyone ever said could be retrieved if we had instruments sensitive enough. Working just before Thomson, Maxwell, Carnot and other scientists who were developing the laws of thermodynamics and entropy, Babbage was unaware there could be limits on the reversibility of natural processes; therefore, as one biographer notes, “information cannot be shuttled between mill and store without leaking.” The law of increasing entropy leads to irreversible processes, one consequence being that information uttered into the world can be irretrievably lost.

Babbage vs Hume

When the reader understands where Babbage is coming from, he can find much of value in the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. Most interesting is his rebuttal to the arguments of David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptical philosopher who had created quite a stir with his seemingly persuasive argument against miracles. Again, it was based on the Newtonian obsession with natural law. Hume argued that it is more probable that those claiming to have seen a miracle were either lying or deceived than that the regularity of nature had been violated. Babbage knew a lot more about the mathematics of probability than Hume. In chapter X of NBT, Babbage applied numerical values to the question, chiding Hume for his subjectivity. A quick calculation proves that if there were 99 reliable witnesses to the resurrection of a man from the dead (and I Corinthians 15:6 claims there were over 500), the probability is a trillion to one against the falsehood of their testimony, compared to the probability of one in 200 billion against anyone in the history of the world having been raised from the dead. This simple calculation shows it takes more faith to deny the miracle than to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses. Thus Babbage renders specious Hume’s assertion that the improbability of a miracle could never be overcome by any number of witnesses. Apply the math, and the results do not support that claim, Babbage says: “From this it results that, provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume’s argument, prove the truth of a miracle.”  Babbage takes his conquest of Hume so far that by Chapter XIII, he argues that “It is more probable that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be subject to one of those violations which, according to Hume’s definition, constitutes a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected.”

Charles Babbage in 1860, age 69

The heart of NBT is an argument that miracles do not violate natural law, using Babbage’s own concept of a calculating machine. This forms an engaging thought experiment. With his own Analytical Engine undoubtedly fresh on his mind, he asks the reader to imagine a calculating engine that might show very predictable regularity, even for billions of iterations, such as a machine that counts integers. Then imagine it suddenly jumps to another natural law, which again repeats itself with predictable regularity. If the designer of the engine had made it that way on purpose, it would show even more intelligent design than if it only continued counting integers forever. Babbage extends his argument through several permutations, to the point where he convinces the reader that it takes more intelligence to design a general purpose calculating engine that can operate reliably according to multiple natural laws, each known to the designer, each predictable by the designer, than to design a simple machine that mindlessly clicks away according to a single law. So here we see Babbage employing his own specialty – the general-purpose calculating machine – to argue his point. He concluded, therefore, as he reiterated in his later autobiographical work Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), miracles are not “the breach of established laws, but… indicate the existence of far higher laws.”  (Note again the obsession with natural laws.)

Since some might argue his view is just as deterministic as Newtonianism, Babbage devotes a chapter to explaining why his view does not lead to fatalism. He also briefly touches on the question of free will (Chapters III, XV), though he declines to become embroiled in “that abstruse discussion.” His calculating engine analogy is intriguing despite possible theological problems it might raise. Today it might best be suited for convincing a modern Newtonian that miracles can be scientific; they are not necessarily violations of natural law. Otherwise, NBT is very much a product of its time, with a weak view of Scripture, but valuable for its thought experiments and glimpses into the mind of Charles Babbage himself. At the more mature age of 73, Babbage wrote, “Almost all thinking men who have studied the laws which govern the animate and inanimate world around us, agree that the belief in the existence of one Supreme Creator, possessed of infinite wisdom and power, is open to far less difficulties than the supposition of the absence of any cause, or of the existence of a plurality of causes.”

Babbage’s Legacy

Charles Babbage stood shoulder to shoulder with the leading scientists of Britain. He was a principal founder of the Royal Astronomical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and promulgated the improvement of British science and mathematics. John Hudson Tiner says of him, and his Cambridge fellow students who had resolved to dedicate their lives to God, that “They agreed to strive to leave the world a better place than they had found it.” Babbage certainly did that. He had his idiosyncrasies, as would be expected of a visionary and genius, and modern creationists might decry what his Victorian weak view of Scripture did to Christianity in later years. But there can be little doubt Charles Babbage intended his words and his works to glorify God as Creator, and that he tried to live and work according to his sincerely held Christian principles. His life also exemplifies the point of this series. Look at the most eminent and influential scientists in history, and they overwhelmingly were Christians and creationists. Let the computer you are using to read this story be an ever present reminder of that fact.

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