Charles Babbage

English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer (1791-1871)

Charles Babbage (26 December, 179118 October, 1871) was an English mathematician and analytical philosopher who originated the idea of a programmable computer. Ada Lovelace worked for him.

If we look at the fact, we shall find that the great inventions of the age are not, with us at least, always produced in universities.


  • Mr. Herschel ... brought with him the calculations of the computers, and we commenced the tedious process of verification. After a time many discrepancies occurred, and at one point these discordances were so numerous that I exclaimed, "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam," to which Herschel replied, "It is quite possible."
    • Babbage in November 1839, recalling events in 1821; quoted in Harry Wilmot Buxton and Anthony Hyman (1988), Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Late Charles Babbage. "Computers" here refers to people calculating by hand.
  • If this were true, the population of the world would be at a stand-still. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem should read: “Every moment dies a man, every moment 1 1/16 is born.” Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
    • New Scientist, 4 December 1958, pg.1428.
    • Comment in response to Alfred Tennyson’s poem Vision of Sin, which included the line Every moment dies a man, // every moment one is born.

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (1830)


Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (1830)

  • It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that some portion of the neglect of science in England, may be attributed to the system of education we pursue. A young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant of almost every branch of useful knowledge; and at these latter establishments … classical and mathematical pursuits are nearly the sole objects proposed to the student's ambition.
    • p. 3
  • If we look at the fact, we shall find that the great inventions of the age are not, with us at least, always produced in universities. The doctrines of "definite proportions," and of the "chemical agency of electricity,"—principles of a high order, which have immortalized the names of their discoverers,—were not produced by the meditations of the cloister: nor is it in the least a reproach to those valuable institutions to mention truths like these. Fortunate circumstances must concur, even to the greatest, to render them eminently successful. It is not permitted to all to be born, like Archimedes, when a science was to be created; nor, like Newton, to find the system of the world "without form and void;" and, by disclosing gravitation, to shed throughout that system the same irresistible radiance as that with which the Almighty Creator had illumined its material substance. It can happen to but few philosophers, and but at distant intervals, to snatch a science, like Dalton, from the chaos of indefinite combination, and binding it in the chains of number, to exalt it to rank amongst the exact. Triumphs like these are necessarily "few and far between;", nor can it be expected that that portion of encouragement, which a country may think fir to bestow on science, should be adapted to meet such instances. Too extraordinary to be frequent, they must be left, if they are to be encouraged at all, to some direct interference of the governemeɳt.
    The dangers to be apprehended from such a specific interference, would arise from one, or several of the following circumstance:—That class of society, from whom the government is selected, might not possess sufficient knowledge either to judge themselves, or know upon whose judgment to rely. Or the number of persons devoting themselves to science, might not be sufficiently large to have due weight in the expression of public opinion. Or, supposing this class to be large, it might not enjoy, in the estimation of the world, a sufficiently high character for independence. Should these causes concur in any country, it might become highly injurious to commit the encouragement of science to any department of the government. This reasoning does not appear to have escaped the penetration of those who advised the abolition of the late Board of Longitude.
    The question whether it is good policy in the government of a country to encourage science, is one of which those who cultivate it are not perhaps the most unbiased judges. In England, those who have hitherto pursued science, have in general no very reasonable grounds of complaint; they knew, or should have known, that there was no demand for it, that it led to little honour, and to less profit.
    That blame has been attributed to the government for not fostering the science of the country is certain; and, as far as regards past administrations, is, to a great extent, just; with respect to the present ministers, whose strength essentially depends on public opinion, it is not necessary that they should precede, and they cannot remain long insensible to any expression of the general feeling. But supposing science were thought of some importance by any administration, it would be difficult in the present state of things to do much in its favour; because, on the one hand, the higher classes in general have not a profound knowledge of science, and, on the other, those persons whom they have usually consulted, seem not to have given such advice as to deserve the confidence of government. It seems to be forgotten, that the money allotted by government to purposes of science ought to be expended with the same regard to prudence and economy as in the disposal of money in the affairs of private life.

On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 1832/1841


Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832)

  • The object of the present volume is to point out the effects and the advantages which arise from the use of tools and machines ;—to endeavour to classify their modes of action ;—and to trace both the causes and the consequences of applying machinery to supersede the skill and power of the human arm.
    • Preface
  • The errors which arise from the absence of facts are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from unsound reasoning respecting true data.
    • p. 156. Ch. 17 "Of Price as Measured by Money"
  • The first application of this principle [of the division of labor] must have been made in a very early stage of society; for it must soon have been apparent that more comforts and conveniences could be acquired by one man restricting his occupation to the art of making bows, another to that of building houses, a third boats, and so on. This division of labor Into trades was not, however, the result of an opinion that the general riches of the community would be increased by such an arrangement: but it must have arisen from the circumstances, of each individual so employed discovering that he himself could thus make a greater profit of his labour than by pursuing more varied occupations.
    • p. 170. Ch 19. "On the division of labour"
  • It appears to me, that any explanation of the cheapness of manufactured articles, as consequent upon the division of labour, would be incomplete if the following principle were omitted to be stated.
That the master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill or of force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process; whereas, if the whole work were executed by one workman, that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, of the operations into which the art is divided.
  • p. 175-6
  • We have already mentioned what may, perhaps, appear paradoxical to some of our readers, — that the division of labour can be applied with equal success to mental as to mechanical operations, and that it ensures in both the same economy of time.
  • The establishment of "The Times" newspaper is an example, on a large scale, of a manufactory in which the division of labour, both mental and bodily, is admirably illustrated, and in which also the effect of domestic economy is well exemplified. It is scarcely imagined, by the thousands who read that paper in various quarters of the globe, what a scene of organized activity the factory presents during the whole night, or what a quantity of talent and mechanical skill is put in action for their amusement and information.
    • p. 270; Ch. 28 "Proper circumstances for the application of machinery."

The Exposition of 1851: Views Of The Industry, The Science, and the Government Of England, 1851


Babbage, Charles (1851). The Exposition of 1851: Views Of The Industry, The Science, and the Government Of England. London: John Murray. 

The Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851.
  • ENGLAND has invited the civilized world to meet in its great commercial centre; asking it, in friendly rivalry, to display for the common advantage of all, those objects which each country derives from the gifts of nature, and on which it confers additional utility by processes of industrial art.
    This invitation, universally accepted, will bring from every quarter a multitude of people greater than has yet assembled in any western city: these welcome visitors will enjoy more time and opportunity for observation than has ever been afforded on any previous occasion. The statesman and the philosopher, the manufacturer and the merchant, and all enlightened observers of human nature, may avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by their visit to this Diorama of the Peaceful Arts, for taking a more correct view of the industry, the science, the institutions, and the government of this country. One object of these pages is, to suggest to such inquirers the agency of those deeper seated and less obvious causes which can be detected only by lengthened observation, and to supply them with a key to explain many of the otherwise incomprehensible characteristics of England.
    • p. v-vi: Preface
  • There are in the Exhibition some beautiful examples of such lace amongst the productions of other countries as well as of our own. They are made by the united labour of many women. The cost of a piece of lace will consist of:
  1. The remuneration to the artist who designs the pattern.
  2. The cost of the raw material.
  3. The cost of the labour of a large number of women working on it for many months.
Let us compare this with the cost of a piece of statuary, which is undoubtedly of a much higher class of art ; it will consist of:
  1. The remuneration to the artist who makes the model.
  2. The cost of the raw material.
  3. The cost of labour, by assistants in cutting the block to the pattern of the model.
  4. Finishing the statue by the artist himself.
In lace making the skill of the artist is required only for the production of the first example. Every succeeding copy is made by mere labour: each copy may be considered as an individual, and will cost the same amount of time.
In sculpture the three first processes are quite analogous to those in lace-making. But the fourth process requires the taste and judgment of the artist. It is this which causes it to retain its rank amongst the fine arts, whilst lacemaking must still be classed amongst the industrial.
  • p. 49-50
  • In the making both of lace and of statues, the remuneration to the artists can only be reduced by producing a larger number of them through more extended education. The expense of the raw material is small in both. The expense of labour in lacemaking is very large, and it is perhaps considerable also in sculpture. The discovery of more convenient localities yielding marble, may make some diminution in its cost; and the improved manufacture of thread may slightly reduce the price of lace. A reduction in the price of labour may to a very moderate extent reduce the cost of the raw material of both. But it is evident that any very great reduction is not to be expected.
    Let us now contrast this possible reduction with the past history of some industrial art. The plain lace made at Nottingham, called patent net, will supply us with a good example. In the year 1813 that lace was sold in the piece at the rate of 218. a-yard. At the present time lace of the same kind, but of a better quality, is sold under the same circumstances at 3d. per yard. Thus, in less than forty years the price of the industrial produce has diminished to one eighty-fourth part of its original price.
  • p. 51-52
  • Machinery of a very beautiful kind has been contrived for copying accurately, on a reduced or an enlarged scale, both medals and statues. The Venus de Medici itself could not be justly excluded from a purely industrial exhibition, if, placed in the centre of a series diminishing on the one side to a statuette of a foot high, and increasing on the other to a figure double her own height. Such a series, though fairly introduced as an illustration of industrial art, would, indeed, itself be highly interesting to the fine arts, as exhibiting the effect of change of magnitude, when the proportions remain identical.
    • p. 52-53
  • It is not uninteresting to observe in society the opinions of its different classes respecting honours conferred on science. Military and naval men, especially the most eminent, feel that genius is limited by no profession, and themselves sympathizing with it, would gladly hail as brothers in the same distinction, the philosopher and the poet. With lawyers the case is reversed ; genius dwells not in their courts : industry and acuteness, monopolised by one absorbing professional subject, exclude larger views; and ribbons not being amongst the honoraria of their own profession, they reprobate their application to science. To this there are, however, some noble exceptions. Amongst the brightest ornaments, of their own profession, men are to be found of larger experience and more extended views than it often produces, who are themselves qualified to have become discoverers in other sciences. It is much to be regretted when such powers are applied to the mere administration, instead of to the reformation, of the laws of their country.
    • p. 224
  • It is difficult to pronounce on the opinion of the ministers of our Church as a body: one portion of them, by far the least informed, protests against anything which can advance the honour and the interests of science, because, in their limited and mistaken view, science is adverse to religion. This is not the place to argue that great question. It is sufficient to remark, that the best-informed and most enlightened men of all creeds and pursuits, agree that truth can never damage truth, and that every truth is allied indissolubly by chains more or less circuitous with all other truths; whilst error, at every step we make in its diffusion, becomes not only wider apart and more discordant from all truths, but has also the additional chance of destruction from all rival errors.
    • p. 225
  • The Church has been reproached with endeavouring to appropriate to itself all those professorships in our Universities which are connected with science: it is however certain that the larger portion of these ill-remunerated offices have been filled by clergymen.
    • p. 225
  • But a much graver charge attaches itself, if not to our clergy, certainly to those who have the distribution of ecclesiastical patronage. The richest Church in the world maintains that its funds are quite insufficient for the purposes of religion and that our working clergy are ill-paid, and church accommodation insufficient. It calls therefore upon the nation to endow it with larger funds, and yet, while reluctant to sacrifice its own superfluities, it approves of its rich sinecures being given to reward, — not the professional service of its indefatigable parochial clergy, but those of its members who, having devoted the greater part of their time to scientific researches, have political or private interest enough to obtain such advancement. But this mode of rewarding merit is neither creditable to the Church nor advantageous to science. It tempts into the Church talents which some of its distinguished members maintain to be naturally of a disqualifying, if not of an antagonistic nature to the pursuits of religion; whilst, on the other hand, it makes a most unjust and arbitrary distinction amongst men of science themselves. It precludes those who cannot conscientiously subscribe to Articles, at once conflicting and incomprehensible, from the acquisition of that preferment and that position in society, which thus in many cases, must be conferred on less scrupulous, and certainly less distinguished inquirers into the works of nature. As the honorary distinctions of orders of knight hood are not usually bestowed on the clerical profession, its members generally profess to entertain a great contempt for them, and pronounce them unfit for the recognition of scientific merit.
    • p. 225-226

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)

As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of the science.
The whole of arithmetic now appeared within the grasp of mechanism.
  • On two occasions I have been asked, — "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
    • Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), ch. 5 "Difference Engine No. 1"
  • The whole of arithmetic now appeared within the grasp of mechanism.
    • Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), ch. 8 "Of the Analytical Engine"
  • As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of the science. Whenever any result is sought by its aid, the question will then arise — by what course of calculation can these results be arrived at by the machine in the shortest time?
    • Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), ch. 8 "Of the Analytical Engine"
  • It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances.
    • Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), ch. 26 "Street Nuisances"
  • There remains a third source from which we arrive at the knowledge of the existence of a supreme Creator, namely, from an examination of his works. Unlike transmitted testimony, which is weakened at every stage, this evidence derives confirmation from the progress of the individual as well as from the advancement of the knowledge of the race.
    Almost all thinking men who have studied the laws which govern the animate and the 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.
  • In the works of the Creator ever open to our examination, we possess a firm basis on which to raise the superstructure of an enlightened creed. The more man inquires into the laws which regulate the material universe, the more he is convinced that all its varied forms arise from the action of a few simple principles. These principles themselves converge, with accelerating force, towards some still more comprehensive law to which all matter seems to be submitted. Simple as that law may possibly be, it must be remembered that it is only one amongst an infinite number of simple laws: that each of these laws has consequences at least as extensive as the existing one, and therefore that the Creator who selected the present law must have foreseen the consequences of all other laws. The works of the Creator, ever present to our senses, give a living and perpetual testimony of his power and goodness far surpassing any evidence transmitted through human testimony. The testimony of man becomes fainter at every stage of transmission, whilst each new inquiry into the works of the Almighty gives to us more exalted views of his wisdom, his goodness, and his power.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", The Belief In The Creator From His Works, p. 402
  • In the course of my inquiries, I met with the work upon the Trinity, by Dr. Samuel Clarke. This I carefully examined, and although very far from being satisfied, I ceased from further inquiry. This change arose probably from my having acquired the much more valuable work of the same author, on the Being and Attributes of God. This I studied, and felt that its doctrine was much more intelligible and satisfactory than that of the former work. I may now state, as the result of a long life spent in studying the works of the Creator, that I am satisfied they afford far more satisfactory and more convincing proofs of the existence of a supreme Being than any evidence transmitted through human testimony can possibly supply.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", The Athanasian Creed , p. 403
  • The true value of the Christian religion rests, not upon speculative views of the Creator, which must necessarily be different in each individual, according to the extent of the knowledge of the finite being, who employs his own feeble powers in contemplating the infinite : but it rests upon those doctrines of kindness and benevolence which that religion claims and enforces, not merely in favour of man himself but of every creature susceptible of pain or of happiness.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", The Basis Of Virtue Is Truth, p. 404-405
  • It has always occurred to my mind that many difficulties touching Miracles might be reconciled, if men would only take the trouble to agree upon the nature of the phenomenon which they call Miracle. That writers do not always mean the same thing when treating of miracles is perfectly clear; because what may appear a miracle to the unlearned is to the better instructed only an effect produced by some unknown law hitherto unobserved. So that the idea of miracle is in some respect dependent upon the opinion of man. Much of this confusion has arisen from the definition of Miracle given in Hume's celebrated Essay, namely, that it is the "violation of a law of nature." Now a miracle is not necessarily a violation of any law of nature, and it involves no physical absurdity. As Brown well observes, "the laws of nature surely are not violated when a new antecedent is followed by a new consequent ; they are violated only when the antecedent, being exactly the same, a different consequent is the result;" so that a miracle has nothing in its nature inconsistent with our belief of the uniformity of nature. All that we see in a miracle is an effect which is new to our observation, and whose cause is concealed. The cause may be beyond the sphere of our observation, and would be thus beyond the familiar sphere of nature; but this does not make the event a violation of any law of nature. The limits of man's observation lie within very narrow boundaries, and it would be arrogance to suppose that the reach of man's power is to form the limits of the natural world. The universe offers daily proof of the existence of power of which we know nothing, but whose mighty agency nevertheless manifestly appears in the most familiar works of creation. And shall we deny the existence of this mighty energy simply because it manifests itself in delegated and feeble subordination to God's omnipotence?
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix: Miracle. Note (A)
  • There is nothing in the nature of a miracle that should render it incredible: its credibility depends upon the nature of the evidence by which it is supported. An event of extreme probability will not necessarily command our belief unless upon a sufficiency of proof; and so an event which we may regard as highly improbable may command our belief if it is sustained by sufficient evidence. So that the credibility or incredibility of an event does not rest upon the nature of the event itself, but depends upon the nature and sufficiency of the proof which sustains it.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix: Miracle. Note (A), p. 88
  • Mill, in speaking of Hume's celebrated principle, "that nothing is credible which is contradictory to experience, or at variance with the laws of nature," calls it a very plain and harmless proposition, being, in effect, nothing more than that whatever is contradictory to a complete induction is incredible. Admit the existence of a Deity, and the possibility of a miracle is the natural consequence. No doubt our examination of the evidence which sustains an unusual phenomenon should be most carefully conducted; but 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.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix, p. 488
  • We must be careful to discriminate between our own incapacity to test truth and the necessary improbability of an event. It is plain that from our ignorance of the remote spheres of God's action we cannot judge of His works removed from our experience; but a fact is not necessarily doubtful because it cannot be reached by our ordinary senses. To recapitulate, we may lay down the following propositions:
    1. That there is no real physical distinction between miracles and any other operations of the Divine energy : that we regard them differently is because we are familiar with one order of events and not the other.
    2. There is nothing incredible in a miracle, and the credibility of a miraculous event is to be measured only by the evidence which sustains it. And although the extraordinary character of a phenomenon may render the event itself improbable, it does not, therefore, necessarily render it either incredible or untrue.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix, p. 489
  • If we define a miracle as an effect of which the cause is unknown to us, then we make our ignorance the source of miracles! and the universe itself would be a standing miracle. A miracle might be perhaps defined more exactly as an effect which is not the consequence or effect of any known laws of nature.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix, p. 489
  • Miracles may be, for anything we know to the contrary, phenomena of a higher order of God's laws, superior to, and, under certain conditions, controlling the inferior order known to us as the ordinary laws of nature.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix, p. 490
  • The foundation of all religion is the belief in a God, and that He exists in certain relation with His creatures. Such belief necessarily leads to the consciousness of some obligation towards the Deity ; and this consciousness suggests the duty of worship ; and in the selection of the form of this worship originates the various creeds which distinguish and distract mankind. There is a sort of geography of religion ; and I regret to think that the majority of mankind take their creed from the clime in which they happen to be born ; and that many, and not an inconsiderable portion of mankind, suffer the sacred torch to burn out altogether, in their contact with the world, and then vainly imagine that they can recover the sacred fire by striking a park out of dogmatic theology.
    • "Passages from the life of a philosopher", Appendix: Religion, Note (B) pp. 491-492


  • Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.
    • Quoted in William Kenneth Richmond (1969), The Education Industry.
      • May be modern paraphrase of "the errors which arise from the absence of facts" quote above.
  • Propose to any Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument.

Quotes about Charles Babbage

  • Babbage was one of the founders of the Cambridge Analytical Society whose purpose he stated was to advocate "the principles of pure d-ism as opposed to the dof-age of the university.
  • The Economy of Manufactures established Babbage's position as a political economist and its influence is well attested, particularly on John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Babbage's pioneering discussion of the effect of technical development on the size of industrial organizations was followed by Mill and the prediction of the continuing increase in the size of factories, often cited as one of Marx's successful economic predictions, in fact derives from Babbage's analysis... Babbage wrote with many talents: a natural philosopher and mechanical engineer, his knowledge of factory and workshop practice was encyclopaedic; he was well-versed in relevant business practice; and he was without rival as a mathematician among contemporary British political economists.
    • Anthony Hyman. Charles Babbage: pioneer of the computer. Princeton University Press, 1982. p.103–4