October 1871: Obituary of Charles Babbage

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Charles Babbage may now be famous as the father of computing, but to his contemporaries at The Engineer he was a difficult, forbidding figure better known for his failures than his successes

If you had to come up with a list of the people who had the greatest effect on the modern world, then Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, the Victorian grandparents of computing, would be likely to near the top. But when Babbage died in 1871, just short of 80 years old, it wasn’t his achievements that The Engineer chose to memorialise in his obituary: it was his deficiencies of character.

We’ve noted before the bluntness of our 19th century predecessors’ obituaries; their hatchet job on the now all-but-canonised Isambard Kingdom Brunel was particularly eye-opening. When it comes to Babbage, whose career included a spell as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, co-founding the Analytical, Astronomical and Statistical Societies, inventing the Difference Engine – a mechanical computer remarkably similar in architecture to modern electronic computers – and devising the even more complex analytical engine, which was never built but would have been the first programmable computer, The Engineer summarised him as ‘devoid of sound judgement in every affair of life without mental perspective.’

Babbage, it seems, was ‘often wholly deficient in the larger sense and use of tact, sometimes severe in his condemnations and, even when enchanting by the brilliancy of his conversation, chilling by a certain sombreness of temperament that repelled many friends.’

This temperament, the obituary claims, was the reason for Babbage’s failure to complete his computer. ‘Had we but space at command it would be easy to show that the calculating machine owed its abortiveness mainly to Mr Babbage’s own incapability of working with other men, and to that want of mental perspective which induced him to waste his own time and energy in attempting to acquire the skills of a working mechanic, which he might have sufficiently commanded in the person of any one of a thousand clockmakers in Europe.’

Difference Engine
Fixation on detail: Up close to the prototype of Babbage’s difference engine in London’s Science Museum. This model was built many years after Babbage’s death, to his own plans. It works perfectly

‘What but failure,’ the article asks, ‘could attend the man who given national assistance to build a given machine — the Difference Engine — goes a certain length with it and then suddenly proposes to abandon it because he had invented the Analytical Engine, one of enormously greater power?’

The article compares Babbage unfavourably with the eminent geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, who died in the same week. Murchison, who was the first to describe the geological evolution of the rocks of the Silurian era,  was ‘the very personification of courtliness, and to all men urbane and gentle… with mental powers greatly below those of Babbage, he was far the superior in the possession of a sound faculty of judgement.’

Despite this, the obituary ends in a note of clear-sightedness. ‘If Murchison had been in life the more brilliant and fortunate,’ it says, ‘we are inclined to think that, whatever may have been his failings, the fame of Babbage will be the more enduring.’