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The Fathers of Modern Computing

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Charles Baggage and George Boole are, without question, central figures in the history of computer science. Charles] Babbage was born in Devonshire on December 26, 1791. The son of a London banker, Babbage took a great liking towards mathematics at an early age. Babbage soon became so proficient in mathematics that he was out performing his tutors at Cambridge. By 1812 Babbage co-founded the Analytical Society with the help of three other Cambridge classmates, Robert Woodhouse, Sir John Herschel, and George Peacock. In 1821 Babbage invented the Difference Engine to compile astronomical tables. While in the process of building it in 1832, he conceived a better machine that could perform not just one mathematical task but any kind of calculation.

This machine was the Analytical Engine and it possessed some the characteristics of today’s computers. George Boole, born November 2, 1815, was a British mathematician and founder of mathematical logic. Coming from a poor family of limited means, Boole was essentially a self-taught mathematician. In 1847 Boole published “Mathematical Analysis of Logic”. In the book, Boole established that logic could be represented by algebraic equations. This conception eventually become known as Boolean algebra and the basis of all modern digital computers. The inventions and achievements of Charles Babbage and George Boole are both directly and indirectly responsible for the conception of modern computing as we know it today.

Charles Babbage’s difference and analytic machines were not only sophisticated arithmetic machines, but barometers of the changing times as well. Early Victorian London was a very divided city. South of the Thames were workshops of machinists who created “automatic tools and accurate design,” in west London lay the “wardens of scientific reason (Shaffer, 152)”, the Astronomical Society, the Royal Society, and the Royal Institution. Northward are the homes of the great contemporary reformers Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin. To the east finally resides the great working class citizens and socialists critics of Babbage (Shaffer, 153). During the first half of the nineteenth-century, Britain was changing from a relatively pastoral society of the 1820’s, to an industrial and heavily machine driven society in the 1850’s. Britain’s landscape now bore bridges, railways, ships, and steam engines. In many ways Babbage and his contemporaries lead the way in this new machine age.

Because Babbage’s machines called for such precision, and conventional mechanical drafting was inadequate for his engines, Babbage had a forge built in his house, so he could machine engineer many of the components himself. Babbage was a pioneer in the work of precision engineering. Using pewter gear wheels cast himself in the Difference engine, and through the designing of his own tools, Babbage did much to advance the British machine industry. The support, or lack thereof, Babbage received from the government for the construction of his machines, also goes to show the changing relationship between society and machines in early nineteenth-century Britain. In 1823 Babbage was awarded 1500 pounds to develop and construct his Difference Engine. His Analytic Engine unfortunately did not garner as much support, leaving Babbage embittered by the government’s obtuseness.

Though Charles Babbage and George Boole’s achievements in the field of early computer science came in two different fields, both faced similar challenges. Babbage, though his inventions, was trying both to formulate and change the establish intellectual order at the time. Babbage wanted to change the way society thinks, making it more conducive for intellectual growth. I believe the challenges Babbage encountered during the development of his Analytic Engine spurred his desire to challenge the established intellectual order. The lose of all government and private funding for his Analytics Engine left Babbage disillusioned. To resolve his scientific beliefs with that of Christian dogma, in 1827 Babbage published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. Babbage argued that miracles were not violations of laws of nature, but could exist in a mechanistic world. As Babbage could program long series on his calculating machines, God could program similar irregularities in nature (Babbage, 257).

The great mathematician George Boole’s new system of algebra challenged the established intellectual order at the time in the same way Babbage’s machines did earlier. Boole, however, was faced with challenges Babbage could not even being to fathom. Boole had grown up in a working class home of very limited means, leaving Boole with only an informal education. Overcoming this shackles Boole educated himself, and became a prolific mathematician and published many journals. Boole’s new system of algebra, which eventually became the binary code used in all computer today, challenged the way man thought at his time. The relationship between Babbage and Boole in the nineteenth century does not exist in their vision of computing, but in the challenges they faced from the established intellectual order at the time (Richards, 368).

The contributions of forward thinking inventor Charles Babbage and mathematician George Boole to the field of computer science is without question. Babbage’s Analytic Engine is the first real attempt to construct something resembling a modern computer, utilizing memory, a processing unit, and a program, which Babbage describes as a formula. Babbage’s machines paved that path for subsequent machines to follow; the fact that this machine never reached fruition, however, can be attributable to the inadequacies of nineteenth century engineering technology Babbage also greatly broadened the functionality of calculating devices. Employing the use of more sophisticated mechanical gears, Babbage configured his machines to perform more complicated tasks than the traditional addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Babbage’s Analytic Engine had, in theory, all of the vital components, memory, processor and input/output device, present in modern day computer systems. For this reason, I believe, Babbage has a strong claim to be the inventor of the modern computing. English mathematician George Boole’s contributions to the history of computer science are of equal significance. Boole was responsible for the development and formalization of his algebraic system of true-false, on-off, 1-0. This system is still the backbone of every modern digital computer to this day (Richards, 367). The combination of Boole’s valuable algebraic system, later named in his honor, Boolean Algebra, and Babbage’s difference and analytic machines ultimately lead to the development of modern computing systems.

The achievements and contributions of Charles Babbage and George Boole are without a doubt responsible for the conception of modern computing as we know it today. From Babbage’s analytics machine, which possessed many of the same components present in today’s computers, to Boole algebraic system which serves as the backbone of the modern binary code, both are directly and indirectly responsible for the development of modern computing systems. Their achievements came at a dynamic period of English history, England was changed from a pastoral country to a heavily mechanized one, and the challenges Babbage and Boole faced were fierce. Both, thought their respective inventions, attempted to change the way society views science and challenged the established intellectual order at the time. In the end, history has credited both with the title, “the Father of Modern Computing.”

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