Charles Babbage - Other Accomplishments

Other Accomplishments

In 1824, Babbage won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society "for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables". He was a founding member of the society and one of its oldest living members on his death in 1871.

From 1828 to 1839 Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He contributed largely to several scientific periodicals, and was instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Statistical Society in 1834. However, he dreamt of designing mechanical calculating machines, later writing:

I was sitting in the rooms of the Analytical Society, at Cambridge, my head leaning forward on the table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a table of logarithms lying open before me. Another member, coming into the room, and seeing me half asleep, called out, "Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?" to which I replied "I am thinking that all these tables" (pointing to the logarithms) "might be calculated by machinery".

Babbage was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832. In 1837, responding to the Bridgewater Treatises, of which there were eight, he published his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation, putting forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator, making laws (or programs) which then produced species at the appropriate times, rather than continually interfering with ad hoc miracles each time a new species was required. The book is a work of natural theology, and incorporates extracts from correspondence he had been having with John Herschel on the subject.

Babbage also achieved notable results in cryptography. He broke Vigenère's autokey cipher as well as the much weaker cipher that is called Vigenère cipher today. The autokey cipher was generally called "the undecipherable cipher", though owing to popular confusion, many thought that the weaker polyalphabetic cipher was the "undecipherable " one. Babbage's discovery was used to aid English military campaigns, and was not published until several years later; as a result, credit for the development was instead given to Friedrich Kasiski, a Prussian infantry officer, who made the same discovery some years after Babbage.

In 1838, Babbage invented the pilot (also called a cow-catcher), the metal frame attached to the front of locomotives that clears the tracks of obstacles. He also constructed a dynamometer car and performed several studies on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway in about 1838. Babbage's eldest son, Benjamin Herschel Babbage, worked as an engineer for Brunel on the railways before emigrating to Australia in the 1850s.

Babbage also invented an ophthalmoscope, but although he gave it to a physician for testing it was forgotten, and the device only came into use after being independently invented by Hermann von Helmholtz.

Babbage twice stood for Parliament as a candidate for the borough of Finsbury. In 1832 he came in third among five candidates, but in 1834 he finished last among four.

In On the Economy of Machine and Manufacture, Babbage described what is now called the Babbage principle, which describes certain advantages with division of labour. Babbage noted that highly skilled—and thus generally highly paid—workers spend parts of their job performing tasks that are "below" their skill level. If the labour process can be divided among several workers, it is possible to assign only high-skill tasks to high-skill and high-cost workers and leave other working tasks to less-skilled and lower-paid workers, thereby cutting labour costs. This principle was criticised by Karl Marx who argued that it caused labour segregation and contributed to alienation. The Babbage principle is an inherent assumption in Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management.

Babbage made notable contributions in other areas as well. He assisted in establishing the modern postal system in England and compiled the first reliable actuarial tables.

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