A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

The ingenious inventions of Mr Babbage!

By Cate Watson – Content Developer on the Babbage display

Although Charles Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, plans of which are now on display in the Computing gallery, he was a life long inventor with a passion for improvement.

As a 16 year old Babbage nearly drowned when he trialed his newly invented shoes for walking on water. This setback failed to discourage him and Babbage’s inventions ranged from designs for a locomotive ‘cow catcher’, an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, a ‘black box’ recorder for monitoring railway tracks and ‘speaking-tubes’ linking London and Liverpool among many other ideas.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Babbage fervently believed that new inventions should be freely available to all – when he constructed the first known opthalmoscope in 1847 for internal eye examinations he refused to patent it. The credit went to Herman von Helmhotz 4 years later instead.

You can see another of Babbage’s inventions in the Museum – an occulting light mechanism to help with ship navigation. Ship captains used lights on shore to steer by but the increasing number of lights on the coast led to confusion. Babbage designed a light with mechanical shutters to create a unique flashing signal for ships.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

Frustratingly for Babbage, this invention, like many of his ideas, found no favour at home. It did however sufficiently impress the Russians, who used the principle of his signalling lights against the British in the Crimean war.

Babbage’s foresight wasn’t limited to his inventions. He predicted the end of the coal mines and recommended tidal power instead, commenting that if posterity failed to find a substitute source of power it deserved to be ‘frostbitten’!

See more of Babbage’s inventive drawings in a new display in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

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