Tag Archives: Computing

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.

Plan for Babbage's Analytical Engine

Iconic Babbage drawings to go on display

By Cate Watson, Content Developer on the Babbage gallery

Plans for a Victorian computer and a giant calculator are going on display in the Science Museum next week.

Charles Babbage (1792-1871), computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, philosopher and political economist.

Charles Babbage, the Victorian mathematician and inventor spent much of his life designing calculating machines, first the Difference Engine, and then in later years, the Analytical Engine that bear so much resemblance to modern computers. Unfortunately, Babbage never got to see any of his machines built. After quarrelling with the government his funding dried up and he couldn’t afford the costs of construction. All Babbage could do was endlessly refine his plans for the engines.

Apart from a few test models, which are on display in the Science Museum, technical plans are all Babbage left of his inventions.  The Museum – which holds the Babbage archive, the most complete collection of Babbage’s technical drawings and notebooks in the world - used these plans to build Difference Engine no. 2 in 1991, proving that the engine would have worked. Visitors will now be able to compare Babbage’s own drawings to the modern model of the Difference Engine in the Computing gallery.

The plans of the Analytical Engines show the many similarities between it and our electrical computers although it was designed over 170 years ago. The engine has a memory, a central processor, an input device in the form of punched cards that could program the engine and a printer. Instead of modern day circuit boards and silicon chips, a combination of cams, clutches, cranks and gears would have worked out calculations.

The most iconic plans of the Difference and Analytical Engines will be on display in the Computing Gallery from Thursday 24th January. This is the first time these drawings have been on show, complete with an annotated breakdown of how the engines would have worked.