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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Babbage showed an enthusiasm for mathematics since an early age. Because of his ill health, he changed schools and even home fairly often when he was a young child. In the periods when he did not attend any school, Charles studied mathematics at home on his own. He entered the University of Cambridge in 1810, when he was 19, but was not happy with the amount of mathematics that he studied there - in fact he complained that he knew mathematics of much higher degree by that time, having studied on his own, the original works of such mathematicians as Newton, Leibniz, Lagrange and Euler.

As early as 1822, Babbage was writing on the possibility of inventing a machine which could be able to do more tedious calculations instead of people. He was by that time inventing machinery which was doing computation of astronomical and mathematical tables. For example, his machine from 1822 was capable of producing the terms of the sequence such as

at a rate of 60 terms every 5 minutes. Try yourself to generate terms of this sequence. How quickly can you do it? You can time yourself. Try methods such as creating a table or producing values which could help you generate your sequence. See the worksheet on this; see how much you can improve your time.

In 1823 Babbage received a gold medal from the Astronomical Society and soon after this he met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask for help from the British government. The government gave him an initial grant of £1500, and Babbage started working on a large difference engine.

Babbage's life was not an easy or happy life. He suffered great many personal tragedies, which undoubtedly slowed his scientific progress. His wife and two children died in 1827.

However, he continued working on his difference engine for the rest of his life and received great amounts of help and money from the government. Although Babbage never completed his calculating engine, his drawings and designs (both mathematical and mechanical) helped in the later development of the computer.

Want to try and see how quickly you can churn sequences out? Try a worksheet and send me a note with your results.

There are many other mathematicians which were of ill health when they were young children and were left on their own to study mathematics, which they usually loved. Can you find some among these pages? If so, send me an e-mail.

Did you know that chinmpanzees can be taught to count? You can find more about that plus on a counting horse here!

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