Pioneer of computing arrives in database

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The Wellcome Library’s online archive catalogue has just added a new name: Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the mathematician and designer of mechanical computing devices, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, that foreshadowed today’s information technology. Thirty-five letters and notes by Babbage, spanning forty years, are described in the catalogue as MS.8648.

His correspondents, in many cases people also represented elsewhere in the archive collections, include Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871), the geologist and geographer; Sir Marc Brunel (1769-1849), civil engineer and father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the French physicist and astronomer Dominique François Jean Arago (1786-1853) and the British astronomer and banker Sir John William Lubbock (1803-1865); and the sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856).

Babbage was a prickly individual, in many ways living up to the stereotype of the eccentric mathematician. It is noticeable that the letters contain several rejections of dinner invitations, although to do him justice he does also accept some and in another case he does have a very good excuse, being already “engaged to dine with Mr. Darwin.” Tantalisingly, in one undated note to Sir John Lubbock he says that he will not be able to visit Lubbock as he is “so occupied by the drawings of my new engine…”

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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