The Totnes Elizabethan House Museum pays tribute to
one of Totnes's favourite sons in the Babbage Room dedicated to the
life and work of mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.
But was Babbage born in Totnes, as the museum would have us believe?
Not so, judging by all the other biographies which fall into two
camps. There are those such as  and  which plump for London, while many other sources
like  and  go for Teignmouth in Devon. The obituary in The
Times doesn't speculate on Babbage's birthplace, mentioning Charles's
own reticence on the subject:
Little is known of Babbage's early life and parentage, except that he
was born on the 26th of December, 1792, and was educated privately.
During the whole of his long life, even when he had won for himself
fame and reputation, he was always extremely reticent on that
Even this date of birth was later disputed by a relative who provided
evidence that it took place a year earlier.
The University of St Andrews biography of Babbage  points us to a solution to the mystery in
"Charles Babbage:Pioneer of the Computer" by Anthony Hyman, Princeton
University Press, 1982. Hyman, the maintainer of the Babbage Pages at
the University of Exeter ,
recounts two anecdotes told by Charles regarding events in his
earliest years suggesting that his parents' home was close to both
London Bridge and Montpelier Gardens. He continues (on p11):
These two stories enabled me to solve the long-standing puzzle of
Babbage's place of birth. Although he had himself stated that he was
born in London the location was unknown. It was sometimes said that
he was born in Teignmouth or Totnes, presumably from the family
background. Indeed an exhibition celebrating his birthplace was even
financed in Totnes, although a glance at the baptismal register
suffices to make a Totnes birthplace exceedingly improbable. After
following a number of false trails it occurred to me to enquire where
Charles would have been baptized if he had been born halfway between
London Bridge and Montpelier Gardens. The answer was at St Mary
Newington. In the baptismal register, there was recorded for 6
january 1792: Charles, son to Benjamin and Betty Plumleigh Babbage.
The birthday of 26 December was not in question; the year of birth
was evidently 1791.
Two undisputed facts that do link Babbage to Totnes are that
Charles's grandfather Benjamin Babbage was Mayor of Totnes in 1754
, and Charles himself attended King Edward VI
Grammar School in Totnes for a brief period .
In 1821 Babbage was examining two sets of supposedly identical
astronomical tables when he noticed a series of errors in the
manually evaluated results. Exasperated, he exclaimed
I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!
and so began a quest which would last the remaining 50 years of his
life, and in the eyes of many, would lay the foundations for the
modern computer industry.
Tom Standage, technology correspondent of The Economist, takes up the
story in his 1998 essay A
mechanical Moore's Law?:
Babbage started to design a vast calculating engine, far more
powerful and ambitious than anything that had been attempted before.
It would be capable of calculating successive values of mathematical
series using repeated addition, thanks to a cunning mathematical
recipe called the Method of Differences. Accordingly, Babbage named
his design the Difference Engine.
Having secured funding of £20,000 from the British government,
he contracted an engineer named Joseph Clement to build the machine.
But a decade later, in 1833, fewer than half the parts had been
completed, the funds had been exhausted, and Babbage and Clement had
fallen out. In 1842 the government formally pulled the plug on the
project when it refused to provide any more money on the advice of
Sir George Airy, the astronomer royal, who denounced Babbage's plans
By this time, however, Babbage was working on an even more ambitious
design he called the Analytical Engine. This was a direct precursor
of today's computers: in particular, it had separate sections called
the "store" and "mill," analogous to the memory and processor of a
modern computer. But although he continued to refine the Analytical
Engine's design until his death in 1871, Babbage was never able to
raise the money to build anything more than a small experimental
model representing part of the mill. He did, however, draw up plans
for Difference Engine No. 2, an improved version incorporating new
techniques he had devised while working on the Analytical Engine.
But, in common with Babbage's other designs, it was never built in
Babbage's design for the Difference Engine No. 2 was vindicated by
Doron Swade and his team at the Science Museum in London who built
the machine minus the elaborate output printer component in 1991, the
200th anniversary of Babbage's birth. The printer was added in 1998,
financed by a substantial grant from Microsoft through the good
offices of their Chief Technology Officer, the charismatic Nathan
Myhrvold. When operated it was capable of cranking out the values of
seventh-order polynomial equations with 31-figure accuracy, as
Babbage had predicted.
Always ahead of his time, like a New Labour cabinet minister Babbage
was an enthusiastic proponent of the respect agenda. Charles
had a profound dislike of noisy neighbours, and goodness knows there
were plenty of those to be found in 1850's London; especially he
despised street musicians, with their wearisome hurdy gurdies and tin
whistles. After letters of complaint to The Times he was able to
persuade legislators to push through what became known as "Babbage's
Act", outlawing street nuisances. The act was unenforceable, and
indeed the whole episode rebounded horribly, exposing Babbage to
ridicule for the rest of his days.
This enduring harassment is described graphically by Professor J.A.N.
Lee in his 1994 biography of Babbage :
The public tormented him with an unending parade of fiddlers,
Punch-and-Judys, stilt-walkers, fanatic psalmists, and tub-thumpers.
Some neighbours hired musicians to play outside his windows. Others
willfully annoyed him with worn-out or damaged wind instruments.
Placards were hung in local shops, abusing him. During one 80-day
period Babbage counted 165 nuisances. One brass band played for five
hours, with only a brief intermission. Another blew a penny tin
whistle out his window toward Babbage's garden for a half an hour
daily, for "many months".
When Babbage went out, children followed and cursed him. Adults
followed, too, but at a distance. Over a hundred people once skulked
behind him before he could find a constable to disperse them. Dead
cats and other "offensive materials" were thrown at his house.
Windows were broken. A man told him, "You deserve to have your house
burnt up, and yourself in it, and I will do it for you, you old
villain". Even when he was on his deathbed, the organ-grinders ground
This sorry state of affairs was alluded to in the opening paragraph
of Babbage's obituary in The Times:
...He died at his residence in Dorset Street, Marylebone, at the
close of last week, at an age, [in]spite of organ-grinding
persecutors, little short of 80 years.
Before we dismiss Babbage's diatribes against his noisy neighbours as
the foibles of an irascible English eccentric, in defence of his
conduct there is some evidence of a physical explanation for his
hypersensitivity. An autopsy conducted after his death showed that he
suffered from restricted blood flow to the head, which may have
caused an exceptional response to aural stimuli.