Although Babbage never accomplished the construction of his Difference Engine, nor his Analytical Engine, he is still considered the father of computers because these machines inspired the work on modern calculating devices and computers (the second design of the Difference Engine was successfully constructed from Babbage's detailed plans in the 1980's). In addition, Babbage's practical and mathematical contributions to society were many and lasting.
His practical contributions include the locomotive "cow-catcher," the triangular shaped front piece on old-fashioned locomotives designed to clear obstructions off the rail-road tracks. He worked out the design for the first speedometer, standard railroad gauge, occluding lights for lighthouse signalling, and a device to study the retina of the eye (heliograph opthamoscope).
Babbage's practical mathematical contributions include the first reliable mortality tables (a mainstay of the insurance industry) and he developed mathematical codebreaking. He demonstrated through his operations research that a fixed price stamp actually generated more income than charging and collecting different sums according to the distance a letter was to travel. This lead to the first class mail system used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Charles Babbage's published work contributed greatly to the study of calculus, statistics, and he corrected errors common to previous tables of logarithms.
Although he hated street music and got bored in opera, Babbage at one time experimented with a ballet using sixty dancers all in white with colored lights playing on the white costumes. Colored lights were a new idea. Although there was a rehearsal with two fire engines standing by, the ballet was never shown to the public because the theater manager feared fire.
Babbage's campaign against street music through the London Times and the eventual enforcement of "Babbage's Act", made him a target of ridicule by the general public. In spite of this, he was a leading figure in London society for some twenty-five years, regularly meeting and holding parties with liberal intellectuals from all over Europe.
Babbage had an incredible fascination with statistics and attempted to measure all kinds of things, from the "frequency of the causes of breaking of plate glass windows" to the amount of food consumed by different zoo animals. He unsuccessfully attempted to mathematically handicap horse races and Lady Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron's daughter) was nearly disgraced by her debts incurred gambling and helping to finance the Analytical Engine.
In 1827, at the age of 35, Babbage's wife, Georgiana, died, leaving him with three surviving children, Benjamin Herschel, Henry Prevost, and Georgiana. Babbage never remarried.
In 1833, he met Lady Ada Lovelace when she wrote to him asking about a math tutor. Encouraged by her husband and her mother, Lovelace was inspired by Babbage to become his student of mathematics, very unusual for a woman in that age. She contributed funds to work toward building the Analytical Engine and worked on programs for the potential machine.
In addition to mathematical thought, Babbage contributed to thought on political economy. His focus was on factories rather than agriculture. His discussions of the division of labor were used by Karl Marx to create the Marxist theory of capitalism. In later life, Babbage was often incoherent when he spoke in public. His difficulty with verbal persuasion contributed both to his failure to raise sufficient funds to complete his Analytical Engine and to his twice unsuccessful bid as a Whig candidate for Parliament. By the time Babbage reached his mid fifties, he had switched from liberalism to conservatism and found capitalism and democracy incompatible.
At the end of his life, Charles Babbage was embittered by the changes made in London by the Industrial Revolution and disappointed by his failure to finance the building of the Analytic Engine. When he died at home in 1871, the Royal Society did not print an obituary, and the London Times made fun of him.
Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer. Dan S. Halacy. New York: Macmillan Co., 1970.
Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer. Anthony Hyman. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Irascible Genius: a Life of Charles Babbage, Inventor. Maboth Mosely. London: Hutchinson, 1964.
Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage. John Michael Dubbey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Late Charles Babbage Esq., F.R.S. H. W. Buxton. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988. Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series, vol. 13.