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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

6 - Charles Babbage: Science and reform


Among Cambridge undergraduates there has long been an élite who have bypassed conventional studies to follow their own paths, usually to the dismay of their tutors, and gone on to make profound contributions to the sciences. Charles Babbage was an early member of this group. When Babbage went up to Trinity in 1810 Cambridge science was in a poor state. Experimental science barely existed, while mathematics languished, hampered by loyalty to Newton's inflexible dot notation for the calculus. The scene cried out for change, but as the transformation developed it became deeply involved with the contemporary political Reform movement.

Babbage and his friends fought for the systematic development of science and its application to commerce and industry on a national scale, but theirs was not the only ideology developing at the time. Against them was the curious chivalric revival which permeated the public schools and the Establishment. It has been observed that the ruling ideas of every age are the ideas of the ruling class, and Babbage and his friends lost the battle. The consequences of this defeat remain the subject of active discussion.

Babbage was born in London, south of the river in 1791. His family came from Totnes in South Devon, bankers who, like many other such families, had formerly been goldsmiths. A precocious mathematician Babbage was already well versed in the Continental mathematical notations when he went up to Cambridge.