Charles Babbage


Contributed by Puja Laroia, OMS-III MSUCOM

Charles Babbage. Stipple engraving by R. Roffe, 1833.

Charles Babbage was born on December 26 1791 into a wealthy London banking family. He was one of 4 children of Benjamin Babbage and Betsy Plumleigh Teape.[1]

Babbage was a well-known English mathematician and inventor with knowledge across many fields of study who is widely regarded as the father of computing. He is credited with developing the Difference Engine, the first mechanical computer, which led to more complicated electrical designs of modern-day computers.[2]

As a young boy, Babbage would spend his time at the library.[3] Reading sparked his joy for mathematics, and he devoted his entire life to it. By the age of 16, he was offered a seat at the University of Cambridge.[4] He quickly rose to the position of head mathematician and graduated.

He then went on to lecture at the Royal Institution on topics in astronomy and was nominated to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816.[5,6] In 1820, Babbage was fundamental in establishing the Royal Astronomical Society, originally known as the Astronomical Society of London.[4,5,6] Its early goals were to standardize astronomical computations.[4,5] In 1824 he was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society for inventing an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables.[4] He was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1828, a position formerly held by Sir Isaac Newton; he maintained the position for ten years without giving a lecture.[2,4,5]

In his career, Babbage dabbled with ophthalmology twice—the ophthalmoscope and color vision.[1] Hermann von Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope in 1850, which revolutionized ophthalmology.[1] Yet, just three years before, Babbage came dangerously close to creating it.[1] It is believed that Babbage suffered from bilateral monocular diplopia, which he was able to partially remedy using a pinhole or concave lens.[1] Babbage invented a model ophthalmoscope in 1847, which was believed to be built of a small plano glass mirror with silvering removed at two to three small regions in the center.[1,2,7] The device was held in a tube and handled at an angle so that the light rays would reflect into the patient's eye.[1,2,7] He presented this model to Dr. Thomas Wharton Jones, a prestigious ophthalmologist and lecturer at Charing Cross Hospital in London who would subsequently become a Professor of Ophthalmic Medicine and Surgery at the University of London.[1,2,7] Dr. Wharton Jones, however, was an unsuitable candidate to assess the device because he was a myope who only saw a weak red reflex, prompting him to dismiss it as "unworkable."[1,2,7]

The necessity for a concave lens between the observer's eye and the back of the mirror to rectify the convergent rays from the patient's retina was something Babbage overlooked in his design, which Helmholtz recognized.[1] Although Babbage utilized a plano mirror with an aperture rather than Helmholtz's parallel glass slides, the optics were almost identical.[1] Today, Babbage would undoubtedly be remembered as the forerunner of modern ophthalmology if only he had included a 4 or 5 dioptre concave lens in his equipment for viewing into the eye.[1]

Babbage was known as the Father of the Computer, since he was the first to introduce the concept of the modern programmed computer.[5] His interest in scientific discovery persisted beyond the end of his life. In 1871, He was laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.[1] His brain had been taken at his request and donated to the Royal College of Surgeons for research.[1]



Served a head mathematician and graduated from Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge

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Founded the Astronomical Society of London, now known as the Royal Astronomical Society

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Presented the Difference Engine to the Royal Astronomical Society

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Won the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables.

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Elected the Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science

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Constructed an ophthalmoscope, which was subsequently dismissed by Thomas Wharton Jones

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Academic Appointment


  • Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, University of Cambridge, England

Education & Training

Trinity College at the University of Cambridge 1810-1812

Peterhouse College at the University of Cambridge 1812-1814

A portion of Babbage's calculating machine, Difference Engine No. 1. Photo Courtesy © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum


  1. Keeler CR (2004). Babbage the unfortunate. The British journal of ophthalmology, 88(6), 730–732.
  2. Grzybowski, A. (2022). The Ophthalmologist’s Time Machine: Chapter 4 How Charles Babbage beat Hermann von Helmholtz in the race to invent the ophthalmoscope. Retrieved from The Ophthalmologist: machine-chapter-4
  3. Wikimedia Foundation. (2002, June 15). Charles Babbage. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
  4. Lyons, H.G (1940). Charles Babbage and the ophthalmoscope. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 3(1), 146-148.
  5. Keeler CR (1997). 150 Years Since Babbage's Ophthalmoscope. Retrieved from Arch Ophthalmol.115(11), 1456–1457. doi:10.1001/archopht.1997.01100160626017
  6. Hoskin, M. Anthony (2008, April 1). Royal Astronomical Society. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. M. Bruce Shields, MD (2019, March 12). The man who almost invented the ophthalmoscope. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from who-almost-invented-ophthalmoscope

(Trbute published 2022)