Charles Babbage of Devon

frontcover (1)What’s in a name? What’s in a place and does it matter? As Charles Babbage once said `it is merely an empty basket until you put something into it.’
He said, referring to his personal history, that his `family was limited by the unfortunate omission in the Domesday Book.’ Perhaps his early ancestors lived in an abbey or castle and would not have been required to pay taxes – and therefore would not have signed the Domesday Book.
The earliest recording of a Bawbych was in Stoke Gabriel in 1210 – a spelling that could easily become `Babbridge.’ But then the name `Babb’ could be the name of the family that lived at Babbacombe until the Anglo Saxons sent them packing up to Mortonhampstead. Areas where the actual spelling of his name is found are at Mortonhampstead, Chudliegh, Ashprington, Totnes, Ashreigny, Teignmouth, Brixham, Mamhead, Thorverton and Dartmouth.
Charles said `in the time of Henry the Eighth one of my ancestors together with a hundred men were taken prisoner at the Siege of Calais [1544] and having remained in hiding, it was a few years before they were found and expelled from France along with the Huguenots, protestant refugees, landing at Babbacombe.’ And that these four brothers returned home to Devonshire and two settled in South Devon; one in North Devon and one in Thorverton, near Exeter.
His ancestors – the Laverse’s, were Huguenots who managed to take refuge in the Channel Islands on a small fishing vessel from St Malo. They hid for several months in a crypt before getting passage on a cargo ship to Dartmouth, and settled Modbury.
In 1567, the actual spelling of Babbage is found in the church records of St Martin and St Mary’s in Chudliegh. It states that a Mr Babbage had been paid 6d for fixing the church organ with `glew.’ In 1590, a Nicholas Bobbish was paid for keeping the dogs away from the church’s food store.
Charles did have family living in Chudliegh – it was a place where he wanted to settle down. He was living there before his marriage to Georgiana Whitmore in 1818 and where they lived for seven months whilst he was job searching.
His parents were living in Teignmouth at the time. His father was outraged with him for secretly getting engaged whilst at university. And, for getting married to a girl he met at a dance in Teignmouth – even before he had a job.
Some of his ancestors sailed out on the Mayflower with many following later. The emigration was due to the outrage by Protestants to the religious tolerance being shown to Catholics. A Christopher Babbage is mentioned in records of the trial of the Salem Witches of 1692.
In 1621, Hester Greene marries a Christopher Babbridge, and in 1635, a John Babbridge marries Margaret Eastlye, now Eastley. This was the time of the Civil War – a travesty that went on for nine years.
In May 1641, Roger Babbage of Totnes declares in writing his belief `in the Protestant religion, allegiance to the King and support for the rights of Parliament.’ This could be because his wife Juliana De Saye is of Royal descent, and if this is true, Charles Babbage is related to today’s royalty. Juliana De Saye was the first woman in Britain to greet Princess Mary and her husband Prince William at Brixham. They presented her with an item of jewellery – possibly because she is Princess Mary’s cousin.
It is also possible that her husband Roger Babbage was presented with a medal. A medal `which I remember seeing as a boy. It descended to a very venerable and truthful old lady, an unmarried Aunt, the historian of our family, on whose authority the identity of the medal I saw, was given by King William.’
Benjamin married Elizabeth Plumleigh Teape at Westminster in 1790. Their son Charles was born 26th December 1791 but the baptism and place of birth were not recorded until eleven days later at St Mary’s Church, Newington on Friday 6th January. This was not the standard practice perhaps the family were away and it was Christmas. His father worked for the `Bank of Pread, Digby, Box, Babbage and Company’ and they were constantly commuting between London, Teignmouth and Totnes.
It is said that Charles was reticent about declaring his actual place of birth, but in the 1841 census he fills in his place of birth as London. What is puzzling is why there should be any uncertainty. In total, there are seven documents referring to his place of birth, three say London, two say Totnes, and two say Teignmouth. Had his mother said something to him when he was growing up about the exact circumstances? There is obviously some uncertainty as his son insisted he was born in Teignmouth, and had the evidence to prove this.
Did Charles Babbage get the idea for building his computer from watching ships anchored off Teignmouth? From his bedroom at `Rowdens’ he could see ships anchored, waiting for the right wind and tide that would provide the necessary depth of water to clear the bar, and all of this was dependant on how the ship was loaded, whether it loaded or in ballast.
On board every vessel there was a ships computer, a person who uses the celestial tables to work out the tide, the wind speed and depth of water, especially when entering port.
When Charles studied these tables he found them to be wholly inaccurate and was determined to correct them. Charles was a keen sailor and had a boat at Teignmouth. He would have been aware of the calculated risk a ship took entering port, a skilled procedure even today.
Charles had studied navigation – a typical practice alongside accountancy, as both were geared for trade. He knew the calculations required to prevent a ship being grounded or worse still, being holed up and blocking the harbour.
At university he pointed out to his fellow students that these celestial tables were riddled with errors and that he had found 3,700 miscalculations. He became obsessed with an idea of building a machine that would avoid any kind of human error and print them out once calculated.
What a breakthrough these tables would mean to `the safety of tens of thousands of ships upon the ocean… the course and motion of currents direction and speed winds… in fact everything which constitutes the chief elements of international commerce in modern times.’ [Babbage]
`An undetected error in a logarithm table is like a sunken rock at sea yet undiscovered’ [John Hershel]. Is it highly likely that Charles Babbage’s inspiration for an automated computer was motivated by watching ships entering the Port of Teignmouth?
Charles wrote that he could see every ship that entered Torbay and on hearing that the `Bellerophon’, Napoleon’s ship, had entered Torbay, he put his telescope into his pocket, mounted a horse, and galloped to Torquay.
In 1833, Charles met Ada Byron at a party. She was just recovering from the measles. Ada was a gifted mathematician and scientist, having been tutored by Mary Somerville who held the Newton’s chair at Cambridge. What a chance meeting, her involvement changed everything. She became his patron and co-worker and together they redesigned the Difference Engine several times.
Ada got the engine to compute Bernoulli numbers and published `the first paper to discuss the programming of a computer.’ [Toole] She wrote that one day it might be able to `compose elaborate and scientific music of any degree or complexity,’ and some day be able to use letters in much the same way as numbers.
With the help of Michael Faraday, on the back of previous work done by Arago, they invented the record needle. They helped Fox Talbot in the process of developing negatives. Fox Talbot’s negative of the lattice window in his lounge is the oldest known photographic negative in existence. Another joint project was inventing coloured lighting for the theatre.
Charles told Darwin that he saw God as a deity that was constantly changing and up-dating species, like a programmer allowing for the evolution of nature to replace itself with a stronger species. Darwin agreed saying he was coming to the same conclusion which predates Darwin’s theory on natural selection.
Charles reorganised the postal system, making it possible for one rate to cover the cost of postage – allowing Rowland Hill to print the Penny Black stamp. He took the opportunity to tell the Government that they should really be thinking of going decimal, “one day” they said but not today.
Another invention was the campervan. He had been studying coach design for some years and set about building a coach with a bed, cooking facilities, a commode and a wardrobe. He then travelled in it around Europe for 18 months, finally selling it at The Hague in Belgium, on his return.
Charles Babbage is also responsible for determining the standard broad gauge used on the railways. He invented the dynamometer, the emergency release coupling, the first ever railway speedometer, and the cowcatcher for the front of trains to remove obstacles. The Americans loved it, we ignored it.
Charles wanted to experiment on rail track stability and had a rail carriage stripped out for the experiment. He installed a long fitted table with pens held over rolls of wallpaper which were held down by mahogany rollers to record the performance of both the train and the tracks.
Charles asked Brunel if he could borrow a train as the tests were hampered by all the stopping and starting. An early morning run was arranged though it turned out to be far too early for the driver and the stoker who crashed into the shed on return. Charles then asked Brunel if he could have the train on the Sunday. Brunel agreed unofficially because it was the Sabbath. Charles then added 30 tons of ballast to test the train’s stability on the bends.
Charles was building up steam and preparing to leave the sidings when he thought he could see a faint trail of smoke in the distance. He was close to dismissing the possibility of it being another train as it was a Sunday, but minutes later a train came to a halt in front of him.
It was Brunel. He had borrowed a train to get back from a night out in Bristol, fifty miles away. Charles told him the collision would have killed them both and his train would have turned over on impact as he had the weight of 30 tons behind him. What a different history would have unfolded without Brunel and Babbage. This experiment lead to standard apparatus on all trains now known as the `Black Box’ recorder.
Charles invented the Ophthalmoscope to detect intracranial pressure for brain tumours and glaucoma. He invented Occulting Lighting for ship-to-ship, and ship-to-shore communication. He invented the heliograph and wireless solar telegraph that signals Morse code by the flashing of mirrors at the sun – standard issue in military operations used in the Boar War and right up to the 60’s.
He designed a computer consol game which he called `Tic Tac Toe’ – an `automaton to play noughts and crosses with a view to charging the public for competing against it.’ [Swade].
He visited the London Water Board with his `simple device to record the direction of shocks for use in areas liable to earthquakes’ which became known as the seismograph. He showed them a design for a hydroplane which they found too ambitious, so he designed them a device for winching tug boats upstream, which was just what they needed.
When Charles Babbage died on the 18th November 1871, the American press rushed through a second edition, headlining the story. In England it received a cursory obituary and at his funeral, one coach followed the hearse – and that was Margaret Blackhall – the Duchess of Somerset from Stover in Newton Abbott.
His work had far reaching consequences for mankind and his contribution was immense. It is such a pity that respect for this man’s work lies dormant, and that he is barely acknowledged in his home towns of Totnes or Teignmouth.

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