Industrial innovation and education: The case of Charles Babbage

Year: 1994

Author: Coldwell, Roger, Ellis, Michael

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Traditionally, the interaction between industry and education has developed a number of innovations on both sides. Such a case was that of the work of Charles Babbage who developed the first computer in mid-nineteenth century Britain. However, the social deterrents to Babbage's work were quite considerable. Not only did the scientific community try to deter him from innovating, but the social community saw his ideas as a threat to the core of society. The idea that a machine could be used to do menial tasks for man was, in the mid- 1800's, thought to be intolerable.

The major contribution that Babbage made has always been thought to be that of his analytical machines. However, closer analysis of his writings-and the writings of others about Babbage generally-suggests that his major contribution, which outweighs all others, was in his analytical and creative process. Whereas it is quite common, in 1994, to talk about a "design cycle" in response to Design and Technology education, the process that Babbage followed makes our current design approach seem flippant. Babbage pre-dated developments in brainstorming by a mere century! He discussed design problems with a wide range of people before he even posed a hypothetical solution. He outlined the problems related to artificial intelligence-the theory behind computer-aided learning-at about the same time.

Babbage was a mathematician, on the one hand, and an industrial designer, on the other. He lived throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. And yet his ideas are still shocking conservative people today. This poses a primary question for educators. How does Education deal with the struggle between its conservative advocates and its progressive advocates? Further, in a conservative context like Australia, do we have any hope at all of innovating in Education?