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Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815–1878)

by G. W. Symes

This article was published:

Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815-1878), by unknown photographer, c1860

Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815-1878), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B36287

Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815-1878), engineer, scientist and explorer, was born in London, son of Charles Babbage, Cambridge professor of mathematics (1828-39), and his wife Georgina, sister of W. W. Whitmore, a founder of South Australia. His father was a philosopher and mechanical genius, inventor of the calculating machine and close friend of Sir John Herschel, George Peacock, Michael Faraday and Sir Isambard Brunel. At 18 Benjamin became a pupil of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), engineer of the New River Co., London, and with him for three years was engaged in waterworks. In 1842-48 he had extensive experience in planning and building railways under Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) in Italy and England. He then became an engineering inspector for the Board of Health in England.

On the recommendation of the geologist, Sir Henry de la Beche, in 1851 Earl Grey appointed Babbage, at the South Australian government's request, to make a 'Geological and Mineralogical Survey' of the colony. He arrived in the Hydaspes on 27 November and in May 1852 reported on the Adelaide water supply. He was then appointed commissioner of gold licences and in 1853 government assayer. Soon afterwards he became chairman of the first Mitcham District Council, but dropped most of his commitments when he was engaged to build the Adelaide city to port railway, the first with steam in the colony.

In 1856 Babbage was sent north to search for gold as far as the Flinders Ranges. He found none, but discovered the MacDonnell River, Blanchewater and Mount Hopeful. He was the first to dispel the current idea of the impassability of the Lake Torrens 'horseshoe' by ascertaining the existence of a north-east gap to the Cooper and Gulf country, later traversed by Sir Augustus Gregory. At Encounter Bay he was elected in 1857 to the first House of Assembly, but resigned at the end of the year when appointed leader of a northern expedition.

Babbage left in February 1858 to explore the country between Lakes Torrens and Gairdner, and further to the north and west. His concept of exploration was based on thorough survey, mapping and examination of the country, ideals with which Francis Dutton, commissioner of crown lands, agreed in his instructions and early correspondence. With cumbrous and ingenious equipment Babbage carried out the first part, hampered by bad terrain and lack of water. But he had no sense of urgency and was thus completely out of tune with the current concept of opening up new country for quick exploitation. His slowness led to public and parliamentary clamour, to which Dutton later succumbed and sent Peter Egerton Warburton to supersede him. Meanwhile Babbage had moved north from the Elizabeth River, discovered Hermit Hill and delineated the western shores of Lake Eyre South.

There Warburton relieved him on 5 November. Based on his experiences of 1856, Babbage also believed in a gap in the 'horseshoe' and at Hermit Hill confirmed his belief. He had actually crossed the gap, but Warburton was the first to traverse it completely.

On grounds of unfair treatment Babbage successfully petitioned for a parliamentary inquiry. In 1858-59 voluminous evidence was taken but no report issued. Opposition members were little concerned with Babbage but used his case as a means of defeating the government in May 1859. In a reorganized ministry Dutton was dropped; Babbage was forgotten. He withdrew from public life, but in 1866 he was appointed South Australia's representative at the Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne. He made shrewd and caustic comments on the slowness of South Australia in adopting the methods of wealthier colonies, particularly in the lack of soil research and the consequent deleterious effect on the quality of wheat. In 1870-72 Charles Todd employed Babbage as an assistant in planning and plotting the Overland Telegraph line, and as a supervisor of contractors.

An original member of the Philosophical Society (later Royal Society of South Australia) and sometime its president and vice-president, he contributed numerous papers ranging from calculating machines, meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, geodetics, agronomy, botany, photography and drainage, to methods of using concrete. In most of these subjects he had practical experience. Particularly interested in viticulture, he ran a large vineyard on his estate at St Mary's. He was a worshipper and lay reader at St Mary's Church of England, where he was buried at his death on 20 October 1878. He was survived by his wife Laura Jones, whom he had married at Bristol on 10 September 1839, and by three sons and two daughters of their seven children.

Babbage described himself as 'gentleman'; he had private means and 'scientific qualifications of a high order which are not easily found combined in one man'. His strong religious convictions, keen powers of observation and analytic mind kept him detached; he was in South Australia but not of it. His achievements as an explorer were notable but the accompanying controversy tended unduly to overshadow them and his attainments in other fields.

Select Bibliography

  • Memoirs and Correspondence of Maj. Gen. H. P. Babbage (Lond, 1910)
  • B. Threadgill, South Australian Land Exploration 1856-1880, vol 1 (Adel, 1922)
  • M. Mosley, Irascible Genius (Lond, 1964)
  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1853 (87), 1856 (140), 1866-67 (201)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1857-59
  • Register (Adelaide), 23 Oct 1878
  • Observer (Adelaide), 26 Oct 1878
  • Somerville and Norman, B. H. Babbage (State Records of South Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. W. Symes, 'Babbage, Benjamin Herschel (1815–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815-1878), by unknown photographer, c1860

Benjamin Herschel Babbage (1815-1878), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B36287

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


22 October, 1878 (aged ~ 63)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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