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In Which Charles Babbage says "Bah, Humbug."


2012 November 26

"My love of music is not great ..." --- Charles Babbage (born 26 December 1791)


Charles Babbage: man of legend, designer of the first true computer, the famous Analytical Engine for which Byron's daughter wrote programs destined never to be executed. Had the funds to build this marvelous device only been forthcoming --- had the British government only been less stingy and short-sighted --- had the dreadful street-musicians only been a bit less noisy --- had --- had --- then the history of the world would have followed quite a different and possibly a better course. So William Gibson and Bruce Sterling famously imagined in their steampunk novel The Difference Engine, --- and so Babbage himself would have heartily maintained.

The folklore of the cybernetic age remembers Babbage as both a prophet without honour in his own century and a Dickensian crank who once compiled a list of 165 "nuisances" encountered in ninety days. There is truth in this, but Babbage himself escapes easy characterisation. His astonishing, whimsical autobiography shows him as a querulous eccentric, but one conforming to no stereotype. (The epigraph which he chose for his life story, from Byron's Don Juan, reads: "I'm a philosopher. Confound them all, birds, beasts, and men; but no, not womankind.")

One thing is obvious: he was scarcely the sort of person with whom even the most sympathetic and progressive bureaucracy would choose to deal. Nevertheless, throughout his career he tirelessly lobbied the system; when actually given the resources that he demanded, he often seemed to choke and do nothing.

The best and worst features of Babbage's personality come through clearly in his remarkable 1830 screed Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. This strange book is filled with suggestions for the better organisation of scholarly life that now seem obvious, either having been implemented in the later Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries or remaining unimplemented but controversial today. Apart from this, the book offers valuable insights into the nature and requirements of scientific creativity. Unfortunately, most of it is devoted to quite a different subject: minutely particular and annoyingly strident ad hominem criticism of the inner workings of the 1820s scientific establishment. Babbage explains his method with characteristic sarcasm: "Perhaps I ought to apologize for the large space I have devoted to the Royal Society. Certainly its present state gives it no claim to that attention."

"Reflections on the Decline ..." Loaded words in an England where everyone who was anyone had read Gibbon. Babbage makes no real attempt to prove that English science is declining; he takes it for granted as a self-evident truth, and sets out immediately to discover the roots of the disorder. One of them is education. He has little patience with the Christian-Platonist mathematicians who then dominated Cambridge. "A young man passes from our public schools to the universities," he writes, "ignorant almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge; and at these latter establishments, formed originally for instructing those who are intended for the clerical profession, classical and mathematical pursuits are nearly the sole objects proposed to the student's ambition."

Babbage's alternative vision of the curriculum is far more modern: universities should offer a wide variety of undergraduate majors, including ones in the natural and what would today be called the social sciences. This would "open a field of honourable ambition to multitudes, who, from the exclusive nature of our present studies, leave us with but a very limited addition to their stock of knowledge." By "multitudes", however, Babbage does not mean the herd of common people: "[O]ur system of academical education ought to be adapted to nearly the whole of the aristocracy of the country", including those young aristocrats (the majority, it goes without saying) with no genuine interest in antiquity or maths.

Teaching the ruling class to understand technology (as opposed to the abstractions of Euclid) is essential for the national interest: "[S]cientific knowledge scarcely exists amongst the higher classes of society. The discussions in the Houses of Lords or of Commons, which arise on the occurence of any subjects connected with science, sufficiently prove this fact." An even better solution would be "to ennoble some of the greatest scientific benefactors of their country. Not to mention political causes, the ranks of the nobility are constantly recruited from the army, the navy, and the bar; why should not the family of that man, whose name is imperishably connected with the steam-engine, be enrolled amongst the nobility of his country?" Readers of the novel by Gibson & Stirling will recall that the fictional Industrial Radical Party put this suggestion into practice. Babbage himself, in this case, was more realistic, and admitted as more likely what actually came about: the addition of scientists and engineers to the Honours List ... knighthoods ... life peerages.

Babbage was an early advocate of the professionalising trend in science. He discusses the value of being in a profession to lawyers, physicians, and clergymen; why should scientists (of course he does not use the word, which did not yet exist) not likewise form "a peculiar class professedly devoted"? He carefully distinguishes this new grouping from academia per se; he sees teaching as far less valuable than research. "Surely, if knowledge is valuable, it can never be good policy in a country far wealther than Tuscany, to allow a genius like Mr. Dalton's, to be employed in the drudgery of elementary instruction. Where would have been the military renown of England, if, with an equally improvident waste of mental power, its institutions had forced the Duke of Wellington to employ his life in drilling recruits, instead of planning campaigns?" (The reference to Tuscany is an allusion to Galileo, who wrote: "Because my private lectures and domestic pupils are a great hindrance and interruption of my studies, I wish to live entirely exempt from the former, and in great measure from the latter.")

Not teaching but government grants should provide the new scientist with a living. This is particularly true in the case of pure research, from which patent money cannot be expected to follow: "Unless there exist peculiar institutions for the support of such inquirers, or unless the Government directly interfere, the contriver of a thaumatrope may derive profit from his ingenuity, whilst he who unravels the laws of light and vision, on which multitudes of phenomena depend, shall descend unrewarded to the tomb."

Babbage's own personal experience with government funding, of course, had been less than positive, and he discusses the pros and cons at length. This, unfortunately, leads him into an endless and tediously particular denunciation of the nascent scientific bureaucracy.

"On one point I shall speak decidedly," he declares -- as though he ever spoke otherwise -- "[this book] is not connected with the calculating machine on which I have been engaged ... If any one shall endeavour to account for the opinions stated in these pages by ascribing them to any imagined circumstance peculiar to myself, I think he will be mistaken." Nonetheless, it is his experiences with the Board of Longitude and the Royal Society, minutely recounted, which fill some hundred pages. Every twist and turn of infighting, or at least every twist and turn of which Babbage disapproves, is related. Babbage's enemies are ridiculed by name, and some, notably Captain (later General Sir) Edward Sabine, are accused of incompetence or outright fraud. A large portion of the book is devoted to highly technical (for the time) statistical-analysis of Sabine's pendulum observations, interspersed with sarcasm.

The invective against Sabine does, however, have one redeeming feature: it motivates Babbage to include a long aside entitled "On Observations" containing his "reflections connected with the art of making observations and experiments". These are quite remarkable and, like so much of his thought, ahead of their time. He begins by attacking the cult of "extreme accuracy" and the attendant belief in observers with exceptional talent: "[G]enius marks its tract, not by the observation of quantities inappreciable to any but the acutest senses, but by placing Nature in such circumstances, that she is forced to record her minutest variations on so magnified a scale, that an observer, possessing ordinary faculties, shall find them legibly written."

As in much British natural-philosophy of the period, there is an emphasis here on humility and spiritual caution. This contrasts sharply with the (especially German) Romantic image of the scientist as a kind of wizard, a person with a supernatural gift of perceiving the world's mysteries -- the very image which many people have of Babbage himself today. Babbage in life will have none of this; he writes instead that "the principles of common sense may be safely trusted, and that any gentleman of liberal education may, by perseverance and attention, ascertain the limits within which he may trust both his instrument and himself."

By "perseverance and attention", Babbage means a rigourous course of practical training. Concentrating on astronomy (and particularly on the kind of observations Sabine had been commissioned to make), he outlines a formidable programme of exercises similar to those by which musicians master an instrument: practice in reading the verniers, practice in siting objects with the cross hairs of the telescope, practice on terrestrial targets ... "[D]erange the adjustment, and repeat the process fifty or a hundred times." The goal is always clear: "The first step in the use of every instrument is to find the limits within which its employer can measure the same object under the same circumstances. It is only from a knowledge of this, that he can have confidence in his measure of the same object under different circumstances, and after that, of different objects under different circumstances."

Alas, this section of The Decline of Science is all too short. Babbage proceeds quickly to a taxonomy of frauds ("hoaxers", "forgers", "trimmers", and "cooks") which would be amusing and insightful in a more general context, but here is too obviously aimed at specific individuals, and then returns to his grand theme, the evils of the maladministered Royal Society. His archenemy is ultimately not Sabine but the Society's president, Davies Gilbert, on whose shoulders Babbage loads most of the blame for England's scientific decline.

In fact, Gilbert's presidency lasted only three years and was hardly the disaster Babbage claims. A first-rate applied mathematician who contributed to the theory of steam engines and helped design the astonishing Menai bridge, Gilbert engaged in many of the same activities as Babbage -- founding new learned societies, lobbying the government to support science and technology -- but perhaps with greater success and certainly with greater tact. Babbage was himself at least subconsciously aware of this symmetry. His autobiography includes a curious anecdote about how he and Gilbert independently invented the same (as they supposed) unbreakable technique for encrypting messages, but only Babbage realised, years later, that the code could be broken.

Gilbert is remembered today as a quintessential bureaucrat and a middling scientist, the very opposite of Babbage. Nonetheless, he advanced the careers of two of the greatest visionaries of his era, Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick, and he also left a remarkable legacy of a completely different nature. Gilbert was a pioneer folklorist, and did extensive ethnographic work in his native Cornwall. He was particularly interested in traditional songs, which he sometimes expanded into original compositions of his own. Although Babbage would no doubt say "Bah, humbug," we will conclude with the Aarhus Girls' Choir performing a work by Davies Gilbert FRS. There is more way than one to contribute to the progress of civilisation.



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