The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Charles Babbage:

Chapter Two


2014 June 2

SOURCE: Passages from the Life of a Philosopher by Charles Babbage, Esq., M.A. [London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864]

Babbage's words are in bold.


"The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman." 
--- Hamlet
[actually Edgar in King Lear]

Early Passion for inquiry and inquisition into Toys --- Lost on London Bridge --- Supposed value of the young Philosopher --- Found again --- Strange Coincidence in after-years --- Poisoned --- Frightened a Schoolfellow by a Ghost --- Frightened himself by trying to raise the Devil --- Effect of Want of Occupation for the Mind --- Treasure-trove --- Death and Non-appearance of a Schoolfellow.

From my earliest years I had a great desire to inquire into the causes of all those little things and events which astonish the childish mind. At a later period I commenced the still more important inquiry into those laws of thought and those aids which assist the human mind in passing from received knowledge to that other knowledge then unknown to our race. I now think it fit to record some of those views to which, at various periods of my life, my reasoning has led me. Truth only has been the object of my search, and I am not conscious of ever having turned aside in my inquiries from any fear of the conclusions to which they might lead.

As it may be interesting to some of those who will hereafter read these lines, I shall briefly mention a few events of my earliest, and even of my childish years. My parents being born at a certain period of history, and in a certain latitude and longitude, of course followed the religion of their country. They brought me up in the Protestant form of the Christian faith. My excellent mother taught me the usual forms of my daily and nightly prayer ; and neither in my father nor my mother was there any mixture of bigotry and intolerance on the one hand, nor on the other of that unbecoming and familiar mode of addressing the Almighty which afterwards so much disgusted me in my youthful years.

My invariable question on receiving any new toy, was "Mamma, what is inside of it ?" Until this information was obtained those around me had no repose, and the toy itself, I have been told, was generally broken open if the answer did not satisfy my own little ideas of the "fitness of things."

Earliest Recollections.

Two events which impressed themselves forcibly on my memory happened, I think, previously to my eighth year.

When about five years old, I was walking with my nurse, who had in her arms an infant brother of mine, across London Bridge, holding, as I thought, by her apron. I was looking at the ships in the river. On turning round to speak to her, I found that my nurse was not there, and that I was alone upon London Bridge. My mother had always impressed upon me the necessity of great caution in passing any street-crossing : I went on, therefore, quietly until I reached Tooley Street, where I remained watching the passing vehicles, in order to find a safe opportunity of crossing that very busy street.

In the mean time the nurse, having lost one of her charges, had gone to the crier, who proceeded immediately to call, by the ringing of his bell, the attention of the public to the fact that a young philosopher was lost, and to the still more important fact that five shillings would be the reward of his fortunate discoverer. I well remember sitting on the steps of the door of the linendraper's shop on the opposite corner of Tooley Street, when the gold-laced crier was making proclamation of my loss ; but I was too much occupied with eating some pears to attend to what he was saying.

The fact was, that one of the men in the linendraper's shop, observing a little child by itself, went over to it, and asked what it wanted. Finding that it had lost its nurse, he brought it across the street, gave it some pears, and placed it on the steps at the door : having asked my name, the shopkeeper found it to be that of one of his own customers. He accordingly sent off a messenger, who announced to my mother the finding of young Pickle before she was aware of his loss.

Those who delight in observing coincidences may perhaps account for the following singular one. Several years ago when the houses in Tooley Street were being pulled down, 1 believe to make room for the new railway terminus, I happened to pass along the very spot on which I had been lost in my infancy. A slate of the largest size, called a Duchess --- there exists an aristocracy even amongst slates, perhaps from their occupying the most elevated position in every house ; small ones are called Ladies, a larger size Countesses, and the biggest of all are Duchesses --- a Duchess was thrown from the roof of one of the houses, and penetrated into the earth close to my feet.

The other event, which I believe happened some time after the one just related, is as follows. I give it from memory, as I have always repeated it.

I was walking with my nurse and my brother in a public garden, called Montpelier Gardens, in Walworth. On returning through the private road leading to the gardens, I gathered and swallowed some dark berries very like black currants : --- these were poisonous !

On my return home, I recollect being placed between my father's knees, and his giving me a glass of castor oil, which I took from his hand.

My father at that time possessed a collection of pictures. He sat on a chair on the right hand side of the chimney-piece in the breakfast room, under a fine picture of our Saviour taken down from the cross. On the opposite wall was a still-celebrated "Interior of Antwerp Cathedral."

In after-life I several times mentioned the subject both to my father and to my mother ; but neither of them had the slightest recollection of the matter.

The much-reproduced Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by Steenwijk.

Having suffered in health at the age of five years, and again at that of ten by violent fevers, from which I was with difficulty saved, I was sent into Devonshire and placed under the care of a clergyman (who kept a school at Alphington, near Exeter), with instructions to attend to my health ; but, not to press too much knowledge upon me : a mission which he faithfully accomplished ! Perhaps great idleness may have led to some of my childish reasonings.

Relations of ghost stories often circulate amongst children, and also of visitations from the devil in a personal form. Of course I shared the belief of my comrades, but still had some doubts of the existence of these personages, although I greatly feared their appearance. Once, in conjunction with a companion, I frightened another boy, bigger than myself, with some pretended ghost; how prepared or how represented by natural objects I do not now remember : I believe it was by the accidental passing shadows of some external objects upon the walls of our common bedroom.

The effect of this on my playfellow was painful ; he was much frightened for several days ; and it naturally occurred to me, after some time, that as I had deluded him with ghosts, I might myself have been deluded by older persons, and that, after all, it might be a doubtful point whether ghost or devil ever really existed.

I gathered all the information I could on the subject from the other boys, and was soon informed that there was a peculiar process by which the devil might be raised and become personally visible. I carefully collected from the traditions of different boys the visible forms in which the Prince of Darkness had been recorded to have appeared. Amongst them were ---

After long thinking over the subject (although checked by a belief that the inquiry was wicked), my curiosity at length over-balanced my fears, and I resolved to attempt to raise the devil. Naughty people, I was told, had made written compacts with the devil, and had signed them with their names written in their own blood. These had become very rich and great men during their life, a fact which might be well known. But, after death, they were described as having suffered and continuing to suffer physical torments throughout eternity, another fact which, to my uninstructed mind, it seemed difficult to prove.

As I only desired an interview with the gentleman in black simply to convince my senses of his existence, I declined adopting the legal forms of a bond, and preferred one more resembling that of leaving a visiting card, when, if not at home, I might expect the satisfaction of a return of the visit by the devil in person.

Accordingly, having selected a promising locality, I went one evening towards dusk up into a deserted garret. Having closed the door, and I believe opened the window, I proceeded to cut my finger and draw a circle on the floor with the blood which flowed from the incision.

I then placed myself in the centre of the circle, and either said or read the Lord's Prayer backwards. This I accomplished at first with some trepidation and in great fear towards the close of the scene. I then stood still in the centre of that magic and superstitious circle, looking with intense anxiety in all directions, especially at the window and at the chimney. Fortunately for myself, and for the reader also, if he is interested in this narrative, no owl or black cat or unlucky raven came into the room.

In either case my then weakened frame might have expiated this foolish experiment by its own extinction, or by the alienation of that too curious spirit which controlled its feeble powers.

After waiting some time for my expected but dreaded visitor, I, in some degree, recovered my self-possession, and leaving the circle of my incantation, I gradually opened the door and gently closing it, descended the stairs, at first slowly, and by degrees much more quickly. I then rejoined my companions, but said nothing whatever of my recent attempt.

After supper the boys retired to bed. When we were in bed and the candle removed, I proceeded as usual to repeat my prayers silently to myself. After the few first sentences of the Lord's Prayer, I found that I had forgotten a sentence, and could not go on to the conclusion. This alarmed me very much, and having repeated another prayer or hymn, I remained long awake, and very unhappy. I thought that this forgetfulness was a punishment inflicted upon me by the Almighty, and that I was a wicked little boy for having attempted to satisfy myself about the existence of a devil.

The next night my memory was more faithful, and my prayers went on as usual. Still, however, I was unhappy, and continued to brood over the inquiry. My uninstructed faculties led me from doubts of the existence of a devil to doubts of the book and the religion which asserted him to be a living being. My sense of justice (whether it be innate or acquired) led me to believe that it was impossible that an almighty and all-merciful God could punish me, a poor little boy, with eternal torments because I had anxiously taken the only means I knew of to verify the truth or falsehood of the religion I had been taught. I thought over these things for a long time, and, in my own childish mind, wished and prayed that God would tell me what was true.

After long meditation, I resolved to make an experiment to settle the question. I thought, if it was really of such immense importance to me here and hereafter to believe rightly, that the Almighty would not consign me to eternal misery because, after trying all means that I could devise, I was unable to know the truth. I took an odd mode of making the experiment ; I resolved that at a certain hour of a certain day I would go to a certain room in the house, and that if I found the door open, I would believe the Bible ; but that if it were closed, I should conclude that it was not true. I remember well that the observation was made, but I have no recollection as to the state of the door. I presume it was found open from the circumstance that, for many years after, I was no longer troubled by doubts, and indeed went through the usual religious forms with very little thought about their origin.

At length, as time went on, my bodily health was restored by my native air : my mind, however, receiving but little instruction, began, I imagine, to prey upon itself --- such at least I infer to have been the case from the following circumstance.

One day, when uninterested in the sports of my little companions, I had retired into the shrubbery and was leaning my head, supported by my left arm, upon the lower branch of a thorn-tree. Listless and unoccupied, I imagined I had a head-ache.

After a time I perceived, lying on the ground just under me, a small bright bit of metal. I instantly seized the precious discovery, and turning it over, examined both sides. I immediately concluded that I had discovered some valuable treasure, and running away to my deserted companions, showed them my golden coin. The little company became greatly excited, and declared that it must be gold, and that it was a piece of money of great value. We ran off to get the opinion of the usher ; but whether he partook of the delusion, or we acquired our knowledge from the higher authority of the master, I know not. I only recollect the entire dissipation of my head-ache, and then my ultimate great disappointment when it was pronounced, upon the undoubted authority of the village doctor, that the square piece of brass I had found was --- a half-dram weight which had escaped from the box of a pair of medical scales.

This little incident had an important effect upon my after-life. I reflected upon the extraordinary fact, that my head-ache had been entirely cured by the discovery of the piece of brass. Although I may not have put into words the principle, that occupation of the mind is such a source of pleasure that it can relieve even the pain of a head-ache ; yet I am sure it practically gave an additional stimulus to me in many a difficult inquiry. Some few years after, when suffering under a form of tooth-ache, not acute though tediously wearing, I often had recourse to a volume of Don Quixote, and still more frequently to one of Robinson Crusoe. Although at first it required a painful effort of attention, yet it almost always happened, after a time, that I had forgotten the moderate pain in the overpowering interest of the novel.

My most intimate companion and friend was a boy named Dacres, the son of Admiral Richard Dacres. We had often talked over such questions as those I have mentioned in this chapter, and we had made an agreement that whichever died first should, if possible, appear to the other after death, in order to satisfy the survivor about their solution.

After a year or two my young friend entered the navy, but we kept up our friendship, and when he was ashore I saw him frequently. He was in a ship of eighty guns at the passage of the Dardanelles, under the command of Sir Thomas Duckworth. Ultimately he was sent home in charge of a prize-ship, in which he suffered the severest hardships during a long and tempestuous voyage, and then died of consumption.

[The father of Babbage's friend was evidently Richard Dacres, later a knight and a Vice-Admiral, whose implausibly adventurous career included service in Duckworth's failed Dardanelles expedition. However I have so far been unable to find any record of one of his sons dying in the same campaign.]

I saw him a few days before his death, at the age of about eighteen. We talked of former times, but neither of us mentioned the compact. I believe it occurred to his mind : it was certainly strongly present to my own.

He died a few days after. On the evening of that day I retired to my own room, which was partially detached from the house by an intervening conservatory. I sat up until after midnight, endeavouring to read, but found it impossible to fix my attention on any subject, except the overpowering feeling of curiosity, which absorbed my mind. I then undressed and went into bed ; but sleep was entirely banished. I had previously carefully examined whether any cat, bird, or living animal might be accidentally concealed in my room, and I had studied the forms of the furniture lest they should in the darkness mislead me.

I passed a night of perfect sleeplessness.

The distant clock and a faithful dog, just outside my own door, produced the only sounds which disturbed the intense silence of that anxious night.