The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Charles Babbage:

Chapter One

My Ancestors

2014 April 28

William III at Torbay. Somewhere in this crowd there is (possibly) a Babbage!

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.


"Traced his descent, through ages dark,
From cats that caterwauled in Noah's ark."
--- Salmagundi, 1793.

Value of a celebrated Name --- My Ancestors --- Their Ante-Mosaic origin --- Flint-workers --- Tool-makers --- Not descended from Cain --- Ought a Philosopher to avow it if he were ? --- Probability of Descent from Tubal Cain --- Argument in favour, he worked in Iron --- On the other side, he invented Organs --- Possible origin of my Name ---Family History in very recent times.

What is there in a name ? It is merely an empty basket, until you put something into it. My earliest visit to the Continent taught me the value of such a basket, filled with the name of my venerable friend the first Herschel, ere yet my younger friend his son, had adorned his distinguished patronymic with the additional laurels of his own well-earned fame.

The inheritance of a celebrated name is not, however, without its disadvantages. This truth I never found more fully appreciated, nor more admirably expressed, than in a conversation with the son of Filangieri, the author of the celebrated Treatise on Legislation, with whom I became acquainted at Naples, and in whose company I visited several of the most interesting institutions of that capital.

In the course of one of our drives, I alluded to the advantages of inheriting a distinguished name, as in the case of the second Herschel. His remark was:

"For my own part, I think it a great disadvantage. Such a man must feel in the position of one inheriting a vast estate, so deeply mortgaged that he can never hope, by any efforts of his own, to redeem it."

Without reverting to the philosophic, but unromantic, views of our origin taken by Darwin, I shall pass over the long history of our progress from a monad up to man, and commence tracing my ancestry as the world generally do : namely, as soon as there is the slightest ground for conjecture. Although I have contended for the Mosaic date of the creation of man as long as I decently could, and have even endeavoured to explain away some of the facts relied upon to prove man's long anterior origin ; yet I must admit that the continual accumulation of evidence probably will, at last, compel me to acknowledge that, in this single instance, the writings of Moses may have been misapprehended.

[Babbage's interesting paper "On the remains of human art, mixed with the bones of extinct races of animals" (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 26th May, 1859) discusses in some detail mechanisms by which palæontological sites can be cross-contaminated, stratigraphic sequences be reversed, and so on ; he also gives his personal observations of a cave in Ireland which contained peat-moss from nearby bogs, evidently brought in by recent flooding. As the reader will quickly realise, however, he was no Biblical fundamentalist.]

Let us, therefore, take for granted that man and certain extinct races of animals lived together, thousands of years before Adam. We find, at that period, a race who formed knives, and hammers, and arrow-heads out of flint. Now, considering my own inveterate habit of contriving tools, it is more probable that I should derive my passion by hereditary transmission from these original tool-makers, than from any other inferior race existing at that period.

[In the paper cited above, Babbage also describes examining (and endorsing) the prehistoric tools discovered at St. Acheul, France, by Joseph Prestwich and John Evans only a month earlier. It is curious that the great pioneer of computing was also one of the first moderns to rediscover the technology of the Stone Age !]

Many years ago I met a very agreeable party at Mr. Rogers' table. Somebody introduced the subject of ancestry. I remarked that most people are reluctant to acknowledge as their father or grandfather, any person who had committed a dishonest action or a crime. But that no one ever scrupled to be proud of a remote ancestor, even though he might have been a thief or a murderer. Various remarks were made, and reasons assigned, for this tendency of the educated mind. I then turned to my next neighbour, Sir Robert H. Inglis, and asked him what he would do, supposing he possessed undoubted documents, that he was lineally descended from Cain.

Sir Robert said he was at that moment proposing to himself the very same question. After some consideration, he said he should burn them ; and then inquired what I should do in the same circumstances. My reply was, that I should preserve them : but simply because I thought the preservation of any fact might ultimately be useful.

[There may be some irony intended here. Sir Robert Harry Inglis was a Tory MP known for his xenophobia, antisemitism, and High Church piety.]

I possess no evidence that I am descended from Cain. If any herald suppose that there may be such a presumption, I think it must arise from his confounding Cain with Tubal Cain, who was a great worker in iron. Still, however he might argue that, the probabilities are in favour of his opinion : for I, too, work in iron. But a friend of mine, to whose kind criticisms I am much indebted, suggests that as Tubal Cain invented the Organ, this probability is opposed to the former one.

[As most of his readers probably knew -- and many people still remember today -- Babbage famously hated organ-grinders and wanted to ban them from the streets of London. The joke doesn't quite work, however : it was Tubal Cain's half-brother Jubal who "was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ".]

The next step in my pedigree is to determine whence the origin of my modern family name.

Some have supposed it to be derived from the cry of sheep. If so, that would point to a descent from the Shepherd Kings !

[This is a joke about a major Victorian enthusiasm, Biblical archæology. In a famous passage much discussed by Babbage's contemporaries, the ancient historian Josephus ( Against Apion, I.14) argued that the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings, who ruled Egypt for a few decades, were the Israelites of the Exodus.]

Others have supposed it is derived from the name of a place called Bab or Babb, as we have, in the West of England, Bab Tor, Babbacombe, &c. But this is evidently erroneous ; for, when a people took possession of a desert country, its various localities could possess no names ; consequently, the colonists could not take names from the country to which they migrated, but would very naturally give their own names to the several lands they appropriated : "mais revenons à nos moutons."

How my blood was transmitted to me through more modern races, is quite immaterial, seeing the admitted antiquity of the flint-workers.

In recent times, that is, since the Conquest, my knowledge of the history of my family is limited by the unfortunate omission of my name from the roll of William's followers. Those who are curious about the subject, and are idlers, may, if they think it worth while, search all the parish registers in the West of England and elsewhere.

The light I can throw upon it is not great, and rests on a few documents, and on family tradition. During the past four generations I have no surviving collateral relatives of my own name.

The name of Babbage is not uncommon in the West of England. One day during my boyhood, I observed it over a small grocer's shop, whilst riding through the town of Chudley. I dismounted, went into the shop, purchased some figs, and found a very old man of whom I made inquiry as to his family. He had not a good memory himself, but his wife told me that his name was Babb when she married him, and that it was only during the last twenty years he had adopted the name of Babbage, which, the old man thought, sounded better. Of course I told his wife that I entirely agreed with her husband, and thought him a very sensible fellow.

[Marriage records for Chudleigh, Devonshire from 1754 to 1820 include the surnames Bab, Babb, Babbage, Babbidge, and Babbige.]

The craft most frequently practised by my ancestors seems to have been that of a goldsmith, although several are believed to have practised less dignified trades.

In the time of Henry the Eighth one of my ancestors, together with a hundred men, were taken prisoners at the siege of Calais.

When William the Third landed in Torbay, another ancestor of mine, a yeoman possessing some small estate, undertook to distribute his proclamations. For this bit of high treason he was rewarded with a silver medal, which I well remember seeing, when I was a boy. It had 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 with that given by King William must rest.

Another ancestor married one of two daughters, the only children of a wealthy physician, Dr. Burthogge, an intimate friend and correspondent of John Locke.

Somewhere about 1700 a member of my family, one Richard Babbage, who appears to have been a very wild fellow, having tried his hand at various trades, and given them all up, offended a wealthy relative. [Specifically, he offended Dr. Burthogge, whose complicated 1705 will may be read online. One wonders why Babbage avoids naming him.]

To punish this idleness, his relative entailed all his large estates upon eleven different people, after whom he gave it to this Richard Babbage, who, had there been no entail, would have taken them as heir-at-law.

Ten of these lives had dropped, and the eleventh was in a consumption, when Richard Babbage took it into his head to go off to America with Bamfylde Moore Carew, the King of the Beggars.

[Forgotten today, Carew was a member of the gentry who abandoned respectable life, allegedly joined the Roma, and had (or was said to have had) all manner of picaresque adventures, recorded in a best-selling 1745 "memoir".]

The last only of the eleven lives existed when he embarked, and that life expired within twelve months after Richard Babbage sailed. The estates remained in possession of the representatives of the eleventh in the entail. If it could have been proved that Richard Babbage had survived twelve months after his voyage to America, these estates would have remained in my own branch of the family,

I possess a letter from Richard Babbage, dated on board the ship in which he sailed for America.

In the year 1773 it became necessary to sell a portion of this property, for the purpose of building a church at Ashbrenton. A private Act of Parliament was passed for that purpose, in which the rights of the true heir were reserved.

["Ashbrenton" is the archaic spelling of the name of two Devon communities, now called "Ashprington" and "Ashburton". The former is very small and its only church is late mediæval, but it is nevertheless evidently the one meant: Richard Burthogge's will speaks of land "in the Parish of Ashbrenton also Ashprington".]