The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Charles Babbage:

Chapter Three


2014 July 7

Thomas Gainsborough: Portrait of Merlin, 1782.

SOURCE: Passages from the Life of a Philosopher by Charles Babbage, Esq., M.A.

Babbage's words are in bold.


Taken to an Exhibition of Mechanism --- Silver Ladies --- School near London --- Unjustly punished --- Injurious Effect --- Ward's Young Mathematician's Guide --- Got up in the Night to Study --- Frederick Marryat interrupts --- Treaty of Peace --- Found out --- Strange Effect of Treacle and Cognac on Boys --- Taught to write Sermons under the Rev. Charles Simeon.

During my boyhood my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself:


I was so greatly interested in it, that the Exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic.

There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high.

One of these walked or rather glided along a space of about four feet, when she turned round and went back to her original place. She used an eye-glass occasionally, and bowed frequently, as if recognizing her acquaintances. The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful.

The other silver figure was an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the fore-finger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings, and opened its beak. This lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible.

These silver figures were the chef-d'oeuvres of the artist : they had cost him years of unwearied labour, and were not even then finished.

["Merlin", astonishingly, was not a pseudonym. The Belgian-born engineer and piano-maker Jean-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) is dimly remembered by a few people today as the inventor of the roller skate, but his seemingly impossible automata amazed contemporaries. One of his creations, the Silver Swan, is still operational and may be viewed in County Durham's Bowes Museum.]

"I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes -- watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller.s shop -- watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it ..." -- Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, ch. xiii (1869)

After I left Devonshire I was placed at a school in the neighbourhood of London, in which there were about thirty boys. My first experience was unfortunate, and probably gave an unfavourable turn to my whole career during my residence of three years.

After I had been at school a few weeks, I went with one of my companions into the play-ground in the dusk of the evening. We heard a noise, as of people talking in an orchard at some distance, which belonged to our master. As the orchard had recently been robbed, we thought that thieves were again at work. We accordingly climbed over the boundary wall, ran across the field, and saw in the orchard beyond a couple of fellows evidently running away. We pursued as fast as our legs could carry us, and just got up to the supposed thieves at the ditch on the opposite side of the orchard.

A roar of laughter then greeted us from two of our own companions, who had entered the orchard for the purpose of getting some manure for their flowers out of a rotten mulberry-tree. These boys were aware of our mistake, and had humoured it.

We now returned all together towards the play-ground, when we met our master, who immediately pronounced that we were each fined one shilling for being out of bounds. We two boys who had gone out of bounds to protect our master's property, and who if thieves had really been there would probably have been half-killed by them, attempted to remonstrate and explain the case ; but all remonstrance was vain, and we were accordingly fined. I never forgot that injustice.

The school-room adjoined the house, but was not directly connected with it. It contained a library of about three hundred volumes on various subjects, generally very well selected ; it also contained one or two works on subjects which do not usually attract at that period of life. I derived much advantage from this library ; and I now mention it because I think it of great importance that a library should exist in every school-room.

Amongst the books was a treatise on Algebra, called "Ward's Young Mathematician's Guide." I was always partial to my arithmetical lessons, but this book attracted my particular attention.

After I had been at this school for about a twelvemonth, I proposed to one of my school-fellows, who was of a studious habit, that we should get up every morning at three o'clock, light a fire in the school-room, and work until five or half-past five. We accomplished this pretty regularly for several months. Our plan had, however, become partially known to a few of our companions. One of these, a tall boy, bigger than ourselves, having heard of it, asked me to allow him to get up with us, urging that his sole object was to study, and that it would be of great importance to him in after-life. I had the cruelty to refuse this very reasonable request. The subject has often recurred to my memory, but never without regret.

Another of my young companions, Frederick Marryat, afterwards Captain Marryat, made the same request, but not with the same motive. I told him we got up in order to work ; that he would only play, and that we should then be found out. After some time, having exhausted all his arguments, Marryat told me he was determined to get up, and would do it whether I liked it or not.

Marryat slept in the same room as myself: it contained five beds. Our room opened upon a landing, and its door was exactly opposite that of the master. A flight of stairs led up to a passage just over the room in which the master and mistress slept. Passing along this passage, another flight of stairs led down, on the other side of the master's bed-room, to another landing, from which another flight of stairs led down to the external door of the house, leading by a long passage to the school-room.

Through this devious course I had cautiously threaded my way, calling up my companion in his room at the top of the last flight of stairs, almost every night for several months.

One night on trying to open the door of my own bed-room, I found Marryat's bed projecting a little before the door, so that I could not open it. I perceived that this was done purposely, in order that I might awaken him. I therefore cautiously, and by degrees, pushed his bed back without awaking him, and went as usual to my work. This occurred two or three nights successively.

One night, however, I found a piece of pack-thread tied to the door lock, which I traced to Marryat's bed, and concluded it was tied to his arm or hand. I merely untied the cord from the lock, and passed on.

A few nights after I found it impossible to untie the cord, so I cut it with my pocket-knife. The cord then became thicker and thicker for several nights, but still my pen-knife did its work.

One night I found a small chain fixed to the lock, and passing thence into Marryat's bed. This defeated my efforts for that night, and I retired to my own bed. The next night I was provided with a pair of plyers, and unbent one of the links, leaving the two portions attached to Marryat's arm and to the lock of the door. This occurred several times, varying by stouter chains, and by having a padlock which I could not pick in the dark.

At last one morning I found a chain too strong for the tools I possessed ; so I retired to my own bed, defeated. The next night, however, I provided myself with a ball of pack-thread. As soon as I heard by his breathing that Marryat was asleep, I crept over to the door, drew one end of my ball of pack-thread through a link of the too-powerful chain, and bringing it back with me to bed, gave it a sudden jerk by pulling both ends of the pack-thread passing through the link of the chain.

Marryat jumped up, put out his hand to the door, found his chain all right, and then lay down. As soon as he was asleep again, I repeated the operation. Having awakened him for the third time, I let go one end of the string, and drew it back by the other, so that he was unable at daylight to detect the cause.

At last, however, I found it expedient to enter into a treaty of peace, the basis of which was that I should allow Marryat to join the night party ; but that nobody else should be admitted. This continued for a short time ; but, one by one, three or four other boys, friends of Marryat, joined our party, and, as I had anticipated, no work was done. We all got to play ; we let off fire-works in the play-ground, and were of course discovered.

Our master read us a very grave lecture at breakfast upon the impropriety of this irregular system of turning night into day, and pointed out its injurious effects upon the health. This, he said, was so remarkable that he could distinguish by their pallid countenances those who had taken part in it. Now he certainly did point out every boy who had been up on the night we were detected. But it appeard to me very odd that the same means of judging had not enabled him long before to discover the two boys who had for several months habitually practised this system of turning night into day !

Photo by "Badagnani" (Wikimedia).

Another of our pranks never received its solution in our master's mind ; indeed I myself scarcely knew its early history. Somehow or other, a Russian young gentleman, who was a parlour-boarder, had I believe, expatiated to Marryat on the virtues of Cognac.

One evening my friend came to me with a quart bottle of what he called excellent stuff. A council was held amongst a few of us boys to decide how we should dispose of this treasure. I did not myself much admire the liquid, but suggested that it might be very good when mixed up with a lot of treacle. This thought was unanimously adopted, and a subscription made to purchase the treacle. Having no vessel sufficiently large to hold the intended mixture, I proposed to take one of our garden-pots, stopping up the hole in its bottom with a cork.

A good big earthen vessel, thus extemporised, was then filled with this wonderful mixture. A spoon or two, an oyster-shell, and various other contrivances delivered it to its numerous consumers, and all the boys got a greater or less share, according to their taste for this extraordinary liqueur.

The feast was over, the garden-pot was restored to its owner, and the treacled lips of the boys had been wiped with their hankerchiefs or on their coat-sleeves, when the bell announced that it was prayer-time. We all knelt in silence at our respective desks. As soon as the prayers were over, one of the oddest scenes occurred.

Many boys rose up from their knees -- but some fell down again. Some turned round several times, and then fell. Some turned round so often that they resembled spinning dervishes. Others were only more stupid than usual ; some complained of being sick ; many were very sleepy ; others were sound asleep, and had to be carried to bed ; some talked fast and heroically, two attempted psalmody, but none listened.

All investigation at the time was useless : we were sent off to bed as quickly as possible. It was only known that Count Cognac had married the sweet Miss Treacle, whom all the boys knew and loved, and who lodged at the grocer's, in the neighbouring village. But I believe neither the pedigree of the bridegroom nor his domicile were ever discovered. It is probable that he was of French origin, and dwelt in a cellar.

"A very wicked parish in Cambridge": (Holy Trinity, Market Street. Photo by Sebastian J. Ballard for Geograph.)

After I left this school, I was for a few years under the care of an excellent clergyman in the neighbourhood of Cambridge. There were only six boys ; but I fear I did not derive from it all the advantage that I might have done. I came into frequent contact with the Rev. Charles Simeon, and with many of his enthusiastic disciples. Every Sunday I had to write from memory an abstract of the sermon he preached in our village.

Even at that period of my life I had a taste for generalization. Accordingly, having generalized some of Mr. Simeon's sermons up to a kind of skeleton form, I tried, by way of experiment, to fill up such a form in a sermon of my own composing from the text of Alexander the coppersmith hath done us much harm, [II Tim. iv. 14]. As well as I remember, there were in my sermon some queer deductions from this text ; but then they fulfilled all the usual conditions of our sermons : so thought also two of my companions to whom I communicated in confidence this new manufacture.

By some unexplained circumstance my sermon relating to copper, being isomorphous with Simeon's own productions, got by substitution into the hands of our master as the recollections of one of the other boys. Thereupon arose an awful explosion which I decline to paint.

I did, however, learn something at this school, for I observed a striking illustration of the Economy of Manufactures. Mr. Simeon had the cure of a very wicked parish in Cambridge, whilst my instructor held that of a tolerably decent country village. If each minister had stuck to the instruction of his own parish, it would have necessitated the manufacture of four sermons per week, whilst, by this beneficial interchange of duties, only two were required.

Each congregation enjoyed also another advantage from this arrangement --- the advantage of variety, which, when moderately indulged in, excites the appetite.

[Most readers today will catch only part of the satire in Babbage's remarks about Simeon, who was a Fellow of King's College for decades and one of the greatest Calvinist preachers of the Nineteenth Century, but for just that reason a man so theologically out-of-place in High-Church Cambridge that his own congregation tried for years to remove him. The methodical construction of Simeon's 2500 or so recorded sermons -- the feature which enabled Babbage to imitate them -- was intentional and no secret. One of Simeon's most influential books was the multi-volume Helps to Composition, or Six Hundred Skeletons of Sermons. -- note the word "skeleton", also used by Babbage -- and his Friday-evening teas, ancestral to all modern campus Christian fellowships, were, in part, seminars on the theory and practise of rhetoric in the pulpit. The idea that preaching is a teachable skill was controversial, and there were accusations that Simeon's technique was an invitation to plagiarism -- or "Economy of Manufactures", as Babbage puts it.

Unlike many of his clerical contemporaries, Simeon hewed closely to the Biblical text in his teaching -- hence Babbage's comic choice of the obscure verse about Alexander the copper-smith as a subject for exposition. One wonders how Babbage's sermon compared with Simeon's commentary on II Tim. iv. 10, a related verse only slightly more promising, in Horæ Homileticæ, or Discourses, in the Form of Skeletons, Upon the Whole Scriptures.]