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Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!


Charles Dickens was born two hundred years ago today. On the occasion, I would like to remember a connection between Dickens and one of the members of the philosophical breakfast club, Charles Babbage.

Babbage and Dickens were part of the same London social circles; they met often at parties and dinners. Babbage dined at Dickens’ house, at least once in the company of his friend and collaborator in publicizing his engines, Lady Ada Lovelace (and her husband). Dickens is known to have attended Babbage’s own Saturday evening soirees at least once; at these parties, Babbage frequently demonstrated the partial model of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine no. 1.

It is thought—with good reason—that Dickens based the character of Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit (1855–57) partly on Babbage and partly on his engineer, Joseph Clement. His portrayal of the Circumlocution Office satirizes the British Treasury and its dealings with Babbage over funding his building of the Difference Engine no. 1.

‘This Doyce,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘is a smith and engineer. He is not
hing a large way, but he is well known as a very ingenious man. A 
dozen years ago, he perfects an invention (involving a very curious
 secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow-
creatures. I won’t say how much money it cost him, or how many
 years of his life he had been about it, but he brought it to
 perfection a dozen years ago….He addresses himself to the Government. The moment he
 addresses himself to the Government, he becomes a public offender!…. He is treated from that instant as a man who has done some infernal 
action. He is a man to be shirked, put off, brow-beaten, sneered
 at, handed over by this highly-connected young or old gentleman, to 
that highly-connected young or old gentleman, and dodged back
 again; he is a man with no rights in his own time, or his own
property; a mere outlaw, whom it is justifiable to get rid of 
anyhow; a man to be worn out by all possible means.’

Soon after the publication of Little Dorrit, Dickens and Babbage joined together in anger against the “street musicians,” mainly organ-grinders from Italy, who were, in the 1850s and 1860s, a scourge to all Londoners—especially those whose work required concentration. These “performers” would go from street to street, making noise on their often un-tuned organs, until someone paid them to go away (a form of extortion familiar to some subway riders in New York City!). Thomas Carlyle spent a small fortune constructing a soundproof study in his London home. Dickens told a friend that he could not write for more than an hour without being driven to distraction by organ grinders. This was a problem in France as well, as the cartoon below shows!

Lord Palmerston asks Napoleon III why he does not move on the Popish organ grinder causing a disturbance outside the Hotel De L’Europe

Finally, the brewer Michael Thomas Bass, Member of Parliament, introduced a parliamentary act “Act for the Better Regulation of Street Music in the Metropolis,” which would give policemen the right to arrest any street performer who did not leave a neighborhood when requested by a homeowner. Babbage figured prominently in the pamphlet Bass published to gain support for his bill. Bass reproduced a newspaper editorial in which its readers were chastised to remember that “the services of Mr. Babbage are employed by the Government in calculations of the highest importance; these calculations require the strictest accuracy; and calm and quiet are absolutely necessary for their development.” (Babbage was not in fact “employed by the Government” in any sense at that point, all funding for his engines having been cut off, but it is telling that Bass thought appealing to Babbage’s need for quiet would have the desired effect!) Dickens contributed a letter to the pamphlet bemoaning the “brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads!”

When the Bill passed parliament in July 1864, writers and scholars of all types were grateful. The logician Augustus De Morgan wrote to John Herschel, “Babbage’s Act has passed, and he is a public benefactor. A grinder went away from my house at the first word.”

Dickens and Babbage enjoyed the relative peace for only a few years; Dickens died six years later, Babbage six and a half. During these years, Dickens wrote and published Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and toured America for the second time. Babbage continued to work obsessively on the plans for his Analytical Engine, the first prototype of a modern computer, with little hope of ever finishing.

Happy Birthday, Charles Babbage!

Charles Babbage, mathematician, philosopher, inventor, engineer, and member of the philosophical breakfast club, was born 220 years ago today, on December 26, 1791.

Sadly, Babbage is mainly known today for successes that were also failures: although Babbage invented the first general purpose calculating machine (the Difference Engines no. 1 and 2), and the first prototype of a modern computer (the Analytical Engine), he failed to build any of them completely–even though the British government gave him funds well beyond what any other natural philosopher or inventor had received from the public purse (I discuss the reasons for this failure in The Philosophical Breakfast Club).

One of his biographers has dubbed Babbage the “irascible genius,” and it is true that, by the end of his life, he was both. In part that is because he saw that few people in Britain, not only politicians but also natural philosophers, could really see the point of the extraordinary precision that the engines could bring to calculation. Babbage frequently expressed his frustration with this attitude, most pithily in this quotation:

Propose to an Englishman any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.

Today, when computers are so fully integrated into our science and our everyday lives, we can celebrate the birthday of the first true computing visionary.