Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter X
the exhibition of 1862.
"En administration, toutes les sottises sont mères."—Maximes, par M. G. De Levis.
"An abject worship of princes and an unaccountable appetite for knighthood are probably unavoidable results of placing second-rate men in prominent positions."—Saturday Review, January 16, 1864.
"Whose fault is this? But tallow, toys, and sweetmeats evidently stand high in the estimation of Her Majesty's Commissioners."—The Times, August 13, 1862.
Circumstances connected with the Exhibition of the Difference Engine No. 1 in the International Exhibition of 1862.
When the construction of the Difference Engine No. 1 was abandoned by the Government in 1842, I was consulted respecting the place in which it should be deposited. Well aware of the unrivalled perfection of its workmanship, and conscious that it formed the first great step towards reducing the whole science of number to the absolute control of mechanism, I wished it to be placed wherever the greatest number of persons could see it daily.
With this view, I advised that it should be placed in one of the much-frequented rooms of the British Museum. Another locality was, however, assigned to it, and it was confided by the Government to the care of King's College, Somerset House. It remained in safe custody within its glass case in the Museum of that body for twenty years. It is remarkable that during that long period no person should have studied its structure, and, by explaining its nature and use, have acquired an amount of celebrity which the singularity of that knowledge would undoubtedly have produced.
The College authorities did justice to their charge. They put it in the place of honour, in the centre of their Museum, and would, no doubt have given facilities to any of their members or to other persons who might have wished to study it.
But the system quietly pursued by the Government, of ignoring the existence of the Difference Engine and its inventor doubtlessly exercised its deadening influence on those who were inclined, by taste or acquirements, to take such a course.
I shall enumerate a few instances.
1. In 1850, the Government appointed a Commission to organize the Exhibition of 1851.
The name of the author of the Economy of Manufactures was not thought worthy by the Government to be placed on that Commission.
2. In 1851, the Commissioners of the International Exhibition did not think proper to exhibit the Difference Engine, although it was the property of the nation. They were as insensible to the greatest mechanical as to, what has been regarded by some, the greatest intellectual triumph of their country.
3. When it was decided by the people of the United States to have an Exhibition at New York, they sent a Commissioner to Europe to make arrangement for its success. He was authorized to apply for the loan of the Difference Engine for a few months, and was empowered to give any pecuniary guarantee which might be required for its safe return.
That Commissioner, on his arrival, applied to me on the subject. I explained to him the state of the case, and advised him to apply to the Government, whose property it was. I added that, if his application was successful, I would at my own expense put the machine in good working order, and give him every information requisite for its safe conveyance and use. His application was, however, unsuccessful.
4. In 1847, Mr. Dargan nobly undertook at a vast expense to make an Exhibition in Dublin to aid in the relief of his starving countrymen. It was thought that the exhibition of the Difference Engine would be a great attraction. I was informed at the time that an application was made to the Government for its loan, and that it was also unsuccessful.
5. In 1855 the great French Exhibition occurred Previously to its opening, our Government sent Commissioners to arrange and superintend the English department.
These Commissioners reported that the English contribution was remarkably deficient in what in France are termed "instruments de précision," a term which includes a variety of instruments for scientific purposes. They recommended that "a Committee should be appointed who could represent to the producers of Philosophical Instruments how necessary it was that they should, upon an occasion of this kind, maintain their credit in the eyes of Europe." The Government also applied to the Royal Society for advice; but neither did the Royal Society advise, nor the Government propose, to exhibit the Difference Engine.
6. The French Exhibition of 1855 was remarkable beyond all former ones for the number and ingenuity of the machines which performed arithmetical operations.
Pre-eminently above all others stood the Swedish Machine for calculating and printing mathematical Tables. It is honourable to France that its highest reward was deservedly given to the inventor of that machine; whilst it is somewhat remarkable that the English Commissioners appointed to report upon the French Exhibition omitted all notice of these Calculating Machines.
The appearance of the finished portion of the unfinished Difference Engine No. 1 at the Exhibition of 1862 is entirely due to Mr. Gravatt. That gentleman had a few years before paid great attention to the Swedish Calculating Engine of M. Scheutz, and was the main cause of its success in this country.
Being satisfied that it was possible to calculate and print all Tables by machinery, Mr. Gravatt became convinced that the time most arrive when no Tables would ever be calculated or printed except by machines. He felt that it was of great importance to accelerate the arrival of that period, more especially as numerical Tables, which are at present the most expensive kind of printing, would then become the cheapest.
In furtherance of this idea, Mr. Gravatt wrote to Dr. Jelf, the Principal of King's College, Somerset House, to suggest that the Difference Engine of Mr. Babbage, which had for so many years occupied a prominent place in the museum, should be exhibited in the International Exhibition of 1862. He at the same time offered his assistance in the removal and reinstatement of that instrument.
The authorities of the College readily acceded to this plan. On further inquiry, it appeared that the Difference Engine belonged to the Government, and was only deposited with the College. It was then found necessary to make an application to the Treasury for permission to exhibit it, which was accordingly done by the proper authorities.
The Government granted the permission, and referred it to the Board of Works to superintend its placement in the building.
The Board of Works sent to me a copy of the correspondence relative to this matter, asking my opinion whether any danger might be apprehended for the safety of the machine during its transport, and also inquiring whether I had any other suggestion to make upon the subject.
Knowing the great strength of the work, I immediately answered that I did not anticipate the slightest injury from its transport, and that, under the superintendence of Mr. Gravatt, I considered it might be removed with perfect safety. The only suggestion I ventured to offer was, that as the Government possessed in the department of the Registrar-General a copy, made by English workmen, of the Swedish Difference Engine, that it should be exhibited by the side of mine: and that both the Engines should be kept constantly working with a very slow motion.
By a subsequent communication I was informed that the Swedish Machine could not be exhibited, because it was then in constant use, computing certain Tables relating to the values of lives. I regretted this very much. I had intended to alter the handle of my own Engine in order to make it moveable circularly by the same catgut which I had hoped might have driven both. The Tables which the Swedish Machine was employed in printing were not of any pressing necessity, and their execution could, upon such an occasion, have been postponed for a few months without loss or inconvenience.
Besides, if the Swedish Engine had, as I proposed, been placed at work, its superintendent might have continued his table-making with but little delay, and the public would have been highly gratified by the sight.
He could also have given information to the public by occasional explanations of its principles; thus might Her Majesty's Commissioners have gratified thousands of her subjects who came, with intense curiosity, prepared to be pleased and instructed, and whom they sent away amazed and disappointed.
From the experience I had during the first week of the Exhibition, I am convinced that if a fit place had been provided for the two Calculating Machines, so that the public might have seen them both in constant but slow motion, and if the superintendent had occasionally given a short explanation of the principles on which they acted, they would have been one of the greatest attractions within the building.
On Mr. Gravatt applying to the Commissioners for space, it was stated that the Engine must be placed amongst philosophical instruments, Class XIII.
The only place offered for its reception was a small hole, 4 feet 4 inches in front by 5 feet deep. On one side of this was the only passage to the office of the superintendent of the class. The opposite side was occupied by a glass case in which I placed specimens of the separate parts of the unfinished engine. These, although executed by English workmen above thirty years ago, were yet, in the opinion of the most eminent engineers, unsurpassed by any work the building of 1862 contained. The back of this recess was closed in and dark, and only allowed a space on the wall of about five feet by four, on which to place the whole of the drawings and illustrations of the Difference Engine. Close above the top of the machine was a flat roof, which deprived the drawings and the work itself of much light.
The public at first flocked to it: but it was so placed that only three persons could conveniently see it at the same time. When Mr. Gravatt kindly explained and set it in motion, he was continually interrupted by the necessity of moving away in order to allow access to the numerous persons whose business called them to the superintendent's office. At a very early period various representations were made to the Commissioners by the Jury, the superintendent, and very strongly by the press, of the necessity of having some qualified person to explain the machine to the public. I was continually informed by the attendants that hundreds of persons had, during my absence asked, when they could get an opportunity of seeing the machine in motion.
Admiring the earnestness of purpose and the sagacity with which Mr. Gravatt had steadily followed out the convictions of is own mind relative to the abolition of all tables except those made and stereotyped by machinery, I offered all the assistance in my power to accelerate the accomplishment of his task.
I lent him for exhibition numerous specimens of the unfinished portions of the Difference Engine No. 1. These I had purchased on the determination of the Government to abandon its construction in 1842.
I proposed also to lend him the Mechanical Notations of the Difference Engine, which had been made at my own expense, and were finished by myself and my eldest son, Mr. B. Herschel Babbage.
I had had several applications from foreigners for some account of my system of Mechanical Notation, and great desire was frequently expressed to see the illustrations of the method itself, and of its various applications.
These, however, were so extensive that it was impossible, without very great inconvenience, to exhibit them even in my own house.
I therefore wrote to Mr. Gravatt to offer him the loan of the following property for the Exhibition:—
4. A small Arithmetical Machine, by Viscount Mahon, afterwards Earl Stanhope. Without date.
5. A larger Machine, to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, by Viscount Mahon. 1775.
6. Another similar Machine, of a somewhat different construction, for the same operations, by Viscount Mahon. 1777.7. A small Difference Engine, made in London, in consequence of its author having read Dr. Lardner's article in the "Edinburgh Review" of July, 1834, No. CXX.
List of Mechanical Notations proposed to be Lent for the Exhibition.
These drawings and notations would have required for their exhibition about seven or eight hundred square feet of wall. My letter to Mr. Gravatt was forwarded to the Commissioners with his own application for space to exhibit them. The Commissioners declined this offer; yet during the first six weeks of the Exhibition there was at a short distance from the Difference Engine an empty space of wall large enough for the greater part of these instructive diagrams. This portion of wall was afterwards filled up by a vast oil-cloth. Other large portions of wall, to the amount of thousands of square feet, were given up to other oil-cloths, and to numberless carpets. It is evident the Royal Commissioners were much better qualified to judge of furniture for the feet than of furniture for the head.
I was myself frequently asked why I did not employ a person to explain the Difference Engine. In reply to some of my friends, I inquired whether, when they purchased a carriage, they expected the builder to pay the wages of their coachman.
But my greatest difficulty was with foreigners; no explanation I could devise, and I tried many, appeared at all to satisfy their minds. The thing seemed to them entirely incomprehensible.
That the nation possessing the greatest military and commercial marine in the world—the nation which had spent so much in endeavouring to render perfect the means of finding the longitude—which had recently caused to be computed and published at considerable expense an entirely new set of lunar Tables should not have availed itself at any cost of mechanical means of computing and stereotyping such Tables, seemed entirely beyond their comprehension.
At last they asked me whether the Commissioners were bêtes. I assured them that the only one with whom I was personally acquainted certainly was not.
When hard pressed by difficult questions, I thought it my duty as an Englishman to save my country's character, even at the expense of my own. So on one occasion I suggested to my unsatisfied friends that Commissioners were usually selected from the highest class of society, and that possibly four out of five had never heard of my name.
But here again my generous efforts to save the character of my country and its Commissioners entirely failed. Several of my foreign friends had known me in their own homes, and had seen the estimation in which I was held by their own countrymen and by their own sovereign. These were still more astonished.
On another occasion an anecdote was quoted against me to prove that my name was well known even in China. It may, perhaps, amuse the reader. A short time after the arrival of Count Strzelecki in England, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the table of a common friend. Many inquiries were made relative to his residence in China. Much interest was expressed by several of the party to learn on what subject the Chinese were most anxious to have information. Count Strzelecki told them that the subject of most frequent inquiry was Babbage's Calculating Machine. On being further asked as to the nature of the inquiries, he said they were most anxious to know whether it would go into the pocket. Our host now introduced me to Count Strzelecki, opposite to whom I was then sitting. After expressing my pleasure at the introduction, I told the Count that he might safely assure his friends in the Celestial Empire that it was in every sense of the word an out-of-pocket machine.
At last the Commissioners were moved, not to supply the deficiency themselves, but to address the Government, to whom the Difference Engine belonged, to send somebody to explain it. I received a communication from the Board of Works, inquiring whether I could make any suggestions for getting over this difficulty. I immediately made inquiries, and found a person who formerly had been my amanuensis, and had, under my direction, worked out many most intricate problems. He possessed very considerable knowledge of mathematics, and was willing, for the moderate remuneration of six shillings a day, to be present daily during nine hours to explain the Difference Engine.
I immediately sent this information to the Board of Works, with the name and address of the person I recommended. This, I have little doubt, was directly communicated to the Commissioners; but they did not avail themselves of his services.
It is difficult, upon any principle, to explain the conduct of the Royal Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1862. They were appointed by the Government, yet when the Government itself became an exhibitor, and sent for exhibition a Difference Engine, the property of the nation, these Commissioners placed it in a small hole in a dark corner, where it could, with some difficulty, be seen by six people at the same time.
No remonstrance was of the slightest avail; it was "Hobson's choice," that or none. It was represented that all other space was occupied.
A trophy of children's toys, whose merits, it is true, the Commissioners were somewhat more competent to appreciate, filled one of the most prominent positions in the building. On the other hand, a trophy of the workmanship of English engineers, executed by machine tools thirty years before, and admitted by the best judges to be unsurpassed by any rival, was placed in a position not very inappropriate for the authorities themselves who condemned it to that locality.
But no hired aristocratic agent was employed to excite the slumbering perceptions of the Commissioners, who might have secured a favourable position for the Difference Engine, by practising on their good nature, or by imposing upon their imbecility.
It has been urged, in extenuation of the conduct of these Commissioners, that their duty as guardians of the funds intrusted to them, and of the interests of the Guarantors, compelled them to practise a rigid economy.
Rigid economy is to be respected only when it is under the control of judgment, not of favouritism. If the machinery for making arithmetical calculations which was placed at the disposal of the Commissioners had been properly arranged, it might have been made at once a source of high gratification to the public and even of profit to the Exhibition.
Such a group of Calculating Machines might have been placed by themselves in a small court capable of holding a limited number of persons. Round the walls of this court might have been hung the drawings I had offered to lend, containing the whole of those necessary for the Difference Engine No. 2, as well as a large number of illustrations for the explanation of the Mechanical Notation. The Swedish Difference Engine and my own might have been slowly making calculations during the whole day.
This court should have been open to the public generally, except at two or three periods of half an hour each, during which it should have been accessible only to those who had previously secured tickets at a shilling apiece.
During each half hour the person whom I had recommended to the Commissioners might have given a short popular explanation of the subject.
This attraction might have been still further increased, and additional profit made, if a single sheet of paper had been printed containing a woodcut of the Swedish Machine, an impression from a page of the Tables computed and stereotyped by it at Somerset House, and also an impression from a stereotype plate of the Difference Engine exhibited by the Government.
A plate of the Swedish Machine is in existence in London. I am confident that, for such a purpose, I could have procured the loan of it for the Commissioners, and I would willingly have supplied them with the stereotype plate from which the frontispage of the present volume was printed, together with from ten to twenty lines of necessary explanation.
These illustrations of machinery used for computing and printing Tables might have been put up into packets of dozens and half dozens, and also have been sold in single sheets at the rate of one penny each copy. There can be no doubt the sale of them would have been very considerable. As it was, I found the woodcut representing the Difference Engine No. 1 in great request, and during the exhibition I had numberless applications for it; having given away my whole stock of about 800 copies.
The calculating court might have held comfortably from sixty to eighty seats. Each lecture would have produced say 3l. This being repeated three times each day, together with the sale of the woodcuts, would have produced about 10l. per day, out of which the Commissioners would have had six shillings per day to pay the assistant who gave the required explanations.
If the dignity of the Commissioners would not permit them to make money by such means, they might have announced that the proceeds of the tickets would be given to the distressed population of the Manchester district, and there would then have been crowds of visitors.
But the rigid economy of the Commissioners, who refused to expend six shillings a day for an attendant, although it would most probably have produced a return of several hundred pounds, was entirely laid aside when their patronage was to be extended to a brother official.
Captain Fowke, an officer of engineers, whose high order of architectural talent became afterwards so well known to the public, and whose whole time and services were retained and paid for by the country, was employed to make a design for the Exhibition Building.
The Commissioners approved of this design, which comprised two lofty domes, uniting in themselves the threefold inconvenience of being ugly, useless, and expensive. They then proceeded to pay him five thousand pounds for the job.
This system of awarding large sums of money to certain favoured public officers who are already paid for their services by liberal salaries seems to be a growing evil. At the period of the Irish famine the under-secretary of the Treasury condescended to accept 2,500l. out of the fund raised to save a famished nation. Some inquiries, even recently, were occasionally made whether any similar deduction will be allowed from the liberal contributions to the sufferers by the cotton famine.
The question was raised and the practice reprobated in the House of Commons by men of opposite party politics. Mr. Gladstone remarked:—
"If there was one rule connected with the public service which more than any other ought to be scrupulously observed, it was this, that the salary of a public officer, more especially if he were of high rank, ought to cover all the services he might be called upon to render. Any departure from this rule must be dangerous." Hansard, vol. 101, p. 138, 1848. Supply, 14 Aug. 1848. See also "The Exposition of 1851," 8vo., p. 217.
The following paragraph appeared in "The Times" a short time since, under the head Naval Intelligence:—
"A reply has been received to the memorial transmitted to the Admiralty some few days since from the inspectors employed on the iron frigate 'Achilles,' building at Chatham dockyard, requesting that they may be placed on the same footing as regards increased pay as the junior officers and mechanics working on the iron frigate for the additional number of hours they are employed in the dockyard. The Lords of the Admiralty intimate that they cannot accede to the wishes of the memorialists, who are reminded that, as salaried officers of the establishment, the whole of their time is at the disposal of the Admiralty. This decision has caused considerable dissatisfaction."
It appears that the Admiralty wisely adopted the principle enunciated by Mr. Gladstone.
It may, however, not unreasonably have caused dissatisfaction to those who had no interest to back them on finding that such large sums are pocketed by those who are blessed with influential friends in high quarters.
If the Commissioners had really wished to have obtained a suitable building at a fair price their course was simple and obvious. They need only have stated the nature and amount of accommodation required, and then have selected half a dozen of the most eminent firms amongst our great contractors, who would each have given them an estimate of the plans they respectively suggested.
The Commissioners might have made it one of the conditions that they should not be absolutely bound to give the contract to the author of the plan accepted. But in case of not employing him a sum previously stipulated should have been assigned for the use of the design.
By such means they would have had a choice of various plans, and if those plans had, previously to the decision of the Commissioners, been publicly exhibited for a few weeks, they might have been enlightened by public criticism. Such a course would have prevented the gigantic job they afterwards perpetrated. It could therefore find no support from the Commissioners.
The present Commissioners, however, are fit successors to those who in 1851 ignored the existence of the author of the "Economy of Manufactures" and his inventions. They seem to have been deluded into the belief that they possessed the strength, as well as the desire, quietly to strangle the Difference Engine.
It would be idle to break such butterflies upon its matchless wheels, or to give permanence to such names by reflecting them from its diamond-graven plates. Though the steam-hammer can crack the coating without injuring the kernel of the filbert it drops upon—the admirable precision of its gigantic power could never be demonstrated by exhausting its energy upon an empty nut-shell.
Peace, then, to their memory, aptly enshrined in unknown characters within the penetralia of the temple of oblivion.
These celebrities may there at last console themselves in the enjoyment of one enviable privilege denied to them during their earthly career—exemption from the daily consciousness of being "found out."
It is, however, not quite impossible, although deciphering is a brilliant art, that one or other of them may have heard of the dread power of the decipherer. Having myself had some slight acquaintance with that fascinating pursuit, it gives me real pleasure to relieve them from this very natural fear by assuring them that not even the most juvenile decipherer could be so stupid as to apply himself to the interpretation of—characters known to be meaningless.
Yet there is one name amongst, but not of them—a fellow-worshipper with myself at far other fanes, whose hands, like mine, have wielded the hammer, and whose pen, like mine, has endeavoured to communicate faithfully to his fellow-men the measure of those truths he has himself laboriously extracted from the material world. With such endowments, it is impossible that he could have had any cognizance of this part of the proceedings of his colleagues.
At the commencement of the Exhibition, Mr. Gravatt was constantly present, and was so kind as to explain to many anxious inquirers the nature and uses of the Difference Engine. This, however, interfered so much with his professional engagements as a Civil Engineer, that it would have been unreasonable to have expected its continuance. In fact, as not above half a dozen spectators could see the machine at once, it was a great sacrifice of valuable time for a very small result.
During the early part of my own examination of the Exhibition I had many opportunities of conversing with experienced workmen, well qualified to appreciate the workmanship of the Difference Engine; these I frequently accompanied to its narrow cell, and pointed out to them its use, as well as the means by which its various parts had received their destined form.
Occasionally also I explained it to some few of my personal friends. When Mr. Gravatt or myself were thus engaged, a considerable crowd was often collected, who were anxious to hear about, although they could not see, the Engine itself.
Upon one of these occasions I was insulted by impertinent questions conveyed in a loud voice from a person at a distance in the crowd. My taste for music, and especially for organs, was questioned. I was charitable enough to suppose that this was an exceptional case; but in less than a week another instance occurred. After this experience, of course, I seldom went near the Difference Engine. Mr. Gravatt who had generously sacrificed a considerable portion of his valuable time for the information and instruction of the public was now imperatively called away by professional engagements, and the public had no information whatever upon a subject on which it was really very anxious to be instructed.
Fortunately, however, the Exhibition took place during the long vacation; and a friend of mine, Mr. Wilmot Buxton, of the Chancery Bar, very frequently accompanied me in my visits. Possessing a profound knowledge of the mathematical principles embodied in the mechanism, I had frequently pointed out to him its nature and relations. These I soon found he so well apprehended that I felt justified in intrusting him with one of my keys of the machine, in order that he might have access to it without the necessity of my presence.
Whenever he opened it for his own satisfaction or for the instruction of his friends, he was speedily surrounded by a far larger portion of the public than could possibly see it, but who were still attracted by his lucid oral explanation.
It was fortunate for many of the visitors to the Exhibition that this occurred, for the demands on his time, when present, were incessant, and hundreds thus acquired from his explanations a popular view of the subject.
After the close of the Exhibition, Mr. Gravatt and myself attended to prepare the Difference Engine for its return to the Museum of King's College. To our great astonishment, we found that it had already been removed to the Museum at South Kensington. Not only the Difference Engine itself, but also the illustrations and all the unfinished portions of exquisite workmanship which I had lent to the Exhibition for its explanation, were gone.
On Mr. Gravatt applying to the Board of Works, it was stated that the Difference Engine itself had been placed in the Kensington Museum because the authorities of King's College had declined receiving it, and immediate instructions were of course given for the restoration of my own property.
- An illustration fell under my notice a few days after this paragraph was printed. A new work on Geometrical Drawing, commissioned by the Committee of Council on Education, was published by Professor Bradley. I have not been able to find in it a single word concerning "Mechanical Notation," not even the very simplest portion of that science, namely, the Art of Lettering Drawings. It would seem impossible that any Professor of so limited a subject could be ignorant of the existence of such an important addition to its powers.
- One object of the mission of Professor Bolzani was, to take back with him to Russia such an account of the Mechanical Notation as might facilitate its teaching in the Russian Universities. I regret that it was entirely out of my power to assist him.
- See Proceedings of British Association at Glasgow, 1855, p. 203; also Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. xv., 1856.
- See "The Times," 19 Jan., 1863, and elsewhere.
- About the 20th of May, 1863.
- For the purpose of testing the steadiness and truth of the tools employed in forming the gun-metal plates, I had some dozen of them turned with a diamond point. The perfect equality of its cut caused the reflected light to be resolved into those beautiful images pointed out by Frauenhofer, and also so much admired in the celebrated gold buttons produced by the late Mr. Barton, the Comptroller of the Mint.
- I have since learnt, with real satisfaction, that my friend, Mr. Fairbain, was not a member of that incompetent Commission.