Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXIV

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage


experience at courts.

The Author invited to a Meeting at Turin of the Philosophers of Italy, 1840—The King, Charles Albert—Reflections on Shyness—Question of Dress—Electric Telegraph—Theory of Storms—Remark of an Italian Friend in the evening at the Opera—Various Instruments taken to the Palace, and shown to the young Princes—The Queen being absent—The reason why—The young Princes did great credit to their Governor—The General highly gratified—The Philosopher proposes another difficult question—It is referred to the King himself—An audience is granted to ask the King's permission to present the woven Silk Engraving of Jacquard to Her Majesty—Singular but Comic Scene—The final Capture of the Butterflies—Visit to Raconigi—The Vintage.

About a quarter of a century ago the Court of Turin had the reputation of being the most formal and punctilious of any in Europe. It was dull to the diplomatic officials, who were doomed like planets to circulate around it, though not without interest to the inquiring traveller, whose orbit, like that of a comet, passed through its atmosphere only at distant intervals.

In 1840 I received a gratifying invitation to meet the élite of the science of Italy at Turin. On my arrival I immediately took measures to pay my respects in the usual manner to the sovereign of the country. Having inquired of a nobleman [1] high in the confidence of the King, when there would occur a levee, in order that I might have the honour of being presented, I was informed that his Majesty was aware of my arrival, and would receive me at a private audience. Two days after I had a formal visit from Count Alessandro Saluzzo to inform me that the King would receive me the next day at two o'clock.

I then made inquiries as to the usual dress, and found that a court dress was not considered essential on such occasions, especially for a foreigner, and that I might with perfect propriety go in plain clothes. I was glad to avail myself of this permission; but in order to prevent any misapprehension, I drove up to the palace about a quarter of an hour before the appointed time, and called upon General Cesare de Salluce,[2] the governor of the two young princes, the present King of Italy and the late Duke of Genoa, then respectively about eighteen and seventeen years of age.

The General kindly offered to accompany me to the ante-chamber. In the course of our conversation I took an opportunity of mentioning that, having been informed I might appear in plain clothes, I had thought it most respectful to his sovereign to wear the same dress I had worn a few days before I left England, when I had the honour of being invited to the first party[3] given by a subject to my own sovereign.

I had already been informed that the King, Charles Albert, took a great interest in the success of the meeting; that he was a very good man, but remarkably shy; and that he probably would not detain me more than perhaps five minutes.

I had myself experienced the misery of that affliction, and felt how much more painful it most inevitably become when it fell to the lot of a person placed in the most exalted rank.

On entering the ante-room I found a number of the most distinguished people of the country waiting for audience, the king at that time being occupied, as I was informed, with one of his ministers. On his exit the master of the ceremonies announced that his Majesty would receive me.

I then entered the Royal reception-room, and was presented to the King. He was a remarkably tall person, dressed in military costume, having a very peculiar expression of countenance, which I was at a loss how immediately to interpret. The King invited me to sit down, and I followed his Majesty to a large bay-window, where we immediately sat down on two stools opposite to each other.

The King expressed his satisfaction that I had come from so considerable a distance to assist at the councils of the men of science then assembling in his own capital. Of course I replied by remarking that the advancement of the sciences contributed to the material as well as to the intellectual progress of every nation, and that when a sovereign, intimately convinced of this truth, took measures for the extension and diffusion of knowledge, it was the duty of all those engaged in its cultivation respectfully to assist as far as their individual circumstances permitted.

After a short pause, the King put some question which I do not remember, except that it was one of the conventional topics of society: perhaps it might have related to my journey. I now felt that unless I could raise some question of curiosity in his Majesty's mind, to overcome his natural reserve, the interview would soon terminate precisely in the manner predicted. I therefore, in replying to this question, contrived to introduce a remarkable fact relative to the electric telegraph, I soon perceived that it had taken hold of the King's imagination, and the next question confirmed my view. "For what purposes," said the King, "will the electric telegraph become useful?"

I must here request the reader to go back in his memory to the state of our knowledge in 1840, when electricity and other subjects, now of every-day application, were just commencing their then eccentric but now regulated course.

The King put the very question I had wished. Carefully observing his countenance, I felt that I was advancing in a tract in which he was interested. At each pause the proper question was suggested, and at last I pointed out the probability that, by means of the electric telegraphs, his Majesty's fleet might receive warning of coming storms. This led to the new theory of storms, about which the king was very curious. By degrees I endeavoured to make it clear. I cited, as an illustration, a storm which had occurred but a short time before I left England. The damage done by it at Liverpool was very great, and at Glasgow immense. On one large property in the west coast of Scotland thirty thousand timber-trees had been thrown down.

I then explained that by subsequent inquiries it had been found that this storm arose from the overlapping of two circular whirlwinds, one of them coming up from the Atlantic bodily at the rate of twenty miles an hour, the other passing at the rate of twelve miles an hour, in a north-westerly direction, to Glasgow, where they coalesced, and destroyed property to the value of above half a million sterling. I added that if there had been electric communication between Genoa and a few other places the people of Glasgow might have had information of one of those storms twenty-four hours previously to its arrival, and could then have taken effective measures for the security of much of their shipping.

During this conversation I had felt rather uneasy at occupying the king's time so long when several of his own ministers were waiting in his ante-room for an audience, perhaps upon important business. Urged by this truly conscientious motive, I committed a gaucherie of the deepest water—I half rose from my stool to take leave of his Majesty. The King, as well he might, lifted up both his hands and then expressed the greatest interest in the continuance of the subject.

After a conversation of about five-and-twenty minutes the King rose, and, walking with me to the door, I made my bow. The King then held out his hand.

Here might have arisen a puzzling question, what I ought to have done; but previously to the interview I had taken the precaution of inquiring of one of my Sardinian friends what were the usual forms, and whether it was customary to kiss hands on being presented to the sovereign. The answer was in the negative. The ceremony of kissing hands, he informed me, never took place except when a native subject was appointed to some very high office.

I therefore immediately perceived that the King had done me the honour of adopting the salutation of my own country. Under these circumstances I shook hands as an Englishman does, and then, bowing profoundly, retired.

In the course of the evening of that day, being at the opera, I visited the box of one of my Italian acquaintances. A great friend of mine, also an Italian, who had been dining at the palace, came in soon after. He said to me, "What an extraordinary person you are! You have perfectly fascinated our King, who has done nothing but talk of you and the things you have told him during the whole of dinner-time."

I admit I felt great satisfaction at this announcement of the complete success of my daring experiment. It assured me that my unusual deviation from the routine of a Court was fully justified by the interest the matter communicated had awakened in the King's mind.

I had brought with me to Turin several models and various instruments connected with science and mechanical art, which of course had been examined by many of my scientific and personal friends. Unfortunately, on two occasions, when General de Salluce, who was much my senior in years, called upon me, I happened to be absent from the house. Knowing how fully his time was occupied by his illustrious pupils, I much regretted that I had not been at home when he called, and during one of my visits at the palace I offered to bring with me, on another occasion, some of the things I thought might be most interesting.

The General could not think of giving me that trouble, and at first very courteously declined the proposal. But after a moment or two he said, "On second thoughts, I will accept your kind offer, because I think it may be useful to my young pupils."

On the morning proposed I drove up to the palace with some boxes containing the various apparatus, and was immediately shown into a large room nearly at the top of the palace. After opening the boxes and giving the General a glance at the various articles, I remarked that several of them were interesting to ladies, and that possibly the Queen, if made acquainted with it, might like to accompany her sons; in which case it would, perhaps, be more convenient for her Majesty if they were placed in a lower room of the palace.

The idea appeared a happy one; the General was much pleased at it, and said he would go immediately and take her Majesty's pleasure on the subject. After considerable delay General de Salluce returned, evidently much disappointed, and said he was commanded by the Queen to thank me for the attention, and to express her Majesty's regret that she was prevented by an engagement from accompanying the young Princes.

When everything was arranged, and the hour appointed had arrived, the young Princes, accompanied by, I presume, various members of the royal household, and their Governor, arrived. Altogether there might have been about a dozen or fourteen persons of both sexes present.

I pointed out the use and structure of most of the instruments. Some objects belonged to mechanical art, such as patent locks and tools; a few were related to the Fine Arts.

The whole party seemed much pleased; the young Princes particularly took a great interest in them, whereat the General was highly gratified. Before his young pupils retired, I took the General aside and inquired whether it was consistent with their customs that I should present to each of his two pupils one of the various (but in a pecuniary sense trifling) articles which they had examined. I was glad to find that I might be permitted to leave behind me two little souvenirs of a most agreeable day.

The whole party, with the exception of General de Salluce, had now retired. We walked up and down the room together for some time, conversing upon the success of the meeting. My excellent friend was justly delighted with the intelligent inquiries made by his pupils.

I thought I now perceived a favourable opportunity of ascertaining the cause of the Queen's absence.

After some kind expression towards me, I suddenly stopped, and, looking inquiringly into his countenance, said, "Now, General, just before this very agreeable party met you went to invite the Queen, and you returned and then told me the officil. Now pray do tell me the real."

The surprise of the General was certainly great, but, with a most agreeable smile, he immediately consented.

It appears that its history was thus. The General went to the Queen's apartments and asked, through her lord-in-waiting, to be permitted to see her Majesty. This request was immediately granted. The General then informed the Queen that amongst the things her sons were going to see were several which might, perhaps, interest her Majesty. The Queen said she would accompany her sons, and then directed her own lord-in-waiting to go and ask the King's permission.

Accordingly the Queen's lord-in-waiting went to the King's apartments, and found that he was sitting in Council. He proceeded to the ante-room of the Council-chamber, and there found the King's lord-in-waiting, to whom he communicated his mission.

The King's lord-in-waiting then informed the Queen's lord-in-waiting that important news[4] had just arrived, and that a special council had been called; that of course he was ready to convey the Queen's message immediately, but he suggested whether, under these circumstances, the Queen would wish it.

The Queen's lord-in-waiting now returned to her Majesty for further instructions.

Of course the Queen, like a good wife, at once gave up the intention of accompanying her sons in their interview with the philosopher. I felt much regret at this disappointment. The Queen of Sardinia was the sister of the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Leopold II.), from whom I had, many years before, when under severe affliction from the loss of a large portion of my family, received the most kind and gratifying attention.

On my road to Turin I had passed a few days at Lyons, in order to examine the silk manufacture. I was specially anxious to see the loom in which that admirable specimen of fine art, the portrait of Jacquard, was woven. I passed many hours in watching its progress.

I possessed one copy, which had been kindly given to me by a friend; but as I had proposed to visit Florence after the meeting at Turin, I wished to procure another copy to present to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

These beautiful productions were not made for sale; but, as a favour, I was allowed to purchase one of them.

Whilst the General was giving me this illustration of Court etiquette, it occurred to me that the silken engraving would be an appropriate offering to a lady.

I therefore again asked my friend whether, consistently with the usages of the country, I might be permitted to offer the engraving to the Queen.

The sudden change of his countenance from gay to grave was very remarkable. I feared I had proposed something of the most unusual kind. The General then slowly replied, "I will take the King's pleasure on the subject."

Two days after the General informed me that the King would give me an audience the next day, in order that I might ask permission to present the woven engraving to the Queen.

Accordingly, at the appointed hour, I went to the palace with the large cartoon-case containing the portrait of Jacquard.[5] On being admitted into the presence of the King, I placed the case upon a sofa, and, opening it carefully, unfolded the woven portrait from a crowd of sheets of silver paper of the most ethereal lightness. I then placed it in his Majesty's hands. The King examined it minutely on both sides, inquired about its structure, and appeared much pleased at the sight.

I now went over to replace the engraving in its travelling-carriage. The instant it approached its paper case a multitude of sheets of silver paper were disturbed in their snug repose, and forthwith flew up into the air. I made many ineffectual efforts to catch these runaways. The King most condescendingly came to my assistance, took the portrait out of my hands, and endeavoured himself to replace it in its nest, whilst I was attempting to catch the flying covey.

But these volatile papers had no proper respect even for royalty. The quires of silver paper which had remained in the case now came out in all directions, whether to do honour to the King by rising to receive him, or to recall their flighty sisters to their deserted couch I know not; but somehow or other both the King and myself were on the floor upon our knees, having secured some few of the fallen angels, whilst a cloud of others, still on the wing, continually eluded our grasp.

At last I gave up the idea of grabbing at the flying sheets, and confined my attention to seizing on the fallen ones. While still on my knees, I suddenly felt an obstacle presented to my right foot. On looking round I perceived that the heel of royalty had come into contact with the toe of philosophy.

A comic yet kindly smile beamed upon the countenance of the King, whilst an irrepressible but not irreverent one, lightened up my own.

The whole army of butterflies being at last captured, and the engraving replaced, the King entered into a conversation with me upon various subjects.

The processes of wine-making then became the subject of conversation. I believe I may have observed incidentally in reply to some question, that my information was only derived from books, as I had not had an opportunity of seeing any of its processes. About a week after this, one of the officers of the household called upon me, and told me that the vintage of Raconigi, one of the King's beautiful domains, at about a dozen miles from Turin, would commence in the following week; that he was commanded by his Majesty, in case I should wish to examine the processes, to inform me of the circumstance, and to accompany me for the purpose of explaining them—a mission, he was so kind as to add, which would personally be highly gratifying to himself.

I willingly accepted this most agreeable proposition, and the day was fixed upon. At an early hour my friend was at my door in one of the royal carriages. The weather was magnificent, and we drove through a beautiful country.

On arriving at the vineyard we found several of the processes in full operation. Each in succession was explained; and after spending a most instructive morning, we found an excellent dinner prepared for us at the palace, where I had the pleasure of meeting General ——, who presided, and who had spent several years in England.

On our return in the evening I observed a dragoon apparently accompanying the carriage. At first I took it for granted that his road happened to be the same as ours; but after a mile or two had been passed over, seeing him still close to us, I inquired of my companion if he knew whither the soldier was going. It then appealed that he had been sent by the General as a complimentary escort.

However gratified I felt by this attention, I still was quite uncomfortable at the idea of having a man galloping after our carriage for ten miles. I therefore appealed to my friend to suspend this unnecessary loss of vis viva. With some reluctance the dragoon was exempted from further attendance upon the philosopher.

Shortly before I left Turin, one of my Italian friends remarked, with evident feelings of pride and satisfaction, upon the attentions I had received from his sovereign. "The King, he observed, has done three things for you, which are very unusual—

"He has shaken hands with you.

"He has asked you to sit down at an audience.

"He has permitted you to make a present to the Queen. This last," he added, "is the rarest of all."

Two days before my departure from Turin, I had an audience, to take leave of his Majesty. The King inquired in what direction I intended to travel homeward. I mentioned my intention of taking the mail to Geneva, because it traversed a most remarkable suspension-bridge over a deep ravine. The span of this bridge, which is named, after the king, Pont Charles Albert, is six hundred French feet, and the depth of the chasm over which it is suspended is also six hundred French feet. The King immediately opened a drawer, and, taking out a small bronze medal, struck to celebrate the opening of the bridge, presented it to me.

I now took the opportunity of expressing to the King my gratitude for the many and kind attentions I had received from his subjects, and more especially for the honour he had himself recently done me by sending one of his ministers officially to convey to me his Majesty's high approbation of my conduct.

The King then entered upon another course of inquiry, more immediately connected with his government. I had on several occasions, when a favourable opportunity presented itself, drawn the King's attention to the doctrine of free trade—a subject on which he evidently felt a great desire to be informed. The questions put to me, though necessary for assisting the King to arrive at right conclusions, were of such a nature that I considered them confidential, and therefore forbear to relate them.

Two days after I started by the mail for Geneva. I shared the Coupé of the Malle Poste with the courier, a very intelligent officer. On mentioning my wish to see the celebrated bridge, he informed me that he was already aware of my wishes, and that he had received orders to detain the mail a quarter of an hour, that I might have a good opportunity of seeing it.

The scene which presented itself on my approach to the Pont Charles Albert was singularly grand. We had been driving for some time along a road skirting the edge of an immense chasm, six hundred and forty English feet in depth. The opposite side was hid from our view by a mist which hung over it. At the next bend in the road a portion of the bridge suddenly became visible to us. It appeared to spring from a massive pier on which the chains on our side of the ravine rested. The bridge itself was nearly level, and was visible for about three-quarters only of its length as it traversed the valley far beneath it. The termination of the ascending portion of the chains on the further pier, and that part of the bridge itself, were completely concealed by the mist It really seemed like a bridge springing from a lofty cliff spanning the sea beneath and suspended on the distant clouds. When we had descended from the mail at the commencement, we had directed the postilions to drive slowly across the bridge, then about a third of a mile distant from us.

We were singularly favoured by circumstances. We saw the carriage which had just left us apparently crossing the bridge, then penetrating into the clouds, and finally becoming entirely lost to our view. At the same time the dissolving mist in our own immediate neighbourhood began to allow us to perceive the depth of the valley beneath, and at last even the little wandering brook, which looked like a thread of silver at its bottom.

The sun now burst out from behind a range of clouds, which had obscured it. Its warm rays speedily dissipated the mist, illuminated the dark gulf at our own side, and discovered to us the mail on terra firma on the opposite side of the chasm waiting to convey us to our destination.

On our arrival at Annecy, my thoughtful companion informed me that the mail would wait five-and-forty minutes. He suggested, as I was not in good health, that I should immediately on my arrival get into bed, whilst he would order tea, or supper, or any refreshment I might prefer, and that he would be answerable for calling me at the proper time to enable me to get comfortably whatever I might require, and be ready to start again with the mail.

I have frequently attempted to assign in my own mind the reasons of the singularly favourable reception I met with from the King of Sardinia. The reputation arising from the Analytical Engine could scarcely have produced that effect. The position of a sovereign is a very exceptional one. He is surrounded by persons each of whom has always one or more objects to gain. It is scarcely within the limits of possibility that he can have a real friend, or if he have that rarest commodity, that he can know the fact.

A certain amount of distrust must therefore almost always exist in his mind. But this habitual distrust applies less to foreigners than to his own subjects. The comet which passes through the thick atmosphere of a Court may be temporarily disturbed in its path though it may never revisit it again.

Perhaps the first element of my success was, that having been the victim of shyness in early life, I could sympathise with those who still suffered under that painful complaint.

Another reason may have been, that I never stated more than I really knew. This is, I believe, a very unusual practice in Courts of every kind; and when it happens to be obviously sincere, it commands great influence.

There might be yet another reason:—it was well known that I had nothing to ask for—to expect—or to desire.

  1. Conte D. Alessandro Saluzzo di Monesiglio, Grande di Corona, Presid. della sexiare dell' interne nel cosiglio di stato, &c.
  2. Saluzzo di Monesiglio, Car. Cesare, Luogoten, Gen., Gran Mastro d'Artiglieria et Governatore de Reali Principi, &c.; the younger brother of the Count Alexander.
  3. The déjeûné at Wimbledon Park, the residence of the late Duke of Somerset.
  4. The Syrian question.
  5. The dimensions were 2 ft. 8 in. by 2 ft. 2 in.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.