Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXXIII

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


the author's contributions to human knowledge.

Scientific Societies—Analytical Society—Astronomical Society—Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II.—Scientific Meeting at Florence—Also at Berlin—At Edinburgh—At Cambridge—Origin of the Statistical Society—Statistical Congress at Brussels—Calculus of Functions—Division of Labour—Verification part of Cost—Principles of Taxation—Extension to Elections—The two Pumps—Monopoly—Miracles.

Of the part taken by the Author in the formation of various Scientific Societies.

The origin of the Analytical Society has been already explained in the fourth chapter. In the year 1820 the Author of this volume, joining with several eminent men attached to astronomical pursuits, instituted the Royal Astronomical Society. At the present time only three of the original founders survive. The meetings, and still more the publications of that society, have contributed largely to extend the taste for astronomy.

In 1827 I visited Italy, and during my residence at Florence had many opportunities of observing the strong feeling of the reigning Grand Duke Leopold II., not only for the fine arts, but for the progress of science, and for its application to the advancement of the arts of life.

After a long tour in Italy, I found myself in the following year again in Florence, and again I was received with a kindness and consideration which I can never forget. The Grand Duke was anxious to know my opinion respecting the state of science in Italy. At one of the many interviews with which I was honoured, he asked me whether I could point out any way in which he could assist its progress.

The question was unexpected; but it immediately recalled to me a recent circumstance, which I then mentioned, namely, that in three of the great cities of Italy I had been consulted confidentially by three distinguished men of science upon the same subject, on which each was separately engaged without being aware of the fact that the other two were employed on the same inquiry. The result, I remarked, would probably be that Italy would thus make one step in science, and that the discovery might probably be accompanied by painful discussions respecting priority; whilst with better means of intercommunication amongst its men of science Italy might have made three steps in advance. The idea of a periodical meeting of men engaged in scientific pursuits naturally arose out of these remarks. At parting, the Grand Duke requested me to draw up a minute of the conversation. I therefore drew up a note on the subject, in which I shadowed out an annual meeting of learned men in the various cities of Italy.

On finally taking leave, previous to my visit to Germany, the Grand Duke assured me that he had read the minute of our conversation with much attention, that he saw the evils pointed out, and agreed with me as to the remedy. He then observed that "the time for such a meeting had not yet arrived; but," added the Grand Duke, "when it does arrive, you may depend upon me."

Eleven years after, in 1839, I was honoured by an invitation from the Grand Duke of Tuscany to meet the men of science of Italy, then about to assemble at Florence. In this communication it was observed, that "the time had now arrived."

In the autumn of 1828 I reached Berlin, and unexpectedly found, from M. Humboldt, that in the course of a few weeks the philosophers of Germany were to hold a meeting in that capital.

I then learnt for the first time that, some years before, Dr. Oken had proposed and organized an annual congress of German naturalists, meeting in each succeeding year in some great town.

I remained to witness the enlarged meeting at Berlin, which was very successful, and wrote an account of it to Sir D. Brewster, who published the description of it in "The Edinburgh Journal of Science."[1] This was, I believe, the first communication to the English public of the existence of the German Society.

A few years after, Sir David Brewster, Sir John Robison, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, undertook the foundation of a similar periodical and itinerant society in our own country.

It appeared to me that the original organization of the British Association, as developed at York and at Oxford, was defective,—that its basis was not sufficiently extended In fact, that other sciences besides the physical were wanting for the harmony and success of the whole. There was no section to interest the landed proprietors or those members of their families who sat in either house of parliament. Nor was there much to attract the manufacturer or the retail dealer. A purely accidental circumstance enabled me to remedy one of these defects.[2]

At the Third Meeting of the British Association at Cambridge in 1833, I happened, one afternoon, to call on my old and valued friend the Rev. Richard Jones, Professor of Political Economy at Haileybury, who was then residing in apartments at Trinity College. He informed me that he had just had a long conversation with our mutual friend M. Quételet, who had been sent officially by the Belgian Government to attend the meeting of the British Association. That M. Quételet had brought with him a budget of statistical facts, and that as there was no place for it in any section, he (Professor Jones) had asked M. Quételet to come to him that evening, and had invited Sir Charles Lemon, Professor Malthus, Mr. Drinkwater (afterwards Mr. Bethune),[3] and one or two others interested in the subject, to meet him, at the same time requesting me to join the party. I gladly accepted this invitation and departed. I had not, however, reached the gate of Trinity College before it occured to me that there was now an opportunity of doing good service to the British Association. I returned to the apartments of my friend, explained to him my views, in which he fully coincided, and I suggested the formation of a Statistical Section. We both agreed that unless some unusual course were taken, it would be impossible to get such a Section organized until the meeting in the following year. I therefore proposed that when we met in the evening we should consider the question of constituting ourselves provisionally a Statistical Section, and afterwards, at the general meeting in the Senate House, that I should explain the circumstance which had arisen, and the great advantage to the British Association of rendering such a Section a permanent branch of its institution. After further explanations its utility was fully admitted; certain rather stringent rules were laid down in order to confine its inquiries to collections of facts. The sanction of the General Meeting was then given to the establishment of the Statistical Section, and before the termination of the Congress, a larger audience was collected in its meeting-room than in those of any of its sister sciences.

The interest of our discussions, and the mass of materials which now began to open upon our view, naturally indicated the necessity of forming a more permanent society for their collection. The British Association approved of the appointment of a permanent committee of this section. I was requested to act as chairman, and Mr. Drinkwater as secretary. On the 15th March, 1834, at a public meeting held in London, the Marquis of Lansdowne in the Chair, it was resolved to establish the Statistical Society of London.

The Committee of the British Association, in reporting this fact to the Council, observe that "though the want of such a society has been long felt and acknowledged, the successful establishment of it, after every previous attempt had failed, has been due altogether to the impulse given by the last meeting of the Association. The distinguished foreigner (M. Quételet) who contributed so materially to the formation of the Statistical Section, was attracted to England principally with a view of attending that meeting; and the Committee hail this as a signal instance of the beneficial results to be expected from that personal intercourse among the enlightened men of all countries, which it is a principal object of the British Association to encourage and facilitate."

M. Quételet, on his return to his own country, continued to direct by his counsel, and to advance, by his own indefatigable industry, those statistical inquiries of which the Belgian Government so well appreciated the advantage.

At length the conviction of the importance of the value of Statistical Science becoming widely extended in other countries, M. Quételet saw that a fit time had arrived for summoning a European Congress. The results of such meetings are invaluable to all sciences, but more peculiarly to statistics, in which names have to be defined, signs to be invented, methods of observation to be compared and rendered uniform; thus enhancing the value of all future observations by making them more comparable as well as more expeditiously collected.

The proposal was adopted by the Belgian Government, and the first International Statistical Congress was held at Brussels in September, 1853.

The result was most successful; all the cultivators of Statistical Science are deeply indebted to M. Quételet for the unwearied pains he took to insure its success. He was assisted in this arduous task by the ministers of the crown, and supported by the high approbation of an enlightened sovereign.

Calculus of Functions.

This was my earliest step, and is still one to which I would willingly recur if other demands on my time permitted. Many years ago I recorded, in a small MS. volume, the facts, and also extracts of letters from Herschel, Bromhead, and Maule, in which I believe I have done justice to my friends if not to myself. It is very remarkable that the Analytical Engine adapts itself with singular facility to the development and numerical working out of this vast department of analysis.

In the list of my printed papers, at the end of this volume, will be found my various contributions to that subject.

Political Economy.

My contributions to Political Economy are chiefly to be found in "The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures," which consists of illustrations and developments of the principles regulating a very large section of that important subject

Division of Labour.

It is singular that in the analysis of the division of labour, given by Adam Smith in "The Wealth of Nations," the most efficient cause of its advantage is entirely omitted. The three causes assigned in that work are—

1st. The increase of dexterity in every particular workman.

2nd. The saving of time lost in passing from one species of work to another.

3rd. The invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.

These are undoubtedly true causes, but the most important cause is entirely omitted.

The most effective cause of the cheapness produced by the division of labour is this—

By dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill, or of force, the master manufacturer can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process. Whereas if the whole work were executed by one workman, that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, of those operations into which the art is divided.

Needle-making is perhaps the best illustration of the overpowering effect of this cause. The operatives in this manufacture consist of children, women, and men, earning wages varying from three or four shillings up to five pounds per week. Those who point the needles gain about two pounds. The man who hardens and tempers the needles earns from five to six pounds per week. It ought also to be observed that one man is sufficient to temper the needles for a large factory; consequently the time spent on each needle by the most expensive operative is excessively small.

But if a manufacturer insist on employing one man to make the whole needle, he must pay at the rate of five pounds a week for every portion of the labour bestowed upon it.[4]

Cost of any Article.

Besides the usual elements which contribute to constitute the price of any thing, there exists another which varies greatly in different articles. It is this—

The cost and difficulty of verifying the fact that the article is exactly what it professes to be.

This is in some cases very small; but in many instances it is scarcely possible for the purchaser to verify the genuineness of certain articles. In these cases the public pay a larger price than they otherwise would do to those tradesmen whose character and integrity are well established.

Principles of Taxation.

In a pamphlet printed in 1848, I published my views of taxation, especially with reference to an Income Tax.

The principle there supported was entertained and examined by the French Minister of Finance, M. Passy. The pamphlet itself was subsequently translated into Italian and published at Turin, under the auspices of the Sardinian Finance Minister.

The principle there maintained admits, I think, of an extension to the election of representatives.

In that case, each person would have one vote on the ground of his personality, and other votes in proportion to is income. Whenever any further extension of our representative system becomes necessary, the dangers arising from the extension of the personal suffrage may fairly be counterbalanced by giving a plurality of votes to property. Such a course would have a powerful tendency to good, by supporting the national credit and by preventing the destructive waste of capital by war, and it might even make us a highly conservative people.

As the subject of political economy will be considered rather dry by most readers, I shall endeavour to enliven it by an extract from that pamphlet, which singularly illustrates the question of direct and indirect taxation. I had mentioned the productive pump of my Italian friend to the late Lord Lansdowne, who supplied me with the counterpart in the unproductive pump erected by the late William Edgeworth, at Edgeworth Town, in Ireland.

That proprietor, whose country residence was much frequented by beggars, resolved to establish a test for discriminating between the idle and the industrious, and also to obtain some small return for the alms he was in the habit of bestowing. He accordingly added to the pump by which the upper part of his house was supplied with water, a piece of mechanism so contrived that, at the end of a certain number of strokes of the pump-handle, a penny fell out from an aperture to repay the labourer for his work. This was so arranged, that labourers who continued at the work, obtained very nearly the usual daily wages of labour in that part of the country. The idlest of the vagabonds of course refused this new labour test: but the greater part of the beggars, whose constant tale was that 'they could not earn a fair day's wages for a fair day's work,' after earning a few pence, usually went away cursing the hardness of their taskmaster.

An Italian gentleman, with greater sagacity, devised a more productive pump, and kept it in action at far less expense. The garden wall of his villa adjoined the great high road leading from one of the capitals of northern Italy[5], from which it was distant but a few miles. Possessing within his garden a fine spring of water, he erected on the outside of the wall a pump for public use, and chaining to it a small iron ladle, he placed near it some rude seats for the weary traveller, and by a slight roof of climbing plants protected the whole from the mid-day sun. In this delightful shade the tired and thirsty travellers on that well-beaten road ever and anon reposed and refreshed themselves, and did not fail to put in requisition the service of the pump so opportunely presented to them. From morning till night many a dusty and wayworn pilgrim plied the handle, and went on his way, blessing the liberal proprietor for his kind consideration of the passing stranger.

But the owner of the villa was deeply acquainted with human nature. He knew in that sultry climate that the liquid would be more valued from its scarcity, and from the difficulty of acquiring it. He therefore, to enhance the value of the gift, wisely arranged the pump, so that its spout was of rather contracted dimensions, and the handle required a moderate application of force to work it. Under these circumstances the pump raised far more water than could pass through its spout; and, to prevent its being wasted, the surplus was conveyed by an invisible channel to a large reservoir judiciously placed for watering the proprietor's own house, stables, and garden,—into which about five pints were poured for every spoonful passing out of the spout for the benefit of the weary traveller. Even this latter portion was not entirely neglected, for the waste-pipe conveyed the part which ran over from the ladle to some delicious strawberry beds at a lower level. Perhaps, by a small addition to this ingenious arrangement, some kind-hearted travellers might be enabled to indulge their mules and asses with a taste of the same cool and refreshing fluid; thus paying an additional tribute to the skill and sagacity of the benevolent proprietor. My accomplished friend would doubtless make a most popular Chancellor of the Exchequer, should his Sardinian Majesty require his services in that department of administration.


In the course of my examination of this question I arrived at what I conceive to be a demonstration of the following principle:—

That even wider circumstances of the most absolute monopoly, the monopolist will, if he knows his own interest and pursues it, sell the article he produces at exactly the same price as the freest competition would produce.

I devoted a chapter to this subject in an edition which I prepared several years ago for a new Italian translation of the "Economy of Manufactures;" but I am not aware whether it has yet been published.


The explanation which I gave of the nature of miracles in "The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise," published in May, 1837, has now stood the test of more than a quarter of a century, during which it has been examined by some of the deepest thinkers in many countries. Its adoption by those writers who have referred to it has, as far as my information goes, been unanimous.

  1. Vol. x., p. 225. 1829.
  2. I afterwards succeeded in getting the British Association to adopt the plan of having an exhibition of specimens of the various manufactures and commercial products of the districts it successively visited. This commenced at Newcastle in 1838, and was carried to a much greater extent in the following year at Birmingham. I am not aware that this fact was ever referred to by those who got up the Exhibition of 1851.
  3. I have reason to believe, from the Note Book of Mr. Drinkwater (Bethune), that this meeting was held on Wednesday, 26th June, 1833.
  4. See "Economy of Manufactures."
  5. Turin.

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