Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXXVI

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


agreeable recollections.

In the course of this volume I have mentioned, under other heads, many agreeable circumstances, and many others remain unwritten. I shall now confine myself to two.

On one occasion when I was engaged in my workshop in arranging some machinery for experiments on a difficult part of the Analytical Engine, an intimate friend called, and I went into the library to see him. An unopened letter lying on the table, he asked whether I usually treated my letters in that way. I looked at the letter, which appeared to be a printed one. When my friend had left me, I opened it, and found that it professed to be from the Institute of France, announcing my nomination as a corresponding member of that distinguished body. On looking at the conclusion for the well-known signature of my friend Arago, I found another name which I could not read. I therefore concluded that some wag had played me a trick. I however doubted whether the joke was intended to hit me or the Academy of Sciences.

Having left the paper on my table, I returned to my experiments. After dinner I took up the neglected document, and then for the first time perceived that it professed to be from the Academy of Moral Sciences. On re-examining the signature, I found it to be that of its eminent secretary, M. Mignet, and that it was the official announcement of my election as a Corresponding Member of that Academy.

Now the first impression on my own mind was one of sincere regret. I felt for a moment that the Academy might have thus honoured me not solely for my labours in their own, but in other departments of science. This painful feeling was, however, only momentary. It then occurred to me that I had written the "Economy of Manufactures," which related to Political Economy, one section; and the "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise," which related to Philosophy, another section of the Academy of Moral Sciences. I now felt a real pleasure, which amply compensated me for the transitory regret; and I am sure no member of the many academies who have honoured me by enrolling my name on their list will reproach me for stating the fact,—that no other nomination ever gave me greater satisfaction than the one to which I have now adverted.

Some years ago my eldest son, Mr. B. Herschel Babbage, was employed by the Government of South Australia to explore and survey part of the north-western portion of that colony. After an absence of about six months, a considerable portion of which time he spent in a desert, he reached a small station at the head of Spencer's Gulf, intending to wait there until the arrival of a steamer from Adelaide, which was expected in about a week to carry back the wool of the distant and scattered colonists.

It so happened that, a few days before, a Swedish merchant-vessel, commanded by Capt Orling, a part owner of the ship, had also arrived in search of a freight of wool. Captain Orling on going ashore heard of the arrival at the settlement of a stranger from the interior, and on inquiry found that he bore my name.

He immediately went in search of my son, and having found him, said, "I am not personally acquainted with your father, but I am well acquainted with his name: he has shown such kindness to a countryman of mine[1] that every Swede would be proud of an opportunity of acknowledging it. The steamer for which you are waiting cannot arrive until a week hence. There are no accommodations in this station, not even a public-house; I entreat you to come on board my ship and be my guest until the steamer arrives and is ready to take you to Adelaide."

My son, who during the six previous months had slept under no canopy but that of heaven, accepted this delightful invitation, and enjoyed, during a week, the society of a very agreeable and highly-informed gentleman.

I have received many marks of attention of various kinds from natives of Sweden—paragraphs translated from Swedish newspapers which were peculiarly interesting to me, engravings, and printed volumes. I have been honoured with these attentions by persons in various classes of society up to the highest, and I am confident that the enlightened and accomplished Prince to whom I allude will not think me ungrateful when I avow that the most gratifying of all these attentions to a father, whose name in his own country has been useless to himself and to his children, was to hear from England's antipodes of a grateful Swede welcoming and giving hospitality on the part of his countrymen to my son for the sake of the name he bore.


I will now conclude, as I began, by invoking the attention of my reader to a subject which, if he is young, may be of importance to him in after-life. He may reasonably ask what peculiarities of mind enabled me to accomplish what even the most instructed in their own sciences deemed impossible.

I have always carefully watched the exercise of my own faculties, and I have also endeavoured to collect from the light reflected by other minds some explanation of the question.

I think one of the most important guiding principles has been this:—that every moment of my waking hours has always been occupied by some train of inquiry. In far the largest number of instances the subject might be simple or even trivial, but still work of inquiry, of some kind or other, was always going on.

The difficulty consisted in adapting the work to the state of the body. The necessary training was difficult. Whenever at night I found myself sleepless, and wished to sleep, I took a subject for examination that required little mental effort, and which also had little influence on worldly affairs by its success or failure.

On the other hand, when I wanted to concentrate my whole mind upon an important subject, I studied during the day all the minor accessories, and after two o'clock in the morning I found that repose which the nuisances of the London streets only allow from that hour until six in the morning.

At first I had many a sleepless night before I could thus train myself.

I believe my early perception of the immense power of signs in aiding the reasoning faculty contributed much to whatever success I may have had. Probably a still more important element was the intimate conviction I possessed that the highest object a reasonable being could pursue was to endeavour to discover those laws of mind by which man's intellect passes from the known to the discovery of the unknown.

This feeling was ever present to my own mind, and I endeavoured to trace its principle in the minds of all around me, as well as in the works of my predecessors.

  1. It had been my good fortune to have an opportunity of rendering justice to the merits of Mr. Scheütz, the inventor of the Swedish Difference Engine.

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