Charles Babbage.

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher online

. (page 13 of 36)
Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 13 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


hanging up in my drawing-room, as it would greatly assist in explaining
the nature of Calculating Machines.

When we had arrived in front of the portrait, I pointed it out as
the object to which I solicited the Prince’s attention. “Oh! that
engraving?” remarked the Duke of Wellington. “No!” said Prince Albert
to the Duke; “it is not an engraving.” I felt for a moment very great
surprise; but this was changed into a much more agreeable feeling, when
the Prince instantly added, “I have seen it before.” I felt at once
that the Prince was a “good man and true,” and I resolved that I would
not confine myself to the rigid rules of etiquette, but that I would
help him with all my heart in whatever line his inquiries might be
directed.

The portrait of Jacquard was, in fact, a sheet of woven silk, framed
and glazed, but looking so perfectly like an engraving, that it had
been mistaken for such by two members of the Royal Academy.

〈WILKIE’S CONJECTURE.〉

A short time after I became possessed of this beautiful work of
art, I met Wilkie, and invited him to come and see {170} my recent
acquisition. He called on me one morning. I placed him at a short
distance in front of the portrait, which he admired greatly. I then
asked him what he thought it was. He answered, “An engraving!” On which
I asked, “Of what kind?” To this he replied, “Line-engraving, to be
sure!” I drew him a little nearer. He then mentioned another style of
engraving. At last, having placed Wilkie close to the portrait, he
said, after a considerable pause, “Can it be lithography?”

A splendid collection of arms from Afghanistan, recently sent to me
from India by Sir Edward Ryan, was lying on the tables in one of the
rooms we passed through. These had attracted the notice of the Prince,
and on returning, the whole party examined them with the greatest
interest

I now conducted my visitors to the fire-proof building in which
the Difference Engine was placed. Prince Albert was, I understood,
sufficiently acquainted with the higher departments of mathematical
science to appreciate the influence of such an instrument on its future
progress. But the circumstance that charmed me was—his bearing towards
his uncle, Count Mensdorf. It was perfectly natural: it could be felt,
admired, and honoured—but not described.

When the sad fact of the nation’s loss became known to me, I
immediately reverted with some anxiety to a work I had published ten
years before on the Exhibition of 1851. I feared lest, in speaking
of that event, I might have committed some injustice, whilst I was
indignant at that under which I was myself suffering. I willingly
reprint it here because it contained no empty words of flattery; but
analysed the reasons which commanded our respect.

“The merit of the original conception of the present {171} Exposition
[1851] is insignificant in comparison with that of the efforts by
which it was carried out, and with the importance of its practical
results.

“To have seen from afar its effects on the improvement, the wealth,
and the happiness of the people—to have seized the fit moment,
when, by the right use of the influence of an exalted station,
it was _possible_ to overcome the deeply-rooted prejudices of
the upper classes—to remove the still more formidable, because
latent, impediments of party—generously to have undertaken great
responsibility, and with indefatigable labour to have endeavoured to
make the best out of the only materials at hand,—these are endowments
of no ordinary kind.

“To move in any rank of society an exception to its general rules,
is a very difficult, and if accompanied by the consciousness of the
situation, a very painful position to a reflecting mind.

〈PENALTIES OF EXALTED STATION.〉

“Whatever may be the cause—whether exalted rank, unbounded wealth,
surpassing beauty or unrivalled wit, the renown of daring deeds, the
magic of a world-wide fame—to all within those narrow limits the
dangers and the penalties are great. Each exists an isolated spirit;
each unconsciously imprisoned within its crystal globe perceives the
colours of all external objects modified by those tints imparted to
them by its own surrounding sphere. No change of view can teach it to
rectify this partial judgment; throughout its earthward course the
same undying rainbow attends to the last its parent drop.

〈ITS SYMPATHIES.〉

“Rarely indeed can some deep-searching mind, after long comparison,
perceive the real colours of those translucent shells which encompass
kindred spirits; and thus at length enable him to achromatise the
medium which surrounds his {172} own. To one who has thus rectified
the “colour-blindness” of his intellectual vision, how deep the
sympathy he feels for those still involved in that hopeless obscurity
from which he has himself escaped. None can so justly appreciate
that sense of loneliness, that solitude of mind, which surrounds
unquestioned eminence on its lofty throne;—none, therefore, can make
so large an allowance for its errors;—none so skilfully assist in
guiding its hazardous career.”

{173}




CHAPTER XII.

RECOLLECTIONS OF THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON.


Official visit to see the Difference Engine in 1829 — Extract from
a letter from the late General Sir William Napier — Loss of the
troopship “Birkenhead” — The Author accompanies the Duke to the
Exhibition of 1851 — Fixed in the crowd, the Duke plays with a child
of two years old — The late Countess of Wilton asks a question about
the Difference Engine — The Author’s explanation — The Duke’s remark
— Sketch of one portion of the Duke’s intellectual character —
University Addresses — The Duke helps a dumpy fellow to see the Queen
— The Author saves a Master of Arts from hanging — The Duke and the
Ninth Bridgewater Treatise — The Duke an economist of time — Character
of the French Marshals.

My acquaintance with the late Duke of Wellington commenced in an
official visit from himself and Mr. Goulburn, the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, to inspect the drawings and works of the Difference Engine
No. 1. This was in November, 1829. Afterwards I met the Duke in private
society at the houses of one or two of his intimate friends, and
subsequently I was honoured not unfrequently by receiving him at my
own. During the Exhibition of 1851 I very often accompanied him in his
examination of the contents of that building. I made no notes of any of
the conversations, some of them highly interesting, which occurred on
such occasions, because I felt that the habit of recording privately
the conversations with our acquaintances was a breach of faith towards
the individual, and tended to destroy all confidence in society. {174}

I now perceive, when it is too late, that a rigid adherence to that
rule has deprived me of the power of relating circumstances of the
greatest interest to survivors, and of the highest credit to himself. I
should not even have adverted to the subject in the present work, had I
not observed in the fourth volume of the life of the late General Sir
Charles Napier of Scinde a passage which, if not explained, might lead
to the erroneous inference that I had myself proposed to speak to the
Duke of Wellington on a certain military subject, whereas I only did so
at the repeated desire of Sir Charles himself.

〈THE LOSS OF THE BIRKENHEAD.〉

The following is a portion of a letter from General Sir Charles Napier
to his brother, General Sir William Napier, extracted from “The Life of
Sir Charles Napier,” vol. iv., p. 347:—

TO GENERAL W. NAPIER; 1852.

“_May 2nd._

“I met Babbage at Miss Burdett Coutts. He talked about the
‘Birkenhead,’ and was very eager, saying, ‘Cannot you speak to the
Duke of Wellington?’ ‘No; it would seem a criticising of his conduct.’
‘Well, I, as a civilian, may.’ ‘Yes; and you will do good, for the
Duke alluded to the subject at the Royal Academy dinner an hour ago.’
Babbage did so at once, asking him to move in the matter; and the Duke
said he would. I also spoke to Hardinge, who told me he had had a mind
to allude to it in his speech at the dinner, but feared it might seem
a reflection on the Duke.”

* * * * *

“I have been told that the Duke is only awaiting an official despatch
from Harry Smith, or Cathcart, about the {175} ‘Birkenhead,’ to act.
This is probable, as being like his cautious way, but, to my thinking,
not well in this case.”

The matter referred to arose thus. Several years ago a troop-ship,
named the “Birkenhead,” was wrecked on the African coast, near the
Cape of Good Hope. A very small portion only of the troops were saved.
According to the testimony of the survivors, the discipline and order
which prevailed on board up to the final catastrophe was admirable,
and almost beyond example. If any human means could have saved those
invaluable lives, such discipline would have largely contributed to the
result.

Sharing the general regret at this severe loss, and sympathising deeply
with the feelings of the surviving relatives, it occurred to me that
very simple and inexpensive means were available, which if employed,
would at the least afford a melancholy consolation to the afflicted
relatives, might be retained with becoming pride in their families,
and would also add to the respectability of the social position of the
soldier.

Observing that military offences punished by a court-martial were made
public by being read at the head of every regiment, I suggested that in
certain cases publicity should be given by the same means to noble acts
of forbearance or of self-devotion.

In the case of the “Birkenhead,” in which ship small detachments of
several regiments were lost, I suggested that an order should be
issued, stating—

The circumstances under which the loss occurred, and the nation’s
approbation of the conduct of the departed.

That their names should be read at the head of their respective
regiments.

That an official letter, signed by the colonel or other proper {176}
officer of each regiment, describing the nature of the service under
which the loss occurred, and conveying to the nearest surviving
relative the expression of the high approbation the Government
entertained of such heroic conduct.

Such official testimonials would soothe the feelings of many a
relative, would become objects of just pride amongst the relations of
the departed, and be handed down as heir-looms in many a village circle.

〈SIR CHARLES NAPIER APPROVES.〉

I mentioned these views to several of my acquaintances, and the idea
seemed to meet with general approbation. I found my military friends
fully alive to the advantage of such a course for the benefit of the
service, and also as a consolation to surviving relatives. Amongst
others, I proposed it to the late General Sir Charles Napier. He
highly approved of the plan, about which we had several conversations.
In one of these I suggested that he should mention it to the Duke of
Wellington; to which Sir Charles replied, “No, I could not do that: you
should tell him yourself.” I smiled at the notion, not thinking that my
friend was in earnest.

A short time after I met Sir Charles Napier at a large evening party.
We were sitting together on a sofa talking: he resumed the plan I had
proposed, spoke of it with much approbation, and concluded by saying,
“You ought to tell the Duke of it.”

I replied that I had thought he was only joking when he had on a former
occasion made the same observation.

“No, indeed,” said Sir Charles; “I am serious. The Duke will attend to
what you say more than to any of us.”

“If you really think so,” I replied, “I will follow your counsel. I
hope,” I added, “the Duke may excuse me as a civilian for speaking
about it, but after such an expression of your opinion I feel bound to
take that course.” {177}

〈MENTIONED TO THE DUKE.〉

The conversation then turned upon other subjects, when shortly after
the Duke of Wellington was announced.

“There,” observed Sir Charles, “is the Duke, now go and talk to him
about it.” I promised to do so at a proper opportunity.

After the Duke had made his bow to the lady of the house, and
recognised and conversed with many of his friends, I threw myself in
his way. On the Duke shaking hands with me, I remarked that I was
particularly glad to meet him, because an idea had occurred to me in
which I thought he would take an interest. He stepped with me a little
out of the crowd, and I then stated shortly my views. The Duke paid
great attention to the subject; made several remarks upon it; and when
we separated, I felt satisfied that he took a strong interest in it.
I thought, however, that he had applied the idea rather more to the
officers, whilst my main object was the interests of the privates.

Much later in the evening I was taking some refreshment in another
room, when the Duke entering, saw and rejoined me. He reverted to the
subject; I observed that though officers and privates should have the
same official acknowledgment, yet that the Commander-in-Chief and the
Government possessed other more substantial means of benefiting the
surviving relatives of the officers than of the privates. We had some
further conversation about it, and I then felt quite satisfied that he
both understood and approved of it.

I rather think the Duke of Wellington moved in the House of Lords for
certain papers, on which he intended to found some measure of the kind;
but his death, shortly after, put an end to the question.

During the year 1851 I very frequently accompanied the Duke of
Wellington to the Exhibition, or met him there by {178} appointment at
the crystal fountain. Sometimes one or two of his particular friends,
usually ladies, were invited to join the party.

On the first occasion I spoke to one of the attending police, simply
for the purpose of facilitating our passage if we should get into
a great crowd, which, of course, did occasionally happen. In these
cases the policeman a little preceded us, and it was very interesting
to observe the sudden changes in the countenances of those whom the
constable gently touched in order to accelerate our passage. On the
first slight pressure of the policeman’s hand upon the arm of John
Bull, he looked round with indignation: but when the policeman quietly
asked him to be so good as to allow the Duke of Wellington to pass,
the muscles of John Bull’s countenance relaxed into a grateful smile:
he immediately made way, and in several cases thanked the officer
for giving him an opportunity of seeing the Duke. During the most
crowded of those days we at one period became entirely blocked up and
stationary for upwards of ten minutes. Our intelligent companion was
himself wedged in, at a short distance from us. Just in front of us
stood a woman with a child in her arms of about two years old, who was
leaning over its mother’s shoulder.

〈THE DUKE PLAYS WITH A CHILD.〉

The Duke began to play with the infant, pretending to touch its
ear with his finger, and then to touch its nose. The mother was
gratified,—the child was charmed. At last the crowd almost suddenly
broke up, and we went on. After we had advanced about a dozen paces
I said to the Duke of Wellington, “I must step back to speak to
the mother of your young friend.” I then asked her if she knew the
gentleman who had been playing with her child for the last ten minutes:
she said “No, Sir.” I told her it was the Duke of Wellington. Her
surprise and delight were equally great. {179} I desired her to tell
her boy when he grew up that, when an infant, the Duke of Wellington
had played with him. I then returned and told the Duke the object of my
mission. His approbation was indicated by a happy smile.

* * * * *

One morning the Duke of Wellington called in Dorset Street with the
late Countess of Wilton, to whom he wished me to show the Difference
Engine. Its home was at that period in my drawing-room. We sat round it
whilst I explained its mode of action, and made it calculate some small
Table of numbers.

〈LADY WILTON’S REMARK ON DIFFERENCE ENGINE.〉

When I had concluded my explanation, Lady Wilton, addressing me, said,
“Now, Mr. Babbage, can you tell me what was your greatest difficulty
in contriving this machine?” I had never previously asked myself that
question; but I knew the nature of it well.

It arose not from the difficulty of contriving mechanism to execute
each individual movement, for I had contrived very many different modes
of executing each: but it really arose from the almost innumerable
_combinations_ amongst all these contrivances—a number so vast, that no
human mind could examine them all.

It instantly occurred to me that a similar difficulty must present
itself to a general commanding a vast army, when about to engage in a
conflict with another army of equal or of greater amount. I therefore
thought it must have been felt by the Duke of Wellington, and I
determined to make a kind of psychological experiment upon him.

Carefully abstaining from any military term, I commenced my explanation
to Lady Wilton. I soon perceived by his countenance that the Duke was
already in imagination again in Spain. I then went on boldly with
the explanation of my {180} own mechanical difficulty; and when I
had concluded, the Duke turned to Lady Wilton and said, “I know that
difficulty well.”

〈THE AUTHOR’S SKETCH OF THE DUKE’S INTELLECTUAL CHARACTER.〉

The success of this experiment induced me in a subsequent
publication[34] to give an analysis of one portion of the Duke of
Wellington’s intellectual character, although I made no mention of
his name. Many of his admirers, however, perceived at once the truth
of those views, and recognised the justice of their application. I
therefore place them before my readers in the following extract from
the work referred to:—

“It is now felt and admitted, that it is the civil capacity of the
great commander which prepares the way for his military triumphs; that
his knowledge of human nature enables him to select the fittest agents,
and to place them in the situations best adapted to their powers; that
his intimate acquaintance with all the accessories which contribute
to the health and comfort of his troops, enables him to sustain their
moral and physical energy. It has been seen that he must have studied
and properly estimated the character of his foes as well as of his
allies, and have made himself acquainted with the personal character of
the chiefs of both; and still further, that he must have scrutinized
the secret motives which regulated their respective governments.

[34] “The Exposition of 1852;” 2nd edition, p. 222.

“When directly engaged in the operations of contending armies occupying
a wide extent of country, he must be able, with rapid glance, to
ascertain the force it is possible to concentrate upon each of many
points in any given time, and the greater or less chance of fairing
in the attempt. He must also be able to foresee, with something more
than conjecture, what amount of the enemy’s force can be brought to the
same spot in the same and in different times. With these elements {181}
he must undertake one of the most difficult of mental tasks, that of
classifying and grouping the innumerable combinations to which either
party may have recourse for purposes of attack or defence. Out of the
multitude of such combinations, which might baffle by their simple
enumeration the strongest memory, throwing aside the less important,
he must be able to discover, to fix his attention, and to act upon the
most favourable. Finally, when the course thus selected having been
pursued, and perhaps partially carried out, is found to be entirely
deranged by one of those many chances inseparable from such operations,
then, in the midst of action, he must be able suddenly to organise a
different system of operations, new to all other minds, yet possibly,
although unconsciously, anticipated by his own.

“The genius that can meet and overcome such difficulties _must_ be
intellectual, and would, under different circumstances, have been
distinguished in many a different career.

“Nor even would it be very surprising that such a commander, estimating
justly the extent of his own powers, and conscious of having planned
the best combinations of which his mind is capable, should, having
issued his orders, calmly lie down on the eve of the approaching
conflict, and find in sleep that bodily restoration so indispensable
to the full exercise of his faculties in the mighty struggle about to
ensue.”

* * * * *

Soon after the Queen came to the throne, the two Universities presented
addresses to her Majesty. I accompanied that of Cambridge. The
deputation was very numerous, and much unseemly pushing took place. I
recollect a very short dumpy fellow pushing much more energetically
than any other, for whom I made way, as I retired from the strife in
which I was unwillingly involved. He not only pushed, but was {182}
continually jumping up like a parched pea in a heated frying-pan:
his object being to get a glimpse of her Majesty, and the effect
accomplished being to alight on the toes or graze the heels of his
colleagues.

I retired into a window close to the end of the position occupied by
the gentlemen-at-arms. The Duke of Wellington, who had a short time
before, as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, presented the
address of that body, still remained in the state apartments. He joined
me in the recess of the window, and we entered into conversation.

〈THE DUKE ASSISTS A PUSHING M.A.〉

After a time the little dumpy fellow, who had been regularly turned out
of the crowd for his pushing, came up to us, and, mistaking the Duke
of Wellington for a beef-eater or some palace attendant, complained,
almost in tears, that he wanted to see the Queen, and that they had
pushed him out, and that he had not been able to see the Queen.

The Duke very good-naturedly said he would take him to a place where he
could see her Majesty without being pushed about. Accordingly, the Duke
led him behind the gentlemen-at-arms to a situation in which the little
man’s wish was gratified, and then returned with him to the window, and
resumed the conversation.

On another occasion the University of Cambridge presented an address to
the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The crowd was very great. On descending
one of the flights of stairs, a short Master of Arts was unluckily
caught by the string of his gown hooking itself upon one of the large
door-handles. He was carried off his legs by the advancing rush. To
bring back the pendant Master of Arts a single inch was impossible
from the pressure onwards. So whilst two or three of his colleagues
with difficulty supported him, I took out my pen-knife and cut the
imprisoning ribbon. {183}

〈ALL PARCELS REJECTED.〉

When I published the “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise,” I sent my servant
to Apsley House with a presentation copy for the Duke of Wellington.
The next morning at breakfast my servant informed me that the porter
absolutely refused to take it in, although he stated from whom it came.

I remarked to my brother-in-law, who was staying with me, that it was
a very odd circumstance, and inquired what was to be done. He replied,
“When a man refuses to receive a parcel, nothing more can be done.”
I then observed, that if any other person than the Duke had done so,
I should have taken no further step; but, I added, that I knew his
character so well, that I was confident there was really a good and
sufficient reason, although I could not conjecture its nature.

After breakfast I wrote a short note to the Duke, mentioning the
circumstance, taking for granted that it arose entirely from some
misconception of his orders. I then requested him not to take the
trouble of writing to me to explain it; but added that I would send the
volume to Apsley House on the following morning, when, I had no doubt,
the mistaken interpretation of his orders would have been rectified.

About three o’clock the same day a servant of the Duke’s brought me a
note, inquiring if there were any answer to take back. The Duke stated



Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 13 of 36)