Charles Babbage.

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher online

. (page 14 of 36)
Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 14 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


in his note that letters, books, parcels, maps, and even merchandise,
were continually sent to him for the purpose of being forwarded to all
parts of the world. This, he observed, threw upon his house-steward so
great a responsibility, that he had been compelled to give directions
that no parcel should be received at Apsley House without a written
order with his signature, like that which he now enclosed. As the
Duke’s servant was waiting, I gave him the book, which he took back,
and I retained the slip of paper for any other similar occasion. {184}

〈THE DUKE DRESSED IN HIS CARRIAGE.〉

The Duke was habitually an economist of time. One day I was going
homeward in a cab to dress for a dinner engagement, when I thought
I observed him riding down St. James’s Street towards the House of
Lords. On reaching the house of the friend with whom I was to dine, I
found that the Duke of Wellington was expected at dinner. He arrived
punctually. In the course of the evening I took an opportunity of
asking him whether I was mistaken in supposing I had seen him a short
time before dinner riding down St. James’s Street. I then expressed my
surprise at the rapidity of his movements in getting back to Apsley
House in time to dress and be punctual to his engagement. He said, “No,
I did not do that; I had ordered my carriage to meet me at the House of
Lords, and I changed my dress whilst it was bringing me here.”

The most interesting conversations generally occurred when only a few
of his intimate friends met together.

On one of these occasions, at a very small dinner-party, the characters
of the French marshals became the subject of conversation. The Duke,
being appealed to, pointed out freely their various qualities, and
assigned to each his peculiar excellence.

〈CURIOUS QUESTION—THE DUKE’S REPLY.〉

One question, the most highly interesting of all, naturally presented
itself to our minds. I was speculating how I could, without
impropriety, suggest it, when, to my great relief, one of the party,
addressing the Duke, said—

“Well, sir, how was it that, with such various great qualities, you
licked them all, one after another?”

The Duke was evidently taken by surprise. He paused for a moment or
two, and then said—

“Well, I don’t know exactly how it was; but I think that if any
unexpected circumstance occurred in the midst of a {185} battle, which
deranged its whole plan, I could perhaps organize another plan more
quickly than most of them.”

This strongly confirms the view of the Duke of Wellington’s character
given in the preceding pages. After examining all the more important
combinations which might be made for the conflict, and having selected
those which appeared the best, it is quite natural, if any accident
deranged the original plan, that he should perceive, more quickly than
another commander, one amongst the many plans previously rejected which
was immediately applicable to the new and unexpected circumstances.

{186}




CHAPTER XIII.

RECOLLECTIONS OF WOLLASTON, DAVY, AND ROGERS.


Secretaryship of Royal Society — Mr. Murray of Albemarle Street —
Remark on “The Decline of Science” — Dr. Somerville — Explanation of
a Job of Sir Humphry Davy — History of the Thaumatrope — Introduction
to Mr. Rogers — The Poet nearly run over — Anecdote of the “Economy of
Manufactures” — Teaches the Author how to live for ever — Rapidity of
composition amongst Poets — Different effects of Imagination in the
Poet and the Philosopher — Consultation about the Author’s unwritten
Novel.

In 1826, one of the secretaryships of the Royal Society became vacant.
Dr. Wollaston and several others of the leading members of the Society
and of the Council wished that I should be appointed. This would have
been the more agreeable to me, because my early friend Herschel was at
that time the senior Secretary.

This arrangement was agreed to by Sir H. Davy, and I left town with the
full assurance that I was to have the appointment. In the mean time
Sir H. Davy summoned a Council at an unusual hour—eight o’clock in
the evening—for a special purpose, namely, some arrangement about the
Treasurer’s accounts.

After the business relating to the Treasurer was got through, Sir H.
Davy observed that there was a secretaryship vacant, and he proposed to
fill it up.

〈SIR HUMPHRY DAVY’S DISCOURSES.〉

Dr. Wollaston then asked Sir Humphry Davy if he claimed the nomination
as a right of the President, to which {187} Sir H. Davy replied that
he did, and then nominated Mr. Children. The President, as president,
has no such right; and even if he had possessed it, he had promised Mr.
Herschel that I should be his colleague. There were upright and eminent
men on that council; yet no one of them had the moral courage to oppose
the President’s dictation, or afterwards to set it aside on the ground
of its irregularity.

A few years after, whilst I was on a visit at Wimbledon Park, Dr. and
Mrs. Somerville came down to spend the day. Dr. Somerville mentioned
a very pleasant dinner he had had with the late Mr. John Murray of
Albemarle Street, and also a conversation relating to my book “On the
Decline of Science in England.” Mr. Murray felt hurt at a remark I
had made on himself (page 107) whilst criticizing a then unexplained
job of Sir Humphry Davy’s. Dr. Somerville assured Mr. Murray that he
knew me intimately, and that if I were convinced that I had done him
an injustice, nobody would be more ready to repair it. A few days
after, Mr. Murray put into Dr. Somerville’s hands papers explaining the
whole of the transaction. These papers were now transferred to me. On
examining them I found ample proof of what I had always suspected. The
observation I had made which pained Mr. Murray fell to the ground as
soon as the real facts were known, and I offered to retract it in any
suitable manner. One plan I proposed was to print a supplemental page,
and have it bound up with all the remaining copies of the “Decline of
Science.”

Mr. Murray was satisfied with my explanation, but did not wish me
to take the course I proposed, at least, not at that time. Various
objections may have presented themselves to his mind, but the affair
was adjourned with the understanding that at some future time I should
explain the real state of {188} the facts which had led to this
misinterpretation of Mr. Murray’s conduct.

〈EXPLANATION OF THAT JOB.〉

The true history of the affair was this: Being on the Council of the
Royal Society in 1827, I observed in our accounts a charge of 381 _l._
5 _s._ as paid to Mr. Murray for 500 copies of Sir Humphry Davy’s
Discourses.

I asked publicly at the Council for an explanation of this item. The
answer given by Dr. Young and others was—

“That the Council had agreed to purchase these volumes at that price,
in order to _induce_ Mr. Murray to print the President’s speeches.”

To this I replied that such an explanation was entirely inadmissible.
I then showed that even allowing a very high price for composing,
printing, and paper, if the Council had wished to print 500 copies of
those Discourses they could have done it themselves for 150 _l._ at the
outside. I could not extract a single word to elucidate this mystery,
about which, however, I had my own ideas.

It appeared by the papers put into my hands that Sir Humphry Davy had
applied to Mr. Murray, and had sold him the copyright of the Discourses
for 500 guineas, one of the conditions being that the Royal Society
should purchase of him 500 copies at the trade price.

Mr. Murray paid Sir H. Davy the 500 guineas in three bills at six,
twelve, and eighteen months. These bills passed through Drummond’s (Sir
H. Davy’s banker), and I have had them in my own hands for examination.

Thus it appears that Mr. Murray treated the whole affair as a matter
of business, and acted in this purchase in his usual liberal manner.
I have had in my hand a statement of the winding-up of that account
copied from Mr. Murray’s books, and I find that he was a considerable
loser by his {189} purchase. Sir H. Davy, on the other hand, contrived
to transfer between three and four hundred pounds from the funds of the
Royal Society into his own pocket.[35]

[35] See “Decline of Science in England,” p. 105. 8vo. 1830.

It was my determination to have called for an explanation of this
affair at the election of our President and officers at our anniversary
on the 30th November if Sir H. Davy had been again proposed as
President in 1827.


_The Thaumatrope._

One day Herschel, sitting with me after dinner, amusing himself by
spinning a pear upon the table, suddenly asked whether I could show him
the two sides of a shilling at the same moment.

I took out of my pocket a shilling, and holding it up before the
looking-glass, pointed out _my_ method. “No,” said my friend, “that
won’t do;” then spinning my shilling upon the table, he pointed out
_his_ method of seeing both sides at once. The next day I mentioned
the anecdote to the late Dr. Fitton, who a few days after brought me a
beautiful illustration of the principle. It consisted of a round disc
of card suspended between the two pieces of sewing-silk. These threads
being held between the finger and thumb of each hand, were then made to
turn quickly, when the disc of card, of course, revolved also.

Upon one side of this disc of card was painted a bird; upon the
other side, an empty bird-cage. On turning the thread rapidly, the
bird appeared to have got inside the cage. We soon made numerous
applications, as a rat on one side and a trap upon the other, &c. It
was shown to Captain Kater, Dr. Wollaston, and many of our friends, and
was, after the lapse of a short time, forgotten. {190}

〈THE THAUMATROPE: ITS RETRIBUTION.〉

Some months after, during dinner at the Royal Society Club, Sir Joseph
Banks being in the chair, I heard Mr. Barrow, then Secretary to the
Admiralty, talking very loudly about a wonderful invention of Dr.
Paris, the object of which I could not quite understand. It was called
the thaumatrope, and was said to be sold at the Royal Institution,
in Albemarle-street. Suspecting that it had some connection with our
unnamed toy, I went the next morning and purchased, for seven shillings
and sixpence, a thaumatrope, which I afterwards sent down to Slough
to the late Lady Herschel. It was precisely the thing which her son
and Dr. Fitton had contributed to invent, which amused all their
friends for a time and had then been forgotten. There was however _one_
additional thaumatrope made afterwards. It consisted of the usual disc
of paper. On one side was represented a thaumatrope (the design upon it
being a penny-piece) with the motto, “How to turn a penny.”

On the other side was a gentleman in black, with his hands held out in
the act of spinning a thaumatrope, the motto being, “A new trick from
Paris.”

After my contest for Finsbury was decided, Mr. Rogers the banker, and
the brother of the poet, who had been one of my warmest supporters,
proposed accompanying me to the hustings at the declaration of the
poll. He had also invited a party of some of the most influential
electors of his district to dine with him in the course of the week,
in order that they might meet me, and consider about measures for
supporting me at the next opportunity.

〈THE POET AND PHILOSOPHER AT A CROSSING.〉

On a cold drizzling rainy day in November the final state of the poll
was declared. Mr. Rogers took me in his carriage to the hustings, and
caught a cold, which seemed at first unimportant. On the day of the
dinner, when we met at {191} Mr. Rogers’s, who resided at Islington,
he was unable to leave his bed. Miss Rogers, his sister, who lived with
him, and his brother the poet, received us, quite unconscious of the
dangerous condition of their relative, who died the next day.

Thus commenced a friendship with both of my much-valued friends
which remained unruffled by the slightest wave until their lamented
loss. Miss Rogers removed to a house in the Regent’s Park, in which
the paintings by modern artists collected by her elder brother, and
increased by her own judicious taste, were arranged. The society at
that house comprised all that was most eminent in literature and in
art. The adjournment after her breakfasts to the delightful verandah
overlooking the Park still clings to my fading memory, and the voices
of her poet brother, of Jeffrey, and of Sidney Smith still survive in
the vivid impressions of their wisdom and their wit.

I do not think the genuine kindness of the poet’s character was
sufficiently appreciated. I occasionally walked home with him from
parties during the first years of our acquaintance. In later years,
when his bodily strength began to fail, I always accompanied him,
though sometimes not without a little contest.

I have frequently walked with him from his sister’s house, in the
Regent’s Park, to Ins own in St. James’s Place, and he has sometimes
insisted upon returning part of the way home with me.

On one of those occasions we were crossing a street near Cavendish
Square: a cart coming rapidly round the corner, I almost dragged him
over. As soon as we were safe, the poet said, very much as a child
would, “There, now, that was all your fault; you would come with
me, and so I was nearly run over.” However, I found less and less
resistance to my {192} accompanying him, and only regretted that I
could not be constantly at his side on those occasions.

Soon after the publication of the “Economy of Manufactures,” Mr. Rogers
told me that he had met one evening, at a very fashionable party, a
young dandy, with whom he had had some conversation. The poet had asked
him whether he had read that work. To this his reply was, “Yes: it is a
very nice book—just the kind of book that anybody could have written.”

〈HOW TO LIVE FOR EVER.〉

One day, when I was in great favour with the poet, we were talking
about the preservation of health. He told me he would teach me how to
live for ever; for which I thanked him in a compliment after his own
style, rather than in mine. I answered, “Only embalm me in your poetry,
and it is done.” Mr. Rogers invited me to breakfast with him the next
morning, when he would communicate the receipt. We were alone, and I
enjoyed a very entertaining breakfast. The receipt consisted mainly
of cold ablutions and the frequent use of the flesh brush. Mr. Rogers
himself used the latter to a moderate extent regularly, three times
every day—before he dressed himself, when he dressed for dinner, and
before he got into bed. About six or eight strokes of the flesh-brush
completed each operation. We then adjourned to a shop, where I
purchased a couple of the proper brushes, which I used for several
years, and still use occasionally, with, I believe, considerable
advantage.

〈RAPIDITY OF COMPOSITION.〉

Once, at Mr. Rogers’s table, I was talking with one of his guests about
the speed with which some authors composed, and the slowness of others.
I then turned to our host, and, much to his surprise, inquired how many
lines a-day on the average a poet usually wrote. My friend, when his
astonishment had a little subsided, very good-naturedly gave us the
result of his own experience. He said that he had never written {193}
more than four[36] lines of verse in any one day of his life. This I
can easily understand; for Mr. Rogers’ taste was the most fastidious,
as well as the most just, I ever met with. Another circumstance also, I
think, contributed to this slowness of composition.

[36] I am not quite certain that the number was four; but I am
absolutely certain that it was either four or six.

An author may adopt either of two modes of composing. He may write
off the whole of his work roughly, so as to get upon paper the plan
and general outline, without attending at all to the language. He may
afterwards study minutely every clause of each sentence, and then every
word of each clause.

Or the author may finish and polish each sentence as soon as it is
written.

This latter process was, I think, employed by Mr. Rogers, at least in
his poetry.

He then told us that Southey composed with much greater rapidity
than himself, as well in poetry as in prose. Of the latter Southey
frequently wrote a great many pages before breakfast.

Once, at a large dinner party, Mr. Rogers was speaking of an
inconvenience arising from the custom, then commencing, of having
windows formed of one large sheet of plate-glass. He said that a short
time ago he sat at dinner with his back to one of these single panes of
plate-glass: it appeared to him that the window was wide open, and such
was the force of imagination, that he actually caught cold.

〈DIFFERENT EFFECTS OF IMAGINATION.〉

It so happened that I was sitting just opposite to the poet. Hearing
this remark, I immediately said, “Dear me, how odd it is, Mr. Rogers,
that you and I should make such a very different use of the faculty
of imagination. When I go to the house of a friend in the country,
and unexpectedly {194} remain for the night, having no night-cap,
I should naturally catch cold. But by tying a bit of pack-thread
tightly round my head, I go to sleep imagining that I have a night-cap
on; consequently I catch no cold at all.” This sally produced much
amusement in all around, who supposed I had improvised it; but, odd
as it may appear, it is a practice I have often resorted to. Mr.
Rogers, who knew full well the respect and regard I had for him, saw
at once that I was relating a simple fact, and joined cordially in the
merriment it excited.

In the latter part of Mr. Rogers’s life, when, being unable to walk,
he was driven in his carriage round the Regent’s Park, he frequently
called at my door, and, when I was able, I often accompanied him in his
drive. On some one of these occasions, when I was unable to accompany
him, I put into his hands a parcel of proof-sheets of a work I was then
writing, thinking they might amuse him during his drive, and that I
might profit by his criticism. Some years before, I had consulted him
about a novel I had proposed to write solely for the purpose of making
money to assist me in completing the Analytical Engine. I breakfasted
alone with the poet, who entered fully into the subject. I proposed
to give up a twelvemonth to writing the novel, but I determined not
to commence it unless I saw pretty clearly that I could make about
5,000 _l._ by the sacrifice of my time. The novel was to have been in
three volumes, and there would probably have been reprints of another
work in two volumes. Both of these works would have had graphic
illustrations. The poet gave me much information on all the subjects
connected with the plan, and amongst other things, observed that when
he published his beautifully illustrated work on Italy, that he had
paid 9,000 _l._ out of his own pocket before he received any return for
that work.

{195}




CHAPTER XIV.

RECOLLECTIONS OF LAPLACE, BIOT, AND HUMBOLDT.


My First Visit to Paris — Anecdote of the fifty-two Eggs — Mistake
about Woodhouse — Fourier — Biot — Drawings of the Difference Engine
— Strong characteristic of Humboldt’s mind — English Clergyman at
Paris — Great Meeting of Philosophers at Berlin, 1828 — Introduces the
Author to Magnus and Derichlet — Puts the Englishman upon the Dining
Committee — Conversation in the Linden Walk — Humboldt’s study —
Various members of the family of Buonaparte — Lucien and his Children
— Louis, the King of Holland — Joseph, the King of Spain — His second
Daughter married to a Son of Louis — Their taste — Drawings and
Lithographs — Her Death.

My first visit to Paris was made in company with my friend John
Herschel. On reaching Abbeville, we wanted breakfast, and I undertook
to order it. Each of us usually required a couple of eggs. I preferred
having mine moderately boiled, but my friend required his to be boiled
quite hard. Having explained this matter to the waiter, I concluded
by instructing him that each of us required two eggs thus cooked,
concluding my order with the words, “pour chacun deux.”

The garçon ran along the passage half way towards the kitchen, and then
called out in his loudest tone—

“Il faut faire bouillir cinquante-deux œufs pour Messieurs les
Anglais.” I burst into such a fit of uncontrollable laughter at this
absurd misunderstanding of _chacun deux_, for _cinquante-deux_, that it
was some time before I could explain it to Herschel, and but for his
running into the kitchen to {196} countermand it, the half hundred of
eggs would have assuredly been simmering over the fire.

A few days after our arrival in Paris, we dined with Laplace, where we
met a large party, most of whom were members of the Institut. The story
had already arrived at at Paris, having rapidly passed through several
editions.

〈FIFTY-TWO EGGS.〉

To my great amusement, one of the party told the company that, a few
days before, two young Englishman being at Abbeville, had ordered
fifty-two eggs to be boiled for their breakfast, and that they ate up
every one of them, as well as a large pie which was put before them.

My next neighbour at dinner asked me if I thought it probable. I
replied, that there was no absurdity a young Englishman would not
occasionally commit.

One morning Herschel and I called on Laplace, who spoke to us of
various English works on mathematical subjects. Amongst others, he
mentioned with approbation, “Un ouvrage de vous deux.” We were both
quite at a loss to know to what work he referred. Herschel and I had
not written any joint work, although we had together translated the
work of Lacroix. The volume of the “Memoirs of the Analytical Society,”
though really our joint production, was not known to be such, and it
was also clear that Laplace did not refer to that work. Perceiving
that we did not recognise the name of the author to whom he referred,
Laplace varied the pronunciation by calling him _vous deux_; the first
word being pronounced as the French word “vous,” and the second as the
English word “deuce.”

Upon further explanation, it turned out that Laplace meant to speak of
a work published by Woodhouse, whose name is in the pronunciation of
the French so very like _vous deux_. {197}

〈FOURIER AND BIOT.〉

Poisson, Fourier, and Biot were amongst my earliest friends in Paris.
Fourier, then Secretary of the Institute, had accompanied the first
Napoleon in his expedition to Egypt. His profound acquaintance with
analysis remains recorded in his works. His unaffected and genial
manner, the vast extent of his acquirements, and his admirable taste
conspicuous even in the apartments he inhabited, were most felt by
those who were honoured by his friendship.

With M. Biot I became acquainted in early life; he was then surrounded
by a happy family. In my occasional visits to Paris I never omitted
an opportunity of paying my respects to him: when deprived of those
supports and advanced in life, he still earnestly occupied himself in
carrying out the investigations of his earlier years.

His son, M. Biot, a profound oriental scholar, who did me the honour of
translating ‘The Economy of Manufactures,’ died many years before his
father.

In one of my visits to Paris, at a period when beards had become
fashionable amongst a certain class of my countrymen, I met Biot. After
our first greeting, looking me full in the face, he said, “My dear
friend, you are the best shaved man in Europe.”

〈BIOT AND THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE.〉

At a later period I took with me to Paris the complete drawings of
Difference Engine No. 2. As soon as I had hung them up round my own
apartments to explain them to my friends I went to the College de
France, where M. Biot resided. I mentioned to him the fact, and said
that if it was a subject in which he was interested, and had leisure to
look at these drawings, I should have great pleasure in bringing them
to him, and giving him any explanation that he might desire. I told
him, however, that I was fully aware how much the time of every man who
really adds to science must be {198} occupied, and that I made this
proposal rather to satisfy my own mind that I had not neglected one



Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 14 of 36)