Charles Babbage.

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Deep-snow — Beggar in Belgravia wanted work — He said he was a
Watchmaker — Gave his address — It was false — Met him months after —
The same story — The same untruth — Children hired for the purpose of
Begging — Cellar in St. Giles’s — Inquired for a Poor Woman and Child
— Landlady told me of a Man almost starving in her back kitchen — He
turned out to be an accomplished Swindler — Pot-boys — Caught him at
last — Took him to Bow Street.

Soon after taking up my residence in London, I met with many
applications from street-beggars, with various tales of distress. I
could not imagine that all these were fictitious, and found great
difficulty in selecting the few objects on whom I could bestow my very
moderate means of charity. One severe winter I resolved on making my
own personal observations on the most promising cases which presented

The first general principle at which I arrived was, that—

In whatever part of London I might be, if I asked for the residence of
a mendicant, it was pretty sure to be in a quarter very remote from the
one in which he asked relief.

The next was, that—

Those mendicants who professed to want work and not charity, always
belonged to trades in which it was scarcely possible to give them
employment without trusting them with valuable property. {243}

One example will suffice. During a very severe winter, the ground
being covered with snow, whilst passing through Belgrave Square, a man
accosted me, declaring that he could get no work, and that himself and
family were starving.


I inquired his trade: he was a watchmaker. I asked for his address.
I wrote down in my pocket-book his name, the street, and the number,
and read it to him: it was in Clerkenwell. The next day I went there,
made particular inquiries of the landlord, and was informed that no
person of that name lodged in the house, or ever had lodged in it. I
spoke to several respectable female lodgers also, who gave me the same
information, as far as their knowledge went.

Several months after, I met the same professional mendicant in Portland
Road. He did not recollect me, and again told the same story, and again
gave me the same address. On this, I recalled to his memory that I
had seen him before: that he had given me the same address; and that,
having myself been there to inquire, I had found that his story was
untrue. This statement had allowed him time to invent a new tale.

With well-feigned surprise he suddenly remembered that his wife, about
three months ago, had told him that a strange gentleman had called, and
had particularly inquired for him; that his wife, knowing that a writ
was out against him, and that he was liable to be arrested, had denied
that any person of his name resided in the house.

A few days after I went again to Clerkenwell, and received from the
residents the answer they had given me three months before. I then
went to one of the large shops for tools used by watchmakers near that
locality, and having mentioned the subject to the master, he very
readily asked amongst his shopmen whether they knew of such a person.

He assured me that, even allowing the man had not usually dealt at his
shop, it was impossible that he should not have been several times
there for some trifling article necessary in the hurry of his business.
I then went to two or three other shops of a similar kind, and found
that his name was entirely unknown. I therefore concluded that he was
an impostor.

I will mention one other case, because it arose entirely out of an
accident, and could not have been foreseen.

Living at that time much in society, I usually walked home from the
hot rooms of an evening party wrapped in a stout cloak, even though
it sometimes rained. On these occasions I was often placed in a most
painful situation.


A half-clad miserable female, with an infant in her arms, and sometimes
accompanied by another just able to walk, followed me through a
drizzling rain to ask charity for her starving children.

I confess it was to me a most painful effort to resist such an
application; yet my better reason informed me that in all probability
these miserable children were hired for the purpose of exciting the
feelings of the charitable. To give money to their heartless conductors
could only be considered charitable, inasmuch as it might contribute to
shorten the lives of their wretched victims.

I fear I gave wrongfully many a sixpence. I inquired into some cases,
but without any result which could enable me to alter the opinion I
have expressed. It was in one of these inquiries that the singular case
I am now about to relate occurred.

In one of the densest of London fogs on a November night, or rather at
between one and two o’clock in the morning, I was inquiring, in one of
the most disreputable streets in London—George Street, St. Giles’s,
long ago pulled down, {245} enlarged, and rebuilt—for a female with an
infant, who had represented herself to me as a miserable mother, and
into the truth of whose story I was anxious to inquire.

I had been into several of the lowest lodging-houses, and into the
cellars of that nest of misery and guilt, and was unsuccessful in
finding the object I sought.


Only a few of these abodes of wretchedness remained unvisited, when
I inquired after the poor woman I was seeking of a somewhat decently
clothed woman, who rented one of them.

She was the weekly tenant of one of these houses, and told me that
on the preceding night a poor woman, with a child wrapped up in a
miserably torn shawl, had applied for a lodging at about eleven
o’clock. It was raining hard, and the poor woman possessed only
twopence, and the price of a bed in the cellar was at this house
threepence. The poor woman went away, remarking that she must then go
and pawn the remnant of the shawl that covered her infant. She went,
but returned no more.

The ancient weekly tenant then thought it necessary to defend, or
rather to explain, her own apparently cruel conduct. I told her that
it was unnecessary, and that even in my inmost thoughts I had not cast
a reproach upon her. I told her that, from my knowledge of the misery
suffered by poor people, I could readily imagine circumstances which
might fully explain her conduct.

Her heart, however, was too full, so I sat down and listened to her
tale. She was a widow advanced in years, having no relatives, or even
friends, to assist her in her old age. She was the weekly tenant of a
small house in that villanous street, and was entirely supported by
letting out every foot of floor which could be made available for a
human being to {246} sleep upon. But the stern necessity which hung
over her with its iron hand was this:—

Her weekly rent became due on each Monday, and if not paid on that
night, the next morning would see her inexorably turned out of her only
home, and deprived of her only means of sustaining life.


She was pleased at my attention to her sad tale, and, with a little
encouragement, mentioned some of the experience she had had in her
painful vocation.

“At this moment,” she said, “there is lying on a rug in the back
kitchen a young man, who has tasted nothing during the last two
days but water from the pump on the opposite side of the street. He
appears,” she said, “to have been in better circumstances in other

It was now two o’clock in the morning, in the midst of a dense fog. I
inquired whether it would be possible at this hour to get some soup
or meat, or anything to sustain life. I went down into the close
unventilated room, and beheld, stretched on a kind of thing like a
couple of sacks, a pale, emaciated man, apparently about two or three
and thirty years of age. I desired him to call on me the next morning;
and, leaving my address with his landlady, left also a small sum of
money to procure for him, if possible, present necessaries.

The next morning this half-starved man called at my house, in garments
scarcely covering him. I inquired into his history, and he told me
one probably as fabulous as that with which he afterwards deluded me,
during my own short acquaintance with him.

I supplied him with a few clothes, shoes, and other things, just to
replace the worn-out rags in which I had found him, and desired him in
a day or two, when he got them into a {247} serviceable form, to come
to me, that I might see what his capacity was, and by what means he
could best earn a subsistence.


It is unnecessary to enter into the long and artful stories he
invented. The short result was this: that he had been a steward of
a merchant ship—had been in the West Indies, and on other voyages;
that having, on his return from some voyage, been reduced by illness
to spend all his little earnings, and even to sell his clothes, and
having no friends in London, he could not go amongst the merchant
captains for want of decent clothes to appear in. This difficulty was
partially removed by my giving him a suit. He called one day to tell me
that he had succeeded in getting the situation of steward in a small
West Indiaman, and that he did not like to sell or exchange a pair of
top-boots which I had given him without asking my permission, which,
of course, I gave. He told me that if he sold the boots, and purchased
light, gaudy-coloured waistcoating, he might do a little profitable
business with the niggers. He showed me the card of the shop in
Monmouth Street at which he had commenced a negotiation about the sale
of the boots, and another, in the same street, at which he proposed to
purchase the waistcoats. He gave me the name of his ship, and of its
captain, and the day of sailing. I flattered myself that he was now in
a fair position to get a fresh start in life.

A few evenings after the ship was supposed to have sailed he called at
my house, in the midst of heavy rain, apparently much agitated, and
stated that, in raising their anchor, an accident had happened, by
which the captain’s leg had been broken.

He also said that, being sent up with the ship’s boat to fetch the new
captain, he could not resist calling at my house {248} once more to
express all his gratitude. I confess I entertained some suspicion about
this story; but I said nothing.

The next morning I found that during his visit he had extracted
something more from my female servants, upon whose sympathy he had
worked, and who had previously contributed very liberally to his wants.


I now went to search for him in his old haunts, and with much
difficulty ascertained that he had been living riotously at some
public-house in another quarter, and had been continually drunk.

My next step was to go to Bow Street and consult Sir Richard Birnie.
Having explained the case, he consulted several of his most skilful
officers; but none were acquainted with the man. Sir Richard remarked
that he was a very adroit fellow, and that it was doubtful whether he
had actually committed an act of swindling. I inquired what I should do
in case I found him. The magistrate replied, “Bring him before me;” but
he did not indicate the slightest expectation of my accomplishing that

Having thanked Sir Richard, I withdrew, determined, if the fellow were
in London, I would catch him.

I now renewed my inquiries, which at first were ineffectual. One day
it occurred to me that, as he had shown me two cards of shopkeepers in
Monmouth Street, I might possibly, by cautious inquiry, get some clue
to his whereabouts.

Although it was Sunday when this idea occurred, I immediately commenced
at one end of the street to knock at each door, apologize to the
landlord or landlady, and, shortly stating my case, to inquire if they
could throw any light upon the subject. I went up one side of the
street, and down part of the other, having at two places gained some
traces of the fellow. {249}


I will say, to the credit of the then residents, some of whom I
intruded upon at their dinner hour, that I received in no one instance
the slightest incivility, nor even coldness.

The most important information I obtained was, that a certain pot-boy
(name and name of his public-house both unknown) would probably be able
to give me some clue.

I next took my station at the northern end of Monmouth Street, and
during three hours accosted every pot-boy who passed. At last I got
hold of the right one, and so ultimately obtained the information I

The fellow was then arrested, and brought before Sir R. Birnie. The
magistrate was much surprised that so clever a fellow should not have
been known to any of his officers. After a long examination, I stated
to the magistrate, that though I was very reluctant to appear before
the public in such a case, yet that if he thought it a public duty, I
should not shrink from it. Sir Richard remarked, that the inconvenience
of my attending two or three days to prosecute would be very great—that
the fellow was so accomplished an artist, that it was very doubtful if
he could be convicted. He then added, that the best thing to be done
for the man himself would be, if I could produce any new evidence, that
he should be remanded for a week, to hear it, and then be discharged
with a caution from the bench.

As my servants could give additional evidence, the fellow was remanded
for a week, then duly lectured and discharged.

In the course of my efforts to inform myself of the real wants of
those around me, I profited much by the experience of one or two
friends, both most excellent and kind-hearted men, whose official
duties rendered them far more conversant than myself with the subject.
Mr. Walker and Mr. Broderip, both of them magistrates, were amongst
my intimate friends. {250} Mr. Walker, the author of “The Original,”
maintained that no one ever was actually starved in London, except
through his own folly or fault.


The result of my own experience leads me to recommend all those who do
not possess time and the requisite energies for personal inquiries, to
place the means they wish to devote to charity in the hands of some
sensible and kind-hearted magistrate.

I have been present, in the course of my life, at many cases brought
before our London police magistrates. They possess an immense power of
doing good—a power of making the law respected, not by its punishments,
but by their own kindliness of manner and thoughtful consideration for
the feelings of those brought into close contact with them.

Plain common sense, a kind heart, and, above all, the feelings of a
thorough gentleman, are invaluable qualities in a magistrate. They give
dignity to the court over which he presides, as well as an example
which will be insensibly followed by all its officers. I have seen
cases from which my own avocations have imperatively called me away,
when I would gladly have remained to admire the kindness and the tact
with which entangled questions have been gradually brought to a humane
and just conclusion.




The Philosopher in a Tableau at the Feet of Beauty — Tableau encored
— Philosopher at the Opera of ‘Don Juan’ — Visits the Water-works
above and the dark expanse below the Stage — Seized by two Devils
on their way up to fetch Juan — Cheated the Devils by springing off
to a beam at an infinite distance, just as his head appeared to the
Audience through the trap-door — The Philosopher writes a Ballet — Its
rehearsal — Its high moral tone — Its rejection on the ground of the
probable combustion of the Opera-house.

I was never particularly devoted to theatrical representations. Tragedy
I disliked, and comedy, which I enjoyed, frequently excited my feelings
more than the dignity of the philosophic character sanctioned. In fact,
I could not stand the reconciliation scenes.

I did, however, occasionally, in one or two rare instances, _assist_
in a tableau. I still remember my delight when personating a dead
body, with my head towards the audience, I lay motionless at the feet
of three angels, entranced by their beauty, and whose charms still
fascinate my imagination, and still retain their wonted power over my
own sex.

We enacted the scene so admirably that our performance was twice
encored. But though thus “thrice slain,” the near proximity of beauty
speedily revived the ‘caput mortuum’ at its feet.

On one occasion having joined a party of friends in their box at the
opera of ‘Don Juan,’ I escaped, by half a second, {252} a marvellous
adventure. Somewhat fatigued with the opera, I went behind the scenes
to look at the mechanism. One of the scene-shifters of whom I had
made an inquiry, found out that I, like himself, was a workman. He
immediately offered to take me all over the theatre, and show me every


We ascended to the roof to examine the ventilation, by which, if
stopped, the spectators, in case of accident or of a row, might be
suffocated. Also, the vast water-tanks by which, in case of fire, they
might be drowned. After long rambling and descending endless steps, I
found myself in a vast dark and apparently boundless area; the flat
wooden roof high above my head was supported by upright timbers, some
having intermediate stages like large dissecting-tables. Here and there
three lamps, rivalling rushlights, made the obscurity more visible, and
the carpentry more incomprehensible.

Suddenly a little bell rang—the signal for my scene-shifting friend
to take his post. He pointed to one of the dismal imitations of a
rushlight, and said: “You see that light; on its left is a door, go
through that, and straight on until you arrive at daylight.” Instantly
my friend became invisible in the surrounding gloom.

My first step when thus suddenly abandoned, was to mount on a
large oblong platform about six feet above the floor. Here I was
philosophically contemplating the surrounding obscure vacuity, in order
that I might fully “comprehend the situation.”

Suddenly a flash of lightning occurred. On looking up, high above my
head I saw an opening as large as the platform on which I stood. All
there was brightness. Whilst I was admiring this new light, and seeking
my way to the upper and outer world, two devils with long forked tails
jumped upon the platform, one at each end. {253}


“What do you do here?” said Devil No. 1.

Before I could invent a decent excuse, Devil No. 2 exclaimed:

“You must not come with us.”

This was consolatory and reassuring, so I replied—

“Heaven forbid.”

During this colloquy, the table, the philosopher, and the devils, were
all slowly moving upward to the open trap-door of the stage above.
Seeing a beam some feet higher at a moderate distance, I inquired
whether it was fixed and would bear my weight? “Yes,” said Devil No. 1.

“But you cannot reach it at a jump,” added Devil No. 2.

“Trust that to me,” said I, “to get out of your clutches.”

We had now reached the level of the desired beam, though not near
enough for a jump. However, still ascending, we passed it: then
stooping my head and bending my body to avoid the floor of the stage,
which we were fast approaching, I sprang down on the beam of refuge. My
two missionary companions continued their course to the world above in
order to convey the wicked Juan to the realms below. My transit through
the dark, subterranean abyss to my own world above was rapid. I soon
rejoined my companions, who congratulated me on what they represented
as my ‘undeserved escape:’ kindly hoping that I might be equally
fortunate upon some future occasion.

Presence of mind frequently arises from having previously considered a
variety of possible events. I had never contemplated such a situation,
and have often asked myself and others what should have been my
conduct, in case I had not escaped from my satanic companions; but no
satisfactory conclusion has yet presented itself.


During one season, I had a stall at the German Opera. {254} One
evening, in the cloister scene by moonlight, in the convent, I observed
that the white bonnet of my companion had a pink tint: so also had the
paper of our books and every white object around us.

This contrast of colour suggested to me the direct use of coloured
lights. The progress of science in producing intense lights by the
oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, and by electricity under its various forms,
enabled me to carry out the idea of producing coloured lights for
theatrical representations. I made many experiments by filling cells
formed by pieces of parallel plate glass with solutions of various
salts of chrome of copper, and of other substances.

The effects were superb. I then devised a dance, in which they might
be splendidly exhibited. This was called the rainbow dance. I proposed
to abolish the foot-lights, and instead of them to substitute four
urns with flowers. These urns would each conceal from the audience an
intense light of one of the following colours: blue, yellow, red, or
any others which might be preferable.

The rays of light would be projected from the vases towards the stage,
and would form four cones of red, blue, yellow, and purple light
passing to its further end.

Four groups, each of fifteen danseuses in pure white, would now enter
on the stage. Each group would assume the colour of the light in which
it was placed. Thus four dances each of a different colour would
commence. Occasionally, a damsel from a group of one colour would
spring into another group, thus resembling a shooting star.

After a time, the coloured lights would expand laterally and overlap
each other, thus producing all the colours of the rainbow. In the mean
time the sixty damsels in pure white forming one vast ellipse, would
dance round, each in turn {255} assuming, as it passed through them,
all the prismatic colours.

I had mentioned these experiments and ideas to a few of my friends,
one of whom spoke of it to Mr. Lumley, the lessee of the Italian Opera
House. He thought it promised well, and ultimately I made a series of
experiments in the great concert-room.

Ropes were stretched across the room, on which were hung in innumerable
forms large sheets of patent net. The various folds and bendings
displayed the lights under endless modifications. Some brilliant
greens, some fiery reds, blues of the brightest hue. Another of these
was an almost perfect resemblance of the dead purple powdery coating of
the finest grapes.


Things being thus prepared, I had a consultation with the eminent
_chef-de-ballet_ as to the kind of dance and the nature of the steps to
be adapted to these gorgeous colours. Thus having invented the “Rainbow
Dance” I became still more ambitious, and even thought of writing a
story to introduce it, and to give it a moral character. Hence arose
the beautiful ballet of ‘Alethes and Iris.’


Alethes, a priest of the Sun, surrounded by every luxury that earth
can lay at the feet of its god, feels, like all before him, that the
most glorious life is sad without a companion to sympathize with
his feelings and share in his enjoyments. He makes, therefore, a
magnificent sacrifice to the god of this visible creation, and prays
for the gratification of his solitary desire.

Apart from all the inferior orders of his class, in the midst of clouds
of incense, the high priest himself becomes entranced.

He beholds in a vision a distant and lonely spot of bright {256}
light. Advancing towards him, it assumes a circular form, having
a small yellow centre surrounded by a deep blue confined within a
brilliant red circle.

Retaining its shape, but slowly enlarging in size, it becomes
a circular rainbow, out of which emerges a form of beauty more
resplendent than mortal eyes might bear. Approaching the Book of Fate,
which lies closed upon a golden pedestal in this the deepest and most
sacred portion of the Temple of the Sun, she opens it and inscribes in

Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 18 of 36)