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convince my senses of his existence, I declined adopting the legal
forms of a bond, and preferred one more resembling that of leaving a
visiting card, when, if not at home, I might expect the satisfaction of
a return of the visit by the devil in person. {12}


Accordingly, having selected a promising locality, I went one evening
towards dusk up into a deserted garret. Having closed the door, and
I believe opened the window, I proceeded to cut my finger and draw a
circle on the floor with the blood which flowed from the incision.

I then placed myself in the centre of the circle, and either said or
read the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This I accomplished at first with
some trepidation and in great fear towards the close of the scene. I
then stood still in the centre of that magic and superstitious circle,
looking with intense anxiety in all directions, especially at the
window and at the chimney. Fortunately for myself, and for the reader
also, if he is interested in this narrative, no owl or black cat or
unlucky raven came into the room.

In either case my then weakened frame might have expiated this foolish
experiment by its own extinction, or by the alienation of that too
curious spirit which controlled its feeble powers.


After waiting some time for my expected but dreaded visitor, I, in
some degree, recovered my self-possession, and leaving the circle
of my incantation, I gradually opened the door and gently closing
it, descended the stairs, at first slowly, and by degrees much more
quickly. I then rejoined my companions, but said nothing whatever of my
recent attempt. After supper the boys retired to bed. When we were in
bed and the candle removed, I proceeded as usual to repeat my prayers
silently to myself. After the few first sentences of the Lord’s Prayer,
I found that I had forgotten a sentence, and could not go on to the
conclusion. This alarmed me very much, and having repeated another
prayer or hymn, I remained long awake, and very unhappy. I thought that
this forgetfulness was a punishment inflicted {13} upon me by the
Almighty, and that I was a wicked little boy for having attempted to
satisfy myself about the existence of a devil. The next night my memory
was more faithful, and my prayers went on as usual. Still, however, I
was unhappy, and continued to brood over the inquiry. My uninstructed
faculties led me from doubts of the existence of a devil to doubts of
the book and the religion which asserted him to be a living being.
My sense of justice (whether it be innate or acquired) led me to
believe that it was impossible that an almighty and all-merciful God
could punish me, a poor little boy, with eternal torments because I
had anxiously taken the only means I knew of to verify the truth or
falsehood of the religion I had been taught. I thought over these
things for a long time, and, in my own childish mind, wished and prayed
that God would tell me what was true. After long meditation, I resolved
to make an experiment to settle the question. I thought, if it was
really of such immense importance to me here and hereafter to believe
rightly, that the Almighty would not consign me to eternal misery
because, after trying all means that I could devise, I was unable to
know the truth. I took an odd mode of making the experiment; I resolved
that at a certain hour of a certain day I would go to a certain room
in the house, and that if I found the door open, I would believe the
Bible; but that if it were closed, I should conclude that it was not
true. I remember well that the observation was made, but I have no
recollection as to the state of the door. I presume it was found open
from the circumstance that, for many years after, I was no longer
troubled by doubts, and indeed went through the usual religious forms
with very little thought about their origin.


At length, as time went on, my bodily health was restored {14} by my
native air: my mind, however, receiving but little instruction, began,
I imagine, to prey upon itself—such at least I infer to have been the
case from the following circumstance. One day, when uninterested in
the sports of my little companions, I had retired into the shrubbery
and was leaning my head, supported by my left arm, upon the lower
branch of a thorn-tree. Listless and unoccupied, I _imagined_ I had a
head-ache. After a time I perceived, lying on the ground just under
me, a small bright bit of metal. I instantly seized the precious
discovery, and turning it over, examined both sides. I immediately
concluded that I had discovered some valuable treasure, and running
away to my deserted companions, showed them my golden coin. The little
company became greatly excited, and declared that it must be gold,
and that it was a piece of money of great value. We ran off to get
the opinion of the usher; but whether he partook of the delusion, or
we acquired our knowledge from the higher authority of the master, I
know not. I only recollect the entire dissipation of my head-ache, and
then my ultimate great disappointment when it was pronounced, upon the
undoubted authority of the village doctor, that the square piece of
brass I had found was a half-dram weight which had escaped from the
box of a pair of medical scales. This little incident had an important
effect upon my after-life. I reflected upon the extraordinary fact,
that my head-ache had been entirely cured by the discovery of the
piece of brass. Although I may not have put into words the principle,
_that occupation of the mind is such a source of pleasure that it can
relieve even the pain of a head-ache_; yet I am sure it practically
gave an additional stimulus to me in many a difficult inquiry. Some
few years after, when suffering under a form of tooth-ache, not acute
though tediously {15} wearing, I often had recourse to a volume of Don
Quixote, and still more frequently to one of Robinson Crusoe. Although
at first it required a painful effort of attention, yet it almost
always happened, after a time, that I had forgotten the moderate pain
in the overpowering interest of the novel.


My most intimate companion and friend was a boy named Dacres, the son
of Admiral Richard Dacres. We had often talked over such questions as
those I have mentioned in this chapter, and we had made an agreement
that whichever died first should, if possible, appear to the other
after death, in order to satisfy the survivor about their solution.

After a year or two my young friend entered the navy, but we kept up
our friendship, and when he was ashore I saw him frequently. He was
in a ship of eighty guns at the passage of the Dardanelles, under the
command of Sir Thomas Duckworth. Ultimately he was sent home in charge
of a prize-ship, in which he suffered the severest hardships during a
long and tempestuous voyage, and then died of consumption.

I saw him a few days before his death, at the age of about eighteen.
We talked of former times, but neither of us mentioned the compact. I
believe it occurred to his mind: it was certainly strongly present to
my own.


He died a few days after. On the evening of that day I retired to my
own room, which was partially detached from the house by an intervening
conservatory. I sat up until after midnight, endeavouring to read,
but found it impossible to fix my attention on any subject, except
the overpowering feeling of curiosity, which absorbed my mind. I then
undressed and went into bed; but sleep was entirely banished. I had
previously carefully examined whether any cat, bird, or living animal
might be accidentally concealed in my room, {16} and I had studied the
forms of the furniture lest they should in the darkness mislead me.

I passed a night of perfect sleeplessness. The distant clock and a
faithful dog, just outside my own door, produced the only sounds which
disturbed the intense silence of that anxious night.




Taken to an Exhibition of Mechanism — Silver Ladies — School near
London — Unjustly punished — Injurious Effect — Ward’s Young
Mathematician’s Guide — Got up in the Night to Study — Frederick
Marryat interrupts — Treaty of Peace — Found out — Strange Effect of
Treacle and Cognac on Boys — Taught to write Sermons under the Rev.
Charles Simeon.

During my boyhood my mother took me to several exhibitions of
machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man
who called himself Merlin. I was so greatly interested in it, that
the Exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of
the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to
take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful
automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two
uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high.

One of these walked or rather glided along a space of about four feet,
when she turned round and went back to her original place. She used an
eye-glass occasionally, and bowed frequently, as if recognizing her
acquaintances. The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful.

The other silver figure was an admirable _danseuse_, with a bird
on the fore finger of her right hand, which wagged its tail,
flapped its wings, and opened its beak. This lady attitudinized in
a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and
irresistible. {18}

These silver figures were the chef-d’œuvres of the artist: they had
cost him years of unwearied labour, and were not even then finished.

After I left Devonshire I was placed at a school in the neighbourhood
of London, in which there were about thirty boys.


My first experience was unfortunate, and probably gave an unfavourable
turn to my whole career during my residence of three years.

After I had been at school a few weeks, I went with one of my
companions into the play-ground in the dusk of the evening. We heard
a noise, as of people talking in an orchard at some distance, which
belonged to our master. As the orchard had recently been robbed, we
thought that thieves were again at work. We accordingly climbed over
the boundary wall, ran across the field, and saw in the orchard beyond
a couple of fellows evidently running away. We pursued as fast as our
legs could carry us, and just got up to the supposed thieves at the
ditch on the opposite side of the orchard.

A roar of laughter then greeted us from two of our own companions, who
had entered the orchard for the purpose of getting some manure for
their flowers out of a rotten mulberry-tree. These boys were aware of
our mistake, and had humoured it.

We now returned all together towards the play-ground, when we met our
master, who immediately pronounced that we were each fined one shilling
for being out of bounds. We two boys who had gone out of bounds to
protect our master’s property, and who if thieves had really been there
would probably have been half-killed by them, attempted to remonstrate
and explain the case; but all {19} remonstrance was vain, and we were
accordingly fined. I never forgot that injustice.

The school-room adjoined the house, but was not directly connected
with it. It contained a library of about three hundred volumes on
various subjects, generally very well selected; it also contained one
or two works on subjects which do not usually attract at that period of
life. I derived much advantage from this library; and I now mention it
because I think it of great importance that a library should exist in
every school-room.


Amongst the books was a treatise on Algebra, called “Ward’s Young
Mathematician’s Guide.” I was always partial to my arithmetical
lessons, but this book attracted my particular attention. After I had
been at this school for about a twelvemonth, I proposed to one of
my school-fellows, who was of a studious habit, that we should get
up every morning at three o’clock, light a fire in the school-room,
and work until five or half-past five. We accomplished this pretty
regularly for several months. Our plan had, however, become partially
known to a few of our companions. One of these, a tall boy, bigger than
ourselves, having heard of it, asked me to allow him to get up with us,
urging that his sole object was to study, and that it would be of great
importance to him in after-life. I had the cruelty to refuse this very
reasonable request. The subject has often recurred to my memory, but
never without regret.


Another of my young companions, Frederick Marryat,[3] made the same
request, but not with the same motive. I told him we got up in order to
work; that he would only play, and that we should then be found out.
After some time, having exhausted all his arguments, Marryat told me he
was {20} determined to get up, and would do it whether I liked it or

[3] Afterwards Captain Marryat.

Marryat slept in the same room as myself: it contained five beds. Our
room opened upon a landing, and its door was exactly opposite that of
the master. A flight of stairs led up to a passage just over the room
in which the master and mistress slept. Passing along this passage,
another flight of stairs led down, on the other side of the master’s
bed-room, to another landing, from which another flight of stairs led
down to the external door of the house, leading by a long passage to
the school-room.

Through this devious course I had cautiously threaded my way, calling
up my companion in his room at the top of the last flight of stairs,
almost every night for several months.

One night on trying to open the door of my own bed-room, I found
Marryat’s bed projecting a little before the door, so that I could
not open it. I perceived that this was done purposely, in order that
I might awaken him. I therefore cautiously, and by degrees, pushed
his bed back without awaking him, and went as usual to my work. This
occurred two or three nights successively.

One night, however, I found a piece of pack-thread tied to the door
lock, which I traced to Marryat’s bed, and concluded it was tied to his
arm or hand. I merely untied the cord from the lock, and passed on.

A few nights after I found it impossible to untie the cord, so I cut
it with my pocket-knife. The cord then became thicker and thicker for
several nights, but still my pen-knife did its work.


One night I found a small chain fixed to the lock, and passing thence
into Marryat’s bed. This defeated my efforts for that night, and I
retired to my own bed. The next night {21} I was provided with a
pair of plyers, and unbent one of the links, leaving the two portions
attached to Marryat’s arm and to the lock of the door. This occurred
several times, varying by stouter chains, and by having a padlock which
I could not pick in the dark.

At last one morning I found a chain too strong for the tools I
possessed; so I retired to my own bed, defeated. The next night,
however, I provided myself with a ball of packthread. As soon as I
heard by his breathing that Marryat was asleep, I crept over to the
door, drew one end of my ball of packthread through a link of the
too-powerful chain, and bringing it back with me to bed, gave it a
sudden jerk by pulling both ends of the packthread passing through the
link of the chain.

Marryat jumped up, put out his hand to the door, found his chain all
right, and then lay down. As soon as he was asleep again, I repeated
the operation. Having awakened him for the third time, I let go one end
of the string, and drew it back by the other, so that he was unable at
daylight to detect the cause.

At last, however, I found it expedient to enter into a treaty of peace,
the basis of which was that I should allow Marryat to join the night
party; but that nobody else should be admitted. This continued for
a short time; but, one by one, three or four other boys, friends of
Marryat, joined our party, and, as I had anticipated, no work was done.
We all got to play; we let off fire-works in the play-ground, and were
of course discovered.


Our master read us a very grave lecture at breakfast upon the
impropriety of this irregular system of turning night into day, and
pointed out its injurious effects upon the health. This, he said,
was so remarkable that he could distinguish by {22} their pallid
countenances those who had taken part in it. Now he certainly did point
out every boy who had been up on the night we were detected. But it
appeared to me very odd that the same means of judging had not enabled
him long before to discover the two boys who had for several months
habitually practised this system of turning night into day.

Another of our pranks never received its solution in our master’s mind;
indeed I myself scarcely knew its early history. Somehow or other, a
Russian young gentleman, who was a parlour-boarder, had I believe,
expatiated to Marryat on the virtues of Cognac.

One evening my friend came to me with a quart bottle of what he
called excellent stuff. A council was held amongst a few of us boys
to decide how we should dispose of this treasure. I did not myself
much admire the liquid, but suggested that it might be very good when
mixed up with a lot of treacle. This thought was unanimously adopted,
and a subscription made to purchase the treacle. Having no vessel
sufficiently large to hold the intended mixture, I proposed to take one
of our garden-pots, stopping up the hole in its bottom with a cork.

A good big earthen vessel, thus extemporised, was then filled with
this wonderful mixture. A spoon or two, an oyster-shell, and various
other contrivances delivered it to its numerous consumers, and all the
boys got a greater or less share, according to their taste for this
extraordinary liqueur.

The feast was over, the garden-pot was restored to its owner, and the
treacled lips of the boys had been wiped with their handkerchiefs or on
their coat-sleeves, when the bell announced that it was prayer-time. We
all knelt in silence at our respective desks. As soon as the prayers
were over, one of the oddest scenes occurred. {23}


Many boys rose up from their knees—but some fell down again. Some
turned round several times, and then fell. Some turned round so often
that they resembled spinning dervishes. Others were only more stupid
than usual; some complained of being sick; many were very sleepy;
others were sound asleep, and had to be carried to bed; some talked
fast and heroically, two attempted psalmody, but none listened.

All investigation at the time was useless: we were sent off to bed as
quickly as possible. It was only known that Count Cognac had married
the sweet Miss Treacle, whom all the boys knew and loved, and who
lodged at the grocer’s, in the neighbouring village. But I believe
neither the pedigree of the bridegroom nor his domicile were ever
discovered. It is probable that he was of French origin, and dwelt in a

After I left this school I was for a few years under the care of an
excellent clergyman in the neighbourhood of Cambridge. There were
only six boys; but I fear I did not derive from it all the advantage
that I might have done. I came into frequent contact with the Rev.
Charles Simeon, and with many of his enthusiastic disciples. Every
Sunday I had to write from memory an abstract of the sermon he preached
in our village. Even at that period of my life I had a taste for
generalization. Accordingly, having generalized some of Mr. Simeon’s
sermons up to a kind of skeleton form, I tried, by way of experiment,
to fill up such a form in a sermon of my own composing from the text
of “Alexander the coppersmith hath done us much harm.” As well as I
remember, there were in my sermon some queer deductions from this
text; but then they fulfilled all the usual conditions of our sermons:
so thought also two of my companions to whom I communicated _in
confidence_ this new manufacture. {24}


By some unexplained circumstance my sermon relating to copper being
isomorphous with Simeon’s own productions, got by substitution into
the hands of our master as the recollections of one of the other boys.
Thereupon arose an awful explosion which I decline to paint.

I did, however, learn something at this school, for I observed a
striking illustration of the Economy of Manufactures. Mr. Simeon had
the cure of a very wicked parish in Cambridge, whilst my instructor
held that of a tolerably decent country village. If each minister had
stuck to the instruction of his own parish, it would have necessitated
the manufacture of four sermons per week, whilst, by this beneficial
interchange of duties, only two were required.

Each congregation enjoyed also another advantage from this
arrangement—the advantage of variety, which, when moderately indulged
in, excites the appetite.




Universal Language — Purchase Lacroix’s Quarto Work on the Integral
Calculus — Disappointment on getting no explanation of my Mathematical
Difficulties — Origin of the Analytical Society — The Ghost Club
— Chess — Sixpenny Whist and Guinea Whist — Boating — Chemistry —
Elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1828.

My father, with a view of acquiring some information which might be of
use to me at Cambridge, had consulted a tutor of one of the colleges,
who was passing his long vacation at the neighbouring watering-place,
Teignmouth. He dined with us frequently. The advice of the Rev. Doctor
was quite sound, but very limited. It might be summed up in one short
sentence: “Advise your son not to purchase his wine in Cambridge.”

Previously to my entrance at Trinity College, Cambridge, I resided for
a time at Totnes, under the guidance of an Oxford tutor, who undertook
to superintend my classical studies only.

During my residence at this place I accidentally heard, for the first
time, of an idea of forming a universal language. I was much fascinated
by it, and, soon after, proceeded to write a kind of grammar, and then
to devise a dictionary. Some trace of the former, I think, I still
possess: but I was stopped in my idea of making a universal dictionary
by the apparent impossibility of arranging signs in any consecutive
{26} order, so as to find, as in a dictionary, the meaning of each
when wanted. It was only after I had been some time at Cambridge that
I became acquainted with the work of “Bishop Wilkins on Universal

Being passionately fond of algebra, I had instructed myself by means
of Ward’s “Young Mathematician’s Guide,” which had casually fallen
into my hands at school. I now employed all my leisure in studying
such mathematical works as accident brought to my knowledge. Amongst
these were Humphrey Ditton’s “Fluxions,” of which I could make nothing;
Madame Agnesi’s “Analytical Institutions,” from which I acquired some
knowledge; Woodhouse’s “Principles of Analytical Calculation,” from
which I learned the notation of Leibnitz; and Lagrange’s “Théorie des
Fonctions.” I possessed also the Fluxions of Maclaurin and of Simpson.

Thus it happened that when I went to Cambridge I could work out such
questions as the very moderate amount of mathematics which I then
possessed admitted, with equal facility, in the dots of Newton, the
d’s of Leibnitz, or the dashes of Lagrange. I had, however, met with
many difficulties, and looked forward with intense delight to the
certainty of having them all removed on my arrival at Cambridge. I had
in my imagination formed a plan for the institution amongst my future
friends of a chess club, and also of another club for the discussion of
mathematical subjects.


In 1811, during the war, it was very difficult to procure foreign
books. I had heard of the great work of Lacroix, on the “Differential
and Integral Calculus,” which I longed to possess, and being
misinformed that its price was two guineas, I resolved to purchase it
in London on my passage to Cambridge. As soon as I arrived I went to
the French {27} bookseller, Dulau, and to my great surprise found that
the price of the book was seven guineas. After much thought I made
the costly purchase, went on immediately to Cambridge, saw my tutor,

Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 2 of 36)