Charles Babbage.

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher online

. (page 26 of 36)
Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 26 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

fifty pounds. I immediately replied that it would be good economy to
purchase my own time at that expense, and I desired him to take the
necessary steps.

The first was to get some housekeeper to enter with me into a bond for
twenty pounds to pay the magistrate’s costs, in case I failed. Having
wasted some time upon this, the magistrate granted a case for the
Queen’s Bench, a copy of which my solicitor immediately sent me. {356}

The grounds of Mr. Y——’s decision, were—

1st. That the man was not _legally_ in custody.

2nd. That he was not within reasonable distance of my house.

3rd. That he did not understand the English language.

On receiving this, I felt quite relieved, and thought that a clear
decision upon these three points would be very cheaply purchased by an
expenditure of fifty pounds.

However, on mentioning the subject to several of my personal friends,
who were themselves high in the profession of the law, I was destined
to be grievously disappointed. I was informed that the Court of Queen’s
Bench would not decide upon any one of the questions, but would decide
generally that the magistrate’s decision was right or was wrong,
without giving me the least intimation on which of the grounds it

I now perceived the _dodge_ that had been practised upon me, and I
felt compelled to admit that Mr. Y—— was a _clever fellow_. A regard
for truth, however, forbids me to extend the application of this
observation to anybody else concerned in this matter.

I have spared neither expense nor personal trouble in endeavouring to
put a stop to this nuisance. During one twelvemonth those expenses
amounted, within a few shillings, to one hundred and four pounds. I
was not, however, the only sufferer; that amount would otherwise have
been expended in giving a year’s employment to a skilled workman, whose
wages are about two pounds a week.

I shall now give one illustration from my own experience of the utterly
imperfect state of the law for suppressing the nuisance of street

On Monday, the 29th of February, in the present year, at 3 P.M., in
the midst of a thick fog, a brass band struck up {357} close under
my windows. I was in ill-health, and engaged in a subject requiring
much attention. I knocked at the window; but the band continued their
performance. Then I opened the window and desired them to desist;
they still continued, and I then sent my servant to desire them to go
away. Having finished their tune, they removed about five doors from
my residence, and commenced another performance. My patience being
exhausted, I then went out myself to desire my tormentors to depart.
My servant went on to the station before he could get a constable. In
the meantime the band had removed about six doors further, and began
another tune. At last my servant arrived with a policeman, who took
down the names and addresses of the nine musicians constituting the

The next day I paid twenty-seven shillings for summonses. The day
after, the police informed me that all the addresses given, which were
either in Richmond or Brentford, were false. I applied to the police,
who watched at certain haunts; but they only succeeded in identifying
two of them. I then obtained warrants to apprehend those two, and
came up from the country expressly to attend at the police-court; but
the men were not to be found. I am still waiting in the hope that our
police is not quite so inefficient as to allow them to escape. I have
already been put to the charge of employing a solicitor and to other
expenses. But the band itself is, I believe, still going about in
London and playing every day.

Now, if it had been legal for the police to have taken possession
of the instruments of those disturbers of the public peace, a false
address would have been useless, for it would have been cheaper to have
paid the penalties than to have lost their instruments.

It is, I presume, admitted that streets and high roads are not {358}
the property of those who use them. They are the Queen’s highways, and
were devoted to the public for certain uses only.

The public have an undoubted right to traverse them, and convey over
them persons, goods, materials, &c. The adjacent householders must bear
any amount of noise which is fairly required for the legitimate use of
roads; but no individual has any right to use them for other purposes,
as for instance—

Theatrical representations—as Punch, Gymnastics.
Playground and games.
Religious services.
Music—as Organs and Brass Bands.

These not merely interfere with their proper use, but disturb the
householders and are in most cases a positive nuisance.

The following letter, from an “Old Lawyer,” recently appeared in _The
Times_. It states the law briefly, and with authority:—


_To the Editor of The Times._

“SIR,—Whether street music in London ought to be put down or not, I,
living in the country, am not concerned to answer. I suppose it is a
question, like smoking, on which the public will always be divided;
but as the law on the subject is so clear and simple, I am surprised
how legislators and justices can be puzzled about it.

“Every public road or street belongs to the Sovereign, as embodying
the nation, and is accordingly called the King’s or Queen’s highway.
The interest of each individual is limited to a right of passing
and repassing over such highway, and he is no more entitled to use
it for business or amusement than he is to build upon it or dig for
ore beneath its surface. {359} Hence the keeping of stalls for sale
is illegal, and, though often winked at, is sometimes denounced and
punished. Hence, the police are justified in desiring you to ‘move
on,’ if you loiter, in looking at a shop window or conversing with a
friend, so as to bar the progress of passengers. _A fortiori_, a band
of musicians has no _locus standi_ on the ground.

“There is, in my neighbourhood, a right of way over a gentleman’s
park. But I have only the privilege of passage, and none of remaining
on the path for the purpose of reading, sketching, or playing the

“I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,


At most, the tolerance of noisy occupants of the streets, such as
organ-grinders, German bands, _et hoc genus omne_, is on sufferance
only, and neither the municipal law nor common sense justifies the
invasion or curtailment of a man’s liberty to use his brain, and exert
his mental energies as the occasion may require; and that, too, even
within the very recesses of the “Englishman’s castle.”

With respect to the remedies against street music, I am not at all
sanguine. The only one which is certain is, positively to forbid it
in all cases, and with it also that varied multitude of vocal noises
made by persons parading the streets singing, relating tales, praying,
offering trifling articles for sale, &c., all of them with the
transparent object of begging.

In all these cases which admit of it, the police ought to be directed
to take possession of the offensive instrument and convey it to the
police-court, there to await the decision of the magistrate.

Certain street nuisances re-appear periodically every few years: thus
the game called ‘tip-cat’ again prevails. {360}

After a certain number of eyes have been knocked out, the police will
probably have orders to stop the nuisance. It will then be put down in
a few weeks, and, perhaps, after a year or two it may break out afresh,
and be again as easily put down.

A similar cycle occurs with children’s hoops: they are trundled about
until they get under horses’ legs. Now if, as it frequently happens,
they are made of iron, not only is the rider thrown as well as the
horse, but the poor animal is almost sure to have his leg broken.

In these and other similar cases, the offending instrument should
invariably be detained by the police and taken to the station to be
destroyed, or only to be returned on payment of a small fine by the
offending party within three days after the seizure.

If this were the case, a multitude of daily street nuisances would very
soon disappear. Boys with accordions and other noisy instruments, small
children with shrill tin whistles would then be obliged to ask their
parents to go to the police-office and pay a fine for the recovery of
toys, and the parents themselves would prevent their children from
destroying the time of other persons as soon as they were made to feel
that it incurred an equal penalty on their own.

Every kind of noisy instrument, whether organ or harp, or trumpet or
penny whistle, if sounded, should be seized by the police and taken
to the station, also all hoops and instruments for playing games. The
effect of this would ultimately be to diminish the labours of the
police. At first they would have some additional trouble; but a few
months would make the disturbers feel that it was a very unprofitable
practice; and after that, if the police did their duty, they would only
occasionally have to seize a stray instrument or two. {361}

Proper warning of this intention to enforce the law ought to be given.
The multitude of music-halls now established in all parts of London is
such that those who enjoy street music may have a much larger quantity
of it, and of a better kind, at a cheaper rate than that which in their
own street disturbs all their neighbours.

If street music is to be at all tolerated by law, against which I
protest in the strongest manner, then every performer ought to carry on
his back or upon his instrument his name and address, or an authorized
number, by which the public might be saved from wasting their time by
false addresses, now so frequently given.

I have received several suggestions about organizing a society, to
endeavour to put a stop to these street nuisances. My reply has been
that such a combination well managed would probably have a very
considerable effect, but that it would be impossible for me to give up
to it any of my own time. I would willingly subscribe to it, and offer
it any suggestions that might assist its operations. Its most important
duty would be to ascertain whether the present law is sufficient to put
down the nuisance. In case it is not, then it would become necessary
to get it amended, and for that purpose to consult with influential
Members about the introduction of a Bill for that purpose.

Amongst the legal difficulties are the following:—The magistrates in
different districts interpret the law differently. Might it not be
expedient that police magistrates should meet from time to time and
discuss such differences of opinion, and agree to act upon that of the
majority? Or ought they not to apply to the Home Secretary for his
authority how to interpret it?

If I am right in the opinion which is confirmed in the {362} letter of
the “Old Lawyer,” that the Queen’s highways can only be legally used by
her subjects for the passage of themselves and the transport of their
property, then it is desirable to ascertain how that principle of the
common law can be enforced. Hitherto all proceedings have been under
certain clauses of the Metropolitan Police Act.

In case any Association should be formed to endeavour to procure
an Act of Parliament to put an end to the music nuisance, it would
be desirable to apply distinctly to each of the Members for the
Metropolitan Boroughs, in order that it might be known on which side of
the question they intended to vote.

As upon all other subjects, men differ upon street nuisances. An
ancient philosopher divided all mankind into _two_ sections, namely,
fools and philosophers; and, unhappily for the race, the one cannot
enjoy his whistle except at the expense of the other. I was once asked
by an astute and sarcastic magistrate whether I seriously believed that
a man’s brain would be injured by listening to an organ; my reply was,
“_Certainly not_;” for the obvious reason that no man having brain ever
listened to street musicians.

“The opera, like the pillory, may be said
To nail the ears down, but expose the head.”

I believe that the greater part of the householders of London would
gladly assist in putting a stop to street-music. The proportion of
cases prosecuted compared with the number of interruptions, is, in
my own case, less than one in a thousand. If the annoyance is not
absolutely prohibited by law, the number of the police must be at least
double, to give quiet working people any repose.




Poor Dogs — Puns Double and Triple — History of the Silver Lady —
Disappointed by the Milliner — The Philosopher performs her functions
— Lady Morgan’s Criticism — Allsop’s Beer — Sydney Smith — Toss up a
Bishop — Lady M . . . and the Gipsy in Spain — Epigram on the Planet
Neptune — Epigram on Henry Drummond’s attack upon Catholics in the
House of Commons — On Catholic Miracles.

It has often struck me that an analysis of the causes of wit would be
a very interesting subject of inquiry. With that view I collected many
jest-books, but fortunately in this one instance I had resolution to
abstain from distracting my attention from more important inquiries.

I may, however, note some illustrations of it which occur to my memory.
The late Sir Harris Nicolas used to practice rather strongly upon some
of his friends. I was not an unwilling victim. The pleasure derived
from the wit far exceeded any pain it inflicted. Indeed, Sir Harris
himself one day expressed his disappointment at my insensibility, by
saying that he had never in his whole life been able really to hit me.

The late Lord S . . . . was sitting with him one morning listening to a
very astute but rather dry explanation of some matter about which his
Lordship had inquired. At last he threw himself back in his arm-chair
and said, “My dear Nicolas, I am very stupid this morning: my brains
are all {364} gone to the dogs.” On which Sir Harris pathetically
exclaimed,—“Poor dogs!”

It is evident in this case, that the wit of the reply arose from
sympathy expressed on the wrong side. The peer expected sympathy from
the knight: but the knight gave it to the dogs.

Another remarkable feature of jokes formed upon this principle is, that
they generally depend upon the intimate meaning of the words employed,
and not either upon their sound or their arrangement; consequently,
they possess the rare quality of being translatable into all languages.

One of the principles of discovery in many subjects is, to generalize
from the individual case up to the species, and thence to descend to
other individual instances.


Puns are detestable. The greater number of them depend on the double
meaning of the same word, or on the similar pronunciation of words
differently spelt. The following may serve as an example of a triple

A gentleman calling one morning at the house of a lady whose sister was
remarkably beautiful, found her at the writing-table. Putting his hand
upon the little bell used for calling the attendant, he inquired of the
lady of the house what relationship existed between his walking-stick,
her sister, and the instrument under his finger.

His walking-stick was {cane, Cain} the brother of {a bell, a belle,

I mentioned, in an early chapter, my boyish admiration of an automaton
in the shape of a silver lady, who attitudinized in the most graceful
manner. Her fate was singular: at the death of her maker she was
sold with the rest of his collection {365} of mechanical toys, and
was purchased by Weekes, who had a mechanical exhibition in Cockspur
Street. No attempt appears to have been made to finish the automaton;
and it seems to have been placed out of the way in an attic uncovered
and utterly neglected.


On the sale by auction of Weeke’s Museum, I met again the object of my
early admiration. Having purchased the silver figure, I proceeded to
take to pieces the whole of the mechanism, and found a multitude of
small holes which had been stopped up as not having fulfilled their
intended object. In fact, it appeared tolerably certain that scarcely
any drawings could have been prepared for the automaton, but that the
beautiful result arose from a system of continual trials.

I myself repaired and restored all the mechanism of the Silver Lady, by
which title she was afterwards known to my friends. I placed her under
a glass case on a pedestal in my drawing-room, where she received,
in her own silent but graceful manner, those valued friends who so
frequently honoured me with their society on certain Saturday evenings.

This piece of mechanism formed a striking contrast with the unfinished
portion of the Difference Engine, No. 1, which was placed in the
adjacent room: the whole of the latter mechanism existed in drawings
upon paper before any portion of it was put together.

The external surface of the figure, which was beautiful in form, was
made of silver. It was, therefore, necessary to supply her with robes
suitable to her station. This would have been rather difficult for a
philosopher, but it was made easy by the aid of one or two of my fair
friends who kindly intervened. These generously assisted with their own
peculiar skill and taste at the _toilette_ of their rival Syren. {366}

Sketches were made and modists of the purest water were employed. The
result was, upon the whole, highly satisfactory. One evening, however,
the arrival of the new dress was postponed to so late a period, that
I feared it had entirely escaped the recollection of the executive
department. The hour at which my friends usually arrived was rapidly

In this difficulty it occurred to me that there were a few remnants of
beautiful Chinese crape in the silver lady’s wardrobe. Having selected
two strips, one of pink and the other of light green, I hastily wound
a platted band of bright auburn hair round the block on which her
head-dresses were usually constructed, and then pinned on the folds
of coloured crape. This formed a very tolerable turban, and was not
much unlike a kind of head-dress called a toke, which prevailed at
that period. Another larger piece of the same pink Chinese crape I
wound round her person, which I thought showed it off to considerable
advantage. Fortunately, I found in her wardrobe a pair of small pink
satin slippers, on each of which I fixed a single silver spangle: then
placing a small silver crescent in the front of her turban, I felt I
had accomplished all that time and circumstances permitted.


The criticisms on the costume of the Silver Lady were various. In the
course of the evening, Lady Morgan communicated to me confidentially
her own opinion of the dress.

Holding up her fan, she whispered, “My dear Mr. Babbage, I think
your Silver Lady is rather slightly clad to-night; shall I lend her
a petticoat?” to which I replied, “My dear Lady Morgan, I am much
indebted for your very considerate offer, but I fear you have not got
_one_ to spare.”

This retort was not a pun, but merely a “double-entendre.” It might
mean either that her Ladyship had on invisibles, but {367} not enough
to be able to spare one: or it might imply that, having no garment of
that kind, she was unable to lend one to a friend.

About the time of the attempt to assassinate the Emperor of the French
by Orsini, an Englishman named Alsop was arrested in London, and
afterwards tried and acquitted of a connection with the assassins.


At a distinguished dinner-party, amongst whom was the Attorney-General
of that day, there arose a question as to who Mr. Alsop was. One of
the company asked, “Whether it was Allsop’s beer?” meaning, whether
the prisoner was the concoctor of that delightful beverage. The
gentleman to whom the question was addressed, immediately replied,
“It is not at present Allsop’s _beer_, but,” said he, turning to the
Attorney-General, “if your prosecution succeeds, it is very likely to
become Alsop’s _bier_.”

Sydney Smith occasionally called upon me in the morning, and was ever
a most welcome visitor. The conversation usually commenced upon grave
subjects, and I was always desirous of profiting by the light his
powerful mind threw upon the most difficult questions.

When railways first came into existence much reasonable alarm arose
from the rapidity of the trains and the immense masses of matter in
motion. One morning my friend called and asked my opinion on the
subject. I pointed out what then appeared to me the chief sources of
danger, and entered upon some of the precautions to be attended to, and
of remedies to be applied.

Sydney Smith then asked me why I did not go and inform the Government
of the danger and of the means of remedying it. My answer was, that
such a mission would be a pure waste of time, that nothing whatever
would be done until {368} some great man, a prime minister for
instance, were smashed. I then continued, “Perhaps a bishop or two
would do; for you know,” said I, looking slyly at my friend, “they are
so much better prepared for the change than we are.”

I have heard this view of the subject assigned to Sydney Smith. It is
very probable that it should have occurred to him, although I scarcely
imagine he would have given the reason I did for the preference. His
celebrated suggestion to the person who asked him how a man could find
which way the wind blew when there was no weathercock in sight,[51]
adds to the probability of Sydney Smith’s originality. On the other
hand, I may support my own pretensions to independent invention by
referring to a parallel remark I made many years before:—

[51] Toss up a bishop.


At a large dinner party the subject of duelling was discussed. Various
opinions were propounded as to its absolute necessity. I had made
no remark upon the question, but during a slight pause somebody on
the opposite side of the table asked my opinion on the subject. My
reply was, I always wished that the injured man should fall. On being
asked my reason for that wish, I answered, “Because he is so much
better prepared for the change than the wrong-doer.” I afterwards
learned, with great satisfaction, that when the ladies retired to the
drawing-room, the discussion was much criticized and my reply highly

The late Lady M.........., having a great desire to see Mr. Borrow,
asked me to invite him to one of my Saturday evening parties. I
expressed my regret that, not having the pleasure of his acquaintance,
I was unable to ask him to my house, as I never made “lions” of my

A short time after, a friend who was coming to me on the {369}
following Saturday, called to ask me to allow him to bring Mr. Borrow
who dined with him on that day, to my party in the evening. Of course,
I willingly gave the invitation, and then wrote a note to inform Lady
M.......... of the occurrence of the opportunity she wished for.

On the following Saturday evening Lady M.......... was announced, and
immediately asked me whether Mr. Borrow had arrived. I said that he
had, and that he was in the further room. I then added, that in the
course of a few moments I should have great pleasure in presenting to
her Mr. Borrow.

Lady M.........., who had several other engagements that evening, said,
“Only tell me what sort of a person he is, and I will go and find him
out myself.”

I observed that he was a remarkably tall, straggling person, with a
very intelligent countenance. With these instructions her ladyship left
me, and finding, as she imagined, exactly the man I had described,
immediately accosted him. The conversation was highly interesting, and
included a great variety of widely different subjects. It concluded by
Lady M.......... expressing her delight with her new acquaintance, from
whom she parted with this remark, “What a delightful gipsying life you
must have led!”


A slight mistake had, however, occurred, which was not discovered until
long after: the person thus addressed was not Mr. Borrow, but Dr.
Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin.

In this chapter may be placed one or two epigrams which, though upon
subjects of transitory interest, may amuse those who are acquainted
with the attending circumstances.

It will be remembered that great discussion arose about the conflicting

Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 26 of 36)