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a remedy. An expedition was sent by their school of Science and of
Geology to endeavour to trace the origin of this plague.

The Commission, after long investigation, reported that they had
penetrated solid space in their usual way, putting each other back to
back, and pressing the foremost forward. It also stated that one of
them had invented a method of arrangement of the members in a kind of
wedge form, which they found much more effective for their object.
The result of this, however, was that the leader of the column got so
many squeezes, that all their best Spirits declined a position for
which coarser animals were better fitted. Consequently, most of their
Presidents of scientific bodies were selected from what we should call
the “_Demi-monde_” of science.

The first report of this Commission stated that, after penetrating
space (by pushing) through many thousand miles, they had reached the
cause of all the evil. They had ascertained that it arose from the fact
they had discovered,—that space itself was discontinuous:—that they had
reached a spot where there was a kind of chasm in it, into which some
of them tumbled, and were with difficulty extricated:—in fact, they
reported that it was only necessary to send proper persons to fill up
this chasm in order to restore the universe to health. {413}


Great rejoicings were made on the return of this Commission. Public
meetings were held, speeches were made, papers were read, and medals
were lavished. Those who had interest used their services on this
committee to justify their promotion, each in his own different line.
Those who had no interest as well as those who had, were anointed daily
during twelve months with what I can but very imperfectly describe by
calling it _lip-salve_. All this while they were fed at the public
expense with _royal food_, which was highly coveted; but as far as I
could make out, its taste must have been somewhat intermediate between
rancid butter and flummery. Whatever this may have been, they relished
it highly, and in truth it seems to have been well suited to their
organs of digestion.

Time, however, went on; the pestilence increased. Strange reports
arose: first, that space itself was decaying; then, that there existed
somewhere in decayed space an immense dragon whose breath produced the
pestilence, and who swallowed up thousands of Spirits at each mouthful.

Another Commission was sent, with instructions to fill up the hole
in space. This was supposed to be a great step in advance. Having
penetrated a very short distance beyond the celebrated chasm, they
found another just like it, and on the same level. They found the
first chasm slightly curved, which had indeed been remarked by an
unpretending member of the former Commission: but so simple a remark
was not thought worth reporting. The second chasm also was found
slightly curved, but its curvature was in an opposite direction,
presenting rudely the appearance of two parentheses, thus (    ).
Upon this discovery the Commission were inclined to return and report
that a series of chasms occurred in advance of the first, and that it
would be useless—indeed, {414} that it would be highly dangerous—to
open more chasms. One of the most modest of the Commissioners, who
had been snubbed on the former occasion, suggested, however, that
these slightly-curved chasms might possibly be portions of some vast
circular crack: an idea which was ridiculed as a wild hypothesis by the
chairman, quizzed by the secretary, and laughed at by all the rest.
Fortunately they were persuaded to excavate a few yards more on the
second vertical chasm or crack, when it became probable that the single
dissentient was right. It soon became certain, and before half the
circle had been uncovered, each member of the commission thought he had
himself been the first to discover its circular shape.


But the chairman was a person of large experience. He quietly left the
Commissioners to fight amongst themselves about the discovery of the
circle, and if they chose, even about its quadrature. On his return,
however, he reported that from some very extensive calculations of
his own he had anticipated an elliptic cavity; that he had directed
the attention of the Commissioners to the subject; and that they had
succeeded in verifying his prediction. He also stated that the same
theory led him to the knowledge of the fact, that in certain cases the
ellipse might approach very nearly to a circle, although it could never
actually reach it, whilst on the other hand it might become so flat
as to approach a straight line—an approximation to which nobody ever
suggested that the chairman himself could have attained. The chairman
then, with singular modesty, alluding in his report to one of his
colleagues possessing high rank, great influence and a very moderate
knowledge of science, remarked that it was fortunate for him (the
chairman) that that distinguished member had been so fully occupied
with much more valuable {415} investigations, otherwise he would
certainly have anticipated the important discovery it had fallen to his
own lot to make.


In the meantime the Commissioners, who had each wished to appropriate
to himself the discovery of the circle, _now_ thought that this
usurpation of it by their chairman was most unjust towards the
unpretending member who had really made it. They therefore advised him
to claim his own discovery, and promised to back him in asserting it.

But their chairman really was a _clever fellow_,[56] and deep as
Silurian rocks. Aware of the importance of the discovery thus
appropriated, he had already visited the modest Commissioner—had
overwhelmed him with compliments, and had also prevailed upon that
other influential Commissioner whom he had so well buttered in his
Report, to give him a small piece of preferment, which had been
accepted by his victim:—thus putting a padlock upon his lips, which his
brother Commissioners were unable either to unlock or to pick.

[56] A _clever fellow_ may occasionally snatch our applause; but a
_clever man_ can alone command our respect.

After the Report was presented, more speeches were made—more medals
given, but the plague continued, and their universe was depopulated.

A third Commission was afterwards sent, who reported that they found
at the spot previously reached, on either side, two vast circles,
the diameter of each of which was one hundred times the height of an
ordinary individual; that the material occupying space within the
circle differed slightly from that without it; and that it appeared as
if a vast cylinder of space had been pushed through without disturbing
the matter external to it. They also reported that the former
Commissioners had never approached the origin of the mischief, but had
simply worked their way, at right angles, to a {416} line which might
terminate in it at the distance of a thousand miles, more or less,
either on the right or on the left hand of the point they had reached.


At this moment a sound like the roll of distant thunder recalled me to
this lower world, and interrupted my interesting communion with the
world of Spirits. That noise arose from the chimes of the cathedral
clock. Spending a few days at Salisbury, I had wandered into the
cathedral, and being much fatigued, had selected the luxurious pew of
the Dean as a place of temporary rest. Reposing on elastic cushions,
with my head resting on an eider-down pillow, the vision I have related
had taken place.

On removing the pillow I observed a small piece of matter beneath it.
This, upon examination, turned out to be a morsel of decayed Gloucester
cheese. The whole vision was now very clearly explained. The verger had
evidently retired to the most commodious pew to eat his dinner, and had
inadvertently left the small bit of cheese upon the very spot I had
selected for my temporary repose. It was clear that my Spirit had been
put, _en rapport_, with the soul of a mite, one of the most cultivated
of his race.

If the reader will glance over the following brief explanation, he will
be fully convinced that my solution of this vision is the true one.

_Parallel Passages in the Creation of the Universe and in the Birth and
Education of a Gloucester Cheese._


_a._ Milk gushing into the milk-pail at the rate of twenty gushes per
minute. Alternations of greater and less heat.

_b._ Rennet being thrown in, the milk curdles.

_c._ Curds compressed into cheese. {417}

_d._ Cheese turned over daily during 121 days.

A few minutes’ difference in the time of the dairyman’s attendance to
perform this operation made the days slightly unequal.

_e._ Cheese lifted up and pitched into a cart.

_f._ Cheese _jolted_ in cart during half a day on its way to to be
shipped at Gloucester.

_g._ Cheese pitched from cart into ship.

_h._ Ship sails with the cheese for Southampton.

_i._ The motion of the waves makes the mites sea-sick for three days.
Multitudes die.

_j._ Cheese taken from ship and pitched into a cart; as in the period

_k._ Cheese conveyed in cart to cheesemonger at Salisbury—the mites
dreadfully _jolted_,

_l._ Cheese pitched into cheesemonger’s shop, as in _e_.

_m._ Long period of repose of the cheese on the cheesemonger’s shelf.

_n._ A cylindrical cavity made and piece taken out for a customer to
taste. Portion of cylinder replaced. Air being let in, a part of the
cheese becomes rotten, in which large worms are produced, giving rise
to the story of the dragon.


In order to discover the month in which the cheese was made, I remarked
that, since it was turned over on its shelf in the cheese-room exactly
121 times, it must have been first placed there in some month which,
together with the three succeeding months, had a number of days exactly
equal to 121. {418}


I then computed the following Table:—

_Table of the number of Days contained in each four months, commencing
on the first day of each month and ending on the last day of the fourth
following month._

of Days.
1 January to 30 April 120
1 February to 31 May 120
1 March to 30 June 122
1 April to 31 July 122
1 May to 31 August 123
1 June to 30 September 122
1 July to 31 October 123
1 August to 30 November 122
1 September to 31 December 122
1 October to 31 January 123
1 November to 28 February 120
1 December to 31 March 121

Now, from the preceding Table it appears that there is only one month
in the year fulfilling this condition, namely, the month of March. It
follows, therefore, that the cheese must have been made four months
before, that is, in the month of December.

* * * * *

Shortly after this vision I received a visit from that great geologist,
the erudite Professor Ponderdunder,[57] a member of all existing
Academies, and Secretary of the most celebrated How-and-wi Academy
for the _Reconstruction of Primeval Time_. I was anxious to have the
opinion of this learned person upon my recent experience: but he was
evidently envious of my vision, which he treated disrespectfully.
{419} Possessed of an intellect which was anything but precocious,
I had with much labour at last made him apprehend the arithmetic by
which I had discovered the exact month of December in the date of the
great series of 121 cataclysms, and I felt much mortified that he did
not appreciate my ingenuity. All of a sudden he seemed intuitively to
perceive the use that might be made of this vision. He then asked me
with great earnestness whether I had communicated this new method of
reasoning to any other person. On my answering in the negative, he
entreated me not to say a word about it. He was especially anxious that
Gardner Wilkinson, Layard, and Rawlinson should not get hold of it,
lest they might anticipate the discovery which it would enable him to
complete. He assured me that he could, by visiting Nineveh, and taking
the Pyramids and Jericho on his road, with the aid of my formula,
restore the true chronology from the creation.

[57] Author of the celebrated Treatise “On the Entity of Space,”
the basis of all _sound_ metaphysical reasoning.


Having given him this promise, he left me, and immediately telegraphed
to a very influential friend, the Vice-President who _managed_ the
How-and-wi Academy, suggesting that not a moment should be lost in
authorizing him to set out on this expedition, which although painfully
laborious to himself personally and not without peril, he was willing
to undertake for the glory of the Academy, and from the religious
conviction that it would enable him to refute the frightful heresy of
Bishop Colenso. Within twenty-four hours the faithful telegraph brought
him back the order to start and the credit necessary for his equipment.
He soon completed the latter, and was _en route_ within the time I have

It is with deep regret I have now to state, that just ten days after
the active Secretary had started on his pious mission, I discovered
that my reasoning about the month of December with all its consequences
was completely vitiated {420} by not having taken into consideration
the existence of leap years, in which case the magic number 121 occurs
in no less than four cases; so that nothing at all is decided by it.

I can only add my hope that, if any of my readers should become
acquainted with the whereabouts of the learned Ponderdunder, he would
kindly communicate by electric telegraph this painful intelligence to
that energetic traveller.

I have subsequently been informed that Professor Ponderdunder’s
honorarium is only £800 a-year, and the payment of all travelling
expenses. The former is doubled upon dangerous travel. I was told
that he also enjoys a snug sinecure of considerable value recently
instituted in his own country; being at the head of the department
for the promotion of “_Small Science and Low Art_.” The family of
the Ponderdunders possess the peculiar gift of manipulating learned
bodies. The Flowery—Rhetorical, and the Zoo-Ethnological Societies
barely escaped perdition under their costly autocracy. I regret also
to add, (but truth forbids me to conceal the interesting fact) that
Ponderdunder is _not_ a member of _all_ existing academies as his
visiting card indicated.

On searching the list of the members of the Roman Academy “Dei
Lynxcii,” I find that he is not a Lynx. This, the oldest of European
academies, originally existed in the time of Galileo. About a quarter
of a century ago I had the honour of receiving its diploma.




_On Preventing the Forgery of Bank-Notes._

In 1836 imitations of bank-notes were so easily made, and the forgeries
so numerous, that the Directors of the Bank of England resolved on
appointing a small committee to examine the subject, and advise them
upon a remedy.

The Governor of the Bank wrote to ask me whether I would consent to
act upon that committee. Not being myself a professional engineer, I
entertained some doubts whether my presence would be agreeable to the
profession. Having consulted Sir Isambard Brunel and the late Mr. Bryan
Donkin, who had been also applied to, they both pressed me to join them
in the inquiry.

We examined the existing means of preventing forgery, which were
certainly very defective. The system of the Bank of Ireland which had
recently been greatly improved, was then discussed. Not many months
before, I had carefully examined the whole plan at Dublin. After a full
deliberation on the subject, I drew up our Report, which unanimously
recommended its adoption. The identity of the steel plates from which
the bank-notes were to be printed was secured by Perkins’s plan of
multiplying the number of such plates by impressing them all from one
roll of hardened steel.

This plan answered its purpose fully at that time. It has, {422}
however, been superseded within the last few years. I had, through the
kindness of the late Governor of the Bank of England, an opportunity
of examining their most recent improvement. The discovery of the
process of making fac-similes of a wood engraving, by means of the
electro-chemical deposit of copper, has now enabled the Bank to return
to the more rapid process of surface printing.

It is probable, from the great progress of the mechanical arts, that
these periods for revising methods of preventing forgery will occur at
more frequent intervals.

I derived great pleasure from being permitted, as an amateur, to
join in this interesting inquiry with my professional friends, whose
knowledge and character I highly valued.

Subsequently I received the unexpected gratification of a vote of
thanks from the Governor and Company of the Bank of England—an honour
usually reserved for warriors and statesmen.

_An Émeute._

On one of my visits to Paris I had the pleasure of dining at the Bank
of France. During dinner, in the midst of an interesting conversation,
the Chairman received a note: having glanced over it he put it down by
his side on the table.

On the occurrence of a pause in the conversation, thinking the note
might possibly require an immediate reply, I inquired whether such was
the case. “No,” said my host, “it is of no consequence. It is only an
émeute;” which he then informed me was occurring in a distant part of

_Letters of Credit._

Letters of credit are specially addressed to certain bankers at various
places with whom your own banker is in correspondence. {423}


It has on several occasions happened to me to want cash either for
myself or to accommodate some friend at places where my own letters
were not addressed to any firm. At Frankfort I made a purchase of
books. I had a certain amount of the usual circular letters, but as
these were payable in a great many cities, and as I proposed visiting
Egypt, I did not wish to part with them. I therefore went to the
house of Rothschild, hoping to get an advance on my letter of credit,
although it was not addressed to that firm. But it being Saturday,
no business was done. I therefore inquired for another banker of
reputation, and was directed to M. Koch.

I accordingly called at his counting-house, stated my reason for
wanting the money, showed him my circular notes and letters of credit,
and asked whether, under these circumstances, he would cash my check
for twenty pounds. He immediately remarked that he had frequently
visited England, and that most probably we had several common friends,
as it soon appeared, for the first person he mentioned was Professor

M. Koch not only advanced me the money, but he was so kind as to invite
me to dinner on the following day, and to give me a seat in his box
at the opera on the first appearance of Madamoiselle Sontag on the
Frankfort stage.

I remember at least three other occasions in which I got money for
some of my English friends at towns where my letter of credit was not
addressed to any banker. In those cases I only asked them to take my
cheque, send it to London, and when they had received the amount, to
pay it over to me. I also mentioned that I was known to several persons
resident in Geneva and in Berlin where these occurrences happened.
In each case the banker immediately let me have the money my friends
wanted. {424}


The only instance in which I was refused amused me very much. I spent
a few weeks at Modena, where I had purchased a microscope and several
other philosophical instruments. One morning I went to the wealthy firm
of Sanguinetti, and mentioning my object to one of the partners, at
the same time showing him my letter of credit, asked if, under these
circumstances, he would give me cash for a draft of twenty pounds on my
banker in London. He replied very courteously that it was the rule of
their house to give credit only upon letters addressed to them by their
_own_ correspondent in London. I remarked that it was quite necessary
in matters of business to adhere to fixed rules, and that when made
aware of their practice I should be the last person to ask them to
deviate from it.

Early the next morning a carriage drove up to the door of my lodgings
and an elderly gentleman was announced. This was M. Sanguinetti, the
senior partner of the firm. He told me he came to apologize for the
refusal of his junior partner on the preceding day, and to offer to
give me cash for my cheque to whatever amount I might require.

I replied that, a near relative of my own having formerly been a banker
in London, I was aware of the necessity of a rigid observance of rules
of business, and that his young partner had not only done his duty,
but, I added, that he had done it in the most courteous manner. M.
Sanguinetti was so obliging and so pressing, that I found it difficult
to accept the advance of so small a sum: however, it was all arranged,
and he left me.

I then sent for my landlord and inquired whether he had had any
communication with M. Sanguinetti. He replied that the old gentleman,
the head of the firm, had called the preceding evening, and asked
him who I was. “And what,” {425} said I to my landlord, “was your
answer?”—“I told him you were a Milord Anglais,” replied my host.—“I
am not a Milord Anglais,” I observed; “but why did you tell him
so?”—“Because,” said my landlord, “when the minister paid you a visit,
you sat down in his presence.”

The explanation of the affair was this. Soon after my arrival at
Modena, I called on the Marquis Rangoni, a distinguished mathematician,
who had written a profound comment on Laplace’s ‘Théorie des Fonctions
Génératrices.’ I had not brought any letter of introduction, but had
merely sent up my card. The Marquis Rangoni received me very cordially,
and we were soon in deep discussion respecting some of the most
abstract questions of analysis. He returned my visit on the following
day, when he resumed the discussion, and I showed him some papers
connected with the subject. I was aware of the title of the Marquis
Rangoni to respect, as arising from his own profound acquaintance with
analysis, but I was now, for the first time, informed that he was a man
of great importance in the little Dukedom of Modena, for he was the
Prime Minister of the Grand Duke—in fact, the Palmerston of Modena.
This at once explained the attention I received from the wealthy banker.

_The Speaker._

One Saturday morning an American gentleman who had just arrived from
Liverpool, where he had landed from the United States on the previous
day, called in Dorset Street. He was very anxious to see the Difference
Engine, and quite fitted by his previous studies for understanding
it well. I took him into the drawing-room in which the machine then
resided and gave him a short explanation of its structure. As I
expected a large party of my friends in the evening, {426} amongst
whom were a few men of science, I asked him to join the party.


It so happened on that day that the Speaker had a small dinner-party.
The Silver Lady was accidentally mentioned, and greatly excited the
curiosity of the lady of the house. As the whole of this small party,
comprising three or four of my most intimate friends, were coming to
my house in the evening, they proposed that the Speaker and his wife
should accompany them to my party, assuring them truly that I should be
much gratified by the visit.

The Silver Lady happened to be in brilliant attire, and after
mentioning the romance of my boyish passion, the unexpected success
of her acquisition, and the devoted cultivation I bestowed upon her
education, I proceeded to set in action her fascinating and most
graceful movements.

A gay but by no means unintellectual crowd surrounded the automaton.
In the adjacent room the Difference Engine stood nearly deserted:
two foreigners alone worshipped at that altar. One of them, but just
landed from the United States, was engaged in explaining to a learned
professor from Holland what he had himself in the morning gathered from

Online LibraryCharles BabbagePassages from the Life of a Philosopher → online text (page 30 of 36)