Dec 262015


Today is the birthday (1791) of Charles Babbage FRS, an English polymath who worked as a mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer. Babbage is best remembered nowadays for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Considered by some to be the “father of the computer” (although his ideas had predecessors, and many people contributed to the development of computers), Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs. His varied work in other fields has led him to be described as “pre-eminent” among the many polymaths of his century. Parts of Babbage’s uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum. In 1991, a perfectly functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage’s original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage’s machine would have worked.

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Babbage was one of four children of Benjamin Babbage and Betsy Plumleigh Teape. His father was a banking partner of William Praed in founding Praed’s & Co. of Fleet Street, London, in 1801. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth. Around the age of eight Babbage was sent to a country school in Alphington near Exeter to recover from a life-threatening fever. For a short time he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South Devon, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a time.

Babbage then joined the 30-student Holmwood academy, in Baker Street, Enfield, Middlesex, under the Reverend Stephen Freeman. The academy had a library that prompted Babbage’s love of mathematics. He studied with two more private tutors after leaving the academy. The first was a clergyman near Cambridge; through him Babbage encountered Charles Simeon and his evangelical followers, but the tuition was not what he needed. He was brought home, to study at the Totnes school: this was at age 16 or 17. The second was an Oxford tutor, under whom Babbage reached a level in Classics sufficient to be accepted by Cambridge.

Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1810. He was already self-taught in some parts of contemporary mathematics. He had read widely and as a result, was disappointed in the standard instruction available at Cambridge in mathematics. With other friends, including William Herschel, he formed the Analytical Society in 1812, in part as an antidote to the dullness of his teachers. Babbage was also a member of other university societies such as The Ghost Club, concerned with investigating supernatural phenomena, and the Extractors Club, dedicated to liberating its members from the madhouse, should any be committed to one. In 1812 Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the top mathematician there, but did not graduate with honours. He instead received a degree without examination in 1814. He had defended a thesis that was considered blasphemous in the preliminary public disputation.

Before graduation, Babbage quickly made a mark. He lectured to the Royal Institution on astronomy in 1815, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. After graduation, on the other hand, he applied for positions unsuccessfully, and had little in the way of career for some time, presumably because of his adeptness at ruffling feathers. In 1816 he was a candidate for a teaching job at Haileybury College; he had recommendations from James Ivory and John Playfair, but was passed over. In 1819 he failed to get a post at the University of Edinburgh even though at the time he was lecturing to learned societies in London and Paris, and kept company with some of the brightest and best of Europe.

Eventually he succeeded, in 1828, in being elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He was not a conventional resident don. His lack of interest in teaching was noted. George Biddell Airy, his predecessor as Lucasian Professor thought an issue should be made of his lecturing. In response Babbage planned to lecture in 1831 on political economy and social reform. Among his targets was university education which he wanted to be more inclusive, with universities doing more for research, a broader syllabus, and more interest in applications as opposed to theory. Traditionalists found the program unacceptable, and his offer to lecture on these subjects was declined. I’m going to bypass discussion of Babbage’s difference machine and talk about his social and religious views which are, let us say, controversial.


In 1832 he wrote Economy of Machinery in which he described what is now called the “Babbage principle”. It pointed out commercial advantages available with more careful division of labor. As Babbage himself noted, it had already appeared in the work of Melchiorre Gioia in 1815. The term was introduced in 1974 by Harry Braverman. Related formulations are the “principle of multiples” of Philip Sargant Florence, and the “balance of processes”.

What Babbage noted is that skilled workers typically spend parts of their time performing tasks that are below their skill level. If the labor process can be divided among several workers, labor costs may be cut by assigning only high-skill tasks to high-cost workers, restricting other tasks to lower-paid workers. He also pointed out that training or apprenticeship are fixed costs which can be absorbed (and returned) more quickly and efficiently if tasks in production are standardized so that workers use the skills learned to their fullest as soon as possible, and not waste time on unrelated tasks. This model, of course, favors a factory system with severe division of labor. Productivity may not be affected greatly, but profitability is greatly enhanced.

I don’t know where you fall on this. John Ruskin completely opposed what manufacturing in Babbage’s sense stood for. 19th-century industrial production had some great benefits in that it could manufacture goods cheaply, and made products available that were not affordable when hand made. There are two negative aspects, however, that Ruskin emphasized. First, and most obvious, mass production produces masses of identical items that flood the market, making households identical. Second, this process separates the workers from their products (as Marx was also quick to point out). A particular item is no longer seen from start to finish by one worker; instead it is produced by maybe dozens of workers each contributing a part based on skill level. The moving assembly line is the natural outgrowth – where each worker spends all day on one, single task performed on hundreds of different items. With increased profitability, unionization, and government regulation, such processes led to increased wages in some industries, but with a concomitant loss of humanity. A worker might spend years doing nothing but attaching doors to cars for 8 hours per day. You have to decide for yourself about all of this. Do you want cheap, affordable goods made by workers reduced to drones – you being one of those drones – or something else?


In 1837 Babbage published On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation. In this work Babbage weighed in on the side of uniformitarianism — the principle or assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe He preferred the conception of creation in which a God-given natural law dominated, removing the need for continuous “contrivance.”

The book is a work of natural theology, and incorporates extracts from related correspondence of Herschel with Charles Lyell. Babbage put forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator. In this book, Babbage dealt with relating interpretations between science and religion; on the one hand, he insisted that “there exists no fatal collision between the words of Scripture and the facts of nature;” on the one hand, he wrote the Book of Genesis was not meant to be read literally in relation to scientific terms. Against those who said these were in conflict, he wrote “that the contradiction they have imagined can have no real existence, and that whilst the testimony of Moses remains unimpeached, we may also be permitted to confide in the testimony of our senses.”

Babbage was raised a Protestant following an orthodox form of worship. However, in his youth he rejected the Athanasian Creed – dogmatically Trinitarian with strong affirmation of the co-equal nature of Father, Son, and Spirit – as a “direct contradiction in terms.” He looked instead to Samuel Clarke’s works on religion, of which Being and Attributes of God (1704) exerted a particularly strong influence on him. Later in life, Babbage concluded that “the true value of the Christian religion rested, not on speculative theology, but on “those doctrines of kindness and benevolence which that religion claims and enforces, not merely in favour of man himself but of every creature susceptible of pain or of happiness.”


In his autobiography Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), Babbage wrote a whole chapter on the topic religion, where he identified three sources of divine knowledge:

A priori or mystical experience

From Revelation

From the examination of the works of the Creator

He stated, on the basis of the design argument, that studying the works of nature had been the more appealing evidence, and the one which led him to actively profess the existence of God. Advocating for natural theology, he wrote:

In the works of the Creator ever open to our examination, we possess a firm basis on which to raise the superstructure of an enlightened creed. The more man inquires into the laws which regulate the material universe, the more he is convinced that all its varied forms arise from the action of a few simple principles. The works of the Creator, ever present to our senses, give a living and perpetual testimony of his power and goodness far surpassing any evidence transmitted through human testimony. The testimony of man becomes fainter at every stage of transmission, whilst each new inquiry into the works of the Almighty gives to us more exalted views of his wisdom, his goodness, and his power.

Babbage also wrote a defense of the belief in divine miracles. Against objections previously posed by David Hume, Babbage advocated for the belief of divine agency, stating “we must not measure the credibility or incredibility of an event by the narrow sphere of our own experience, nor forget that there is a Divine energy which overrides what we familiarly call the laws of nature.” He alluded to the limits of human experience, saying: “all that we see in a miracle is an effect which is new to our observation, and whose cause is concealed. The cause may be beyond the sphere of our observation, and would be thus beyond the familiar sphere of nature; but this does not make the event a violation of any law of nature. The limits of man’s observation lie within very narrow boundaries, and it would be arrogance to suppose that the reach of man’s power is to form the limits of the natural world.”

Babbage’s contributions to mathematics, astronomy, cryptography, statistics, and engineering are invaluable. My brief attempt to focus on a few other areas where he worked show him to be a richly complex man. I can’t say that I agree with him all the time, but he did raise valuable questions. Babbage lived and worked for over 40 years at 1 Dorset Street, Marylebone, where he died, of kidney failure at the age of 79, on 18 October 1871; he was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. He had declined both a knighthood and baronetcy.


In 1983 the autopsy report for Charles Babbage was discovered and later published by his great-great-grandson. A copy of the original is also available. Half of Babbage’s brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The other half is on display in the Science Museum, London.

Babbage’s birthday is also Boxing Day in England, usually a day of sporting activities and eating leftovers. I turn, once again to Mrs Beeton for her thoughts on the Christmas turkey and using up leftovers the next day. I always used to roast a goose at Christmas in honor of Bob Cratchit’s festive meal. But it is important to note that in Victorian England the goose was a cheap bird for the poor, and that the turkey was the prize as evidenced by Scrooge’s lavish gift in Christmas morning. Mrs Beeton suggests using Harvey’s sauce or mushroom ketchup in the soup. These were common staples for her but are hard to find nowadays. Harvey’s sauce is a descendent of Asian fermented fish sauces made with anchovies. Mushroom ketchup is made from the spiced juice of salted wild mushrooms. You can find both sauces online or make them yourself. I’ve made both, but am happy to buy them. I find them useful in soups and stews when I have them around in my kitchen.



  1. A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey; and we can hardly imagine an object of greater envy than is presented by a respected portly pater-familias carving, at the season devoted to good cheer and genial charity, his own fat turkey, and carving it well. The only art consists, as in the carving of a goose, in getting from the breast as many fine slices as possible; and all must have remarked the very great difference in the large number of people whom a good carver will find slices for, and the comparatively few that a bad carver will succeed in serving. As we have stated in both the carving of a duck and goose, the carver should commence cutting slices close to the wing from, 2 to 3, and then proceed upwards towards the ridge of the breastbone: this is not the usual plan, but, in practice, will be found the best. The breast is the only part which is looked on as fine in a turkey, the legs being very seldom cut off and eaten at table: they are usually removed to the kitchen, where they are taken off, as here marked, to appear only in a form which seems to have a special attraction at a bachelor’s supper-table,—we mean devilled: served in this way, they are especially liked and relished.

TURKEY SOUP (a Seasonable Dish at Christmas).

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 quarts of medium stock, No. 105, the remains of a cold roast turkey, 2 oz. of rice-flour or arrowroot, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tablespoonful of Harvey’s sauce or mushroom ketchup.

Mode.—Cut up the turkey in small pieces, and put it in the stock; let it simmer slowly until the bones are quite clean. Take the bones out, and work the soup through a sieve; when cool, skim well. Mix the rice-flour or arrowroot to a batter with a little of the soup; add it with the seasoning and sauce, or ketchup. Give one boil, and serve.

Time.—4 hours. Average cost, 10d. per quart.

Seasonable at Christmas.

Sufficient for 8 persons.

Note.—Instead of thickening this soup, vermicelli or macaroni may be served in it.