Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!


Charles Dickens was born two hundred years ago today. On the occasion, I would like to remember a connection between Dickens and one of the members of the philosophical breakfast club, Charles Babbage.

Babbage and Dickens were part of the same London social circles; they met often at parties and dinners. Babbage dined at Dickens’ house, at least once in the company of his friend and collaborator in publicizing his engines, Lady Ada Lovelace (and her husband). Dickens is known to have attended Babbage’s own Saturday evening soirees at least once; at these parties, Babbage frequently demonstrated the partial model of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine no. 1.

It is thought—with good reason—that Dickens based the character of Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit (1855-57) partly on Babbage and partly on his engineer, Joseph Clement. His portrayal of the Circumlocution Office satirizes the British Treasury and its dealings with Babbage over funding his building of the Difference Engine no. 1.

‘This Doyce,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘is a smith and engineer. He is not
hing a large way, but he is well known as a very ingenious man. A 
dozen years ago, he perfects an invention (involving a very curious
 secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow-
creatures. I won’t say how much money it cost him, or how many
 years of his life he had been about it, but he brought it to
 perfection a dozen years ago….He addresses himself to the Government. The moment he
 addresses himself to the Government, he becomes a public offender!…. He is treated from that instant as a man who has done some infernal 
action. He is a man to be shirked, put off, brow-beaten, sneered
 at, handed over by this highly-connected young or old gentleman, to 
that highly-connected young or old gentleman, and dodged back
 again; he is a man with no rights in his own time, or his own
property; a mere outlaw, whom it is justifiable to get rid of 
anyhow; a man to be worn out by all possible means.’

Soon after the publication of Little Dorrit, Dickens and Babbage joined together in anger against the “street musicians,” mainly organ-grinders from Italy, who were, in the 1850s and 1860s, a scourge to all Londoners—especially those whose work required concentration. These “performers” would go from street to street, making noise on their often un-tuned organs, until someone paid them to go away (a form of extortion familiar to some subway riders in New York City!). Thomas Carlyle spent a small fortune constructing a soundproof study in his London home. Dickens told a friend that he could not write for more than an hour without being driven to distraction by organ grinders. This was a problem in France as well, as the cartoon below shows!

Lord Palmerston asks Napoleon III why he does not move on the Popish organ grinder causing a disturbance outside the Hotel De L'Europe

Finally, the brewer Michael Thomas Bass, Member of Parliament, introduced a parliamentary act “Act for the Better Regulation of Street Music in the Metropolis,” which would give policemen the right to arrest any street performer who did not leave a neighborhood when requested by a homeowner. Babbage figured prominently in the pamphlet Bass published to gain support for his bill. Bass reproduced a newspaper editorial in which its readers were chastised to remember that “the services of Mr. Babbage are employed by the Government in calculations of the highest importance; these calculations require the strictest accuracy; and calm and quiet are absolutely necessary for their development.” (Babbage was not in fact “employed by the Government” in any sense at that point, all funding for his engines having been cut off, but it is telling that Bass thought appealing to Babbage’s need for quiet would have the desired effect!) Dickens contributed a letter to the pamphlet bemoaning the “brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads!”

When the Bill passed parliament in July 1864, writers and scholars of all types were grateful. The logician Augustus De Morgan wrote to John Herschel, “Babbage’s Act has passed, and he is a public benefactor. A grinder went away from my house at the first word.”

Dickens and Babbage enjoyed the relative peace for only a few years; Dickens died six years later, Babbage six and a half. During these years, Dickens wrote and published Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and toured America for the second time. Babbage continued to work obsessively on the plans for his Analytical Engine, the first prototype of a modern computer, with little hope of ever finishing.

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About the Author











Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., is a science historian, philosopher and writer whose most recent book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World, was an Official Selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Poll for Favorite Science Book. It was also named an "Outstanding Academic Title" in history of science and technology by the American Library Association. Snyder is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City and writes frequently about science and ideas for The Wall Street Journal. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and Past President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science.

 She is currently working on a book about how new optical technologies in the 17th century revolutionized not only science, but also art and the rest of culture. Follow Laura Snyder on Twitter and Facebook.

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