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Babbage: a Birthday Postscript

Charles Babbage was born 220 years ago today—Boxing Day. Here is a little addendum for Chapter 4 of The Information, which contains a joint mini biography of the brilliant and misunderstood Babbage and the brilliant and doomed Ada Byron.

This is due to Sydney Padua, an artist (“animator and cartoonist,” she says) in London, who is perhaps as enamored of Charles and Ada (and surely as knowledgeable) as anyone I know. She has uncovered a gem of a memoir, which I had not seen before: a small book titled Sunny Memories, containing personal recollections of some celebrated characters, by “M.L.”—Mary Lloyd—published in London in 1880 by the Women’s Printing Society.

A few lovely tidbits:

  • Babbage, interested in the subject of “opinion, public or private, for or against individuals”—yet lacking access to Google, Facebook, and Twitter—”collected everything he could gather in print about himself, and pasted it in a large folio book, with the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ in parallel columns …”
  • Late in his life, troubled by forgetfulness, he went visiting one day without his cards. “So he took a small brass cog-wheel out of his waistcoat pocket and scratched his name on it and left it for a card!”
  • He liked to tell people that his great invention, the Difference Engine (“or the Leviathan, as he called it”) would someday, if it could ever be finished, “analyze everything, and reduce everything to its first principles and so include future inventions, and in short almost supersede the human mind.”

“Oh, dear Babbage,” Sydney Padua says, “kindly, brilliant, and odd!”

Lloyd’s memoir can be found here, thanks to the internet Archive. And Padua’s ongoing Babbage and Lovelace webcomic, here.

1 Comment

  1. Scott Van Winkle says

    Just finished chapter 4 of your book, and I found the dual portrait of Babbage and Lovelace poignant — I didn’t know very much about either of them beforehand. The people behind every discovery are so often dubbed “ahead of their times,” but maybe this pair truly were. So far, the book has been inspiring and illuminating, like your previous books. I love the clarity and thoughtfulness of the writing.

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