Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter VI

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Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage


Statement relative to the Difference Engine, drawn up by the late Sir H. Nicolas from the Author's Papers.

The following statement was drawn up by the late Sir Harris Nicolas, G.S.M. & G., from papers and documents in my possession relating to the Difference Engine. I believe every paper I possessed at all bearing on the subject was in his hands for several months.

For some time previous to 1822, Mr. Babbage had been engaged in contriving machinery for the execution of extensive arithmetical operations, and in devising mechanism by which the machine that made the calculations might also print the results.

On the 3rd of July, 1822, he published a letter to Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, containing a statement of his views on that subject; and more particularly describing an Engine for calculating astronomical, nautical, and other Tables, by means of the "method of differences." In that letter it is stated that a small Model, consisting of six figures, and capable of working two orders of differences, had been constructed; and that it performed its work in a satisfactory manner.

The concluding paragraph of that letter is as follows:—

"Whether I shall construct a larger Engine of this kind, and bring to perfection the others I have described, will, in a great measure, depend on the nature of the encouragement I may receive. "Induced, by a conviction of the great utility of such Engines, to withdraw, for some time, my attention from a subject on which it has been engaged during several years, and which possesses charms of a higher order, I have now arrived at a point where success is no longer doubtful. It must, however, be attained at a very considerable expense, which would not probably be replaced, by the works it might produce, for a long period of time; and which is an undertaking I should feel unwilling to commence, as altogether foreign to my habits and pursuits."

The Model alluded to had been shown to a large number of Mr. Babbage's acquaintances, and to many other persons; and copies of his letter having been given to several of his friends, it is probable that one of the copies was sent to the Treasury.

On the 1st of April, 1823, the Lords of the Treasury referred that Letter to the Royal Society, requesting—

"The opinion of the Royal Society on the merits and utility of this invention."

On the 1st of May the Royal Society reported to the Treasury, that—

"Mr. Babbage has displayed great talent and ingenuity in the construction of his Machine for Computation, which the Committee think fully adequate to the attainment of the objects proposed by the inventor; and they consider Mr. Babbage as highly deserving of public encouragement, in the prosecution of his arduous undertaking."[1]

On the 21st of May these papers were ordered to be printed by the House of Commons.

In July, 1823, Mr. Babbage had an interview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Robinson[2]), to ascertain if it was the wish of the Government that he should construct a large Engine of the kind, which would also print the results it calculated.

From the conversation which took place on that occasion, Mr. Babbage apprehended that such was the wish of the Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer remarked that the Government were in general unwilling to make grants of money for any inventions, however meritorious; because, if they really possessed the merit claimed for them, the sale of the article produced would be the best, as well as largest reward of the inventor: but that the present case was an exception; it being apparent that the construction of such a Machine could not be undertaken with a view to profit from the sale of its produce; and that, as mathematical Tables were peculiarly valuable for nautical purposes, it was deemed a fit object of encouragement by the Government.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned two modes of advancing money for the construction:—either through the recommendation of a Committee of the House of Commons, or by taking a sum from the Civil Contingencies: and he observed that, as the Session of Parliament was near its termination, the latter course might, perhaps, be the most convenient.

Mr. Babbage thinks the Chancellor of the Exchequer also made some observation, indicating that the amount of money taken from the Civil Contingencies would be smaller than that which might be had by means of a Committee of the House of Commons: and he then proposed to take 1,000l. as a commencement from the Civil Contingencies Fund. To this Mr. Babbage replied, in words which he distinctly remembers, "Would it be too much, in the first instance, to take 1,500l.?" The Chancellor of the Exchequer immediately answered, that 1,500l. should be advanced.

Mr. Babbage's opinion at that time was, that the Engine would be completed in two, or at the most in three years; and that by having 1,500l. in the first instance, he would be enabled to advance, from his own private funds, the residue of the 3,000l. or even 5,000l., which he then imagined the Engine might possibly cost; so that he would not again have occasion to apply to Government until it was completed. Some observations were made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the mode of accounting for the money received, as well as about its expenditure; but it seemed to be admitted that it was not possible to prescribe any very definite system, and that much must be left to Mr. Babbage's own judgment.

Very unfortunately, no Minute of that conversation was made at the time, nor was any sufficiently distinct understanding between the parties arrived at. Mr. Babbage's conviction was, that whatever might be the labour and difficulty of the undertaking, the Engine itself would, of course, become the property of the Government, which had paid for its construction.

Soon after this interview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a letter was sent from the Treasury to the Royal Society, informing that body that the Lords of the Treasury

"Had directed the issue of 1,500l. to Mr. Babbage, to enable him to bring his invention to perfection, in the manner recommended."

These latter words, "in the manner recommended," can only refer to the previous recommendation of the Royal Society; but it does not appear, from the Report of the Royal Society, that any plan, terms, or conditions had been pointed out by that body.

Towards the end of July, 1823, Mr. Babbage took measures for the construction of the present Difference Engine,[3] and it was regularly proceeded with for four years.

[4] In October, 1827, the expense incurred had amounted to 3,4752l.; and Mr. Babbage having suffered severe domestic affliction, and being in a very ill state of health, was recommended by his medical advisers to travel on the Continent. He left, however, sufficient drawings to enable the work to be continued, and gave an order to his own banker to advance 1,000l. during his absence: he also received, from time to time, drawings and inquiries relating to the mechanism, and returned instructions to the engineer who was constructing it.

As it now appeared probable that the expense would much exceed what Mr. Babbage had originally anticipated, he thought it desirable to inform the Government of that fact, and to procure a further grant. As a preliminary step, he wrote from Italy to his brother-in-law, Mr. Wolryche Whitmore, to request that he would see Lord Goderich upon the subject of the interview in July, 1823; but it is probable that he did not sufficiently inform Mr. Whitmore of all the circumstances of the case.

Mr. Whitmore, having had some conversation with Lord Goderich on the subject, addressed a letter, dated on the 29th of February, 1828, to Mr. Babbage, who was then at Rome, stating that

"That interview was unsatisfactory; that Lord Goderich did not like to admit that there was any understanding, at the time the 1,500l. was advanced, that more would be given by Government."

On Mr. Babbage's return to England, towards the end of 1828, he waited in person upon Lord Goderich, who admitted that the understanding of 1823 was not very definite. He then addressed a statement to the Duke of Wellington, as the head of the Government, explaining the previous steps in the affair; stating the reasons for his inferences from what took place at the interview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in July, 1823; and referring his Grace for further information to Lord Goderich, to whom also he sent a copy of that statement.

The Duke of Wellington, in consequence of this application, requested the Royal Society to inquire—

"Whether the progress of the Machine confirms them in their former opinion, that it will ultimately prove adequate to the important object it was intended to attain."

The Royal Society reported, in February, 1829, that—

"They had not the slightest hesitation in pronouncing their decided opinion in the affirmative."

The Royal Society also expressed their hope that—

"Whilst Mr. Babbage's mind is intensely occupied in an undertaking likely to do so much honour to his country, he may be relieved, as much as possible, from all other sources of anxiety."

On the 28th of April, 1829, a Treasury Minute directed a further payment to Mr. Babbage of

1,500l. to enable him to complete the Machine by which such important benefit to Science might be expected."

At that time the sum expended on the Engine amounted to 6,697l. 12s., of which 3,000l. had been received from the Treasury; so that Mr. Babbage had provided 3,697l. 12s. from his own private funds.

Under these circumstances, by the advice of Mr. Wolryche Whitmore, a meeting of Mr. Babbage's personal friends was held on the 12th of May, 1829. It consisted of—

The Duke of Somerset,

Lord Ashley,

Sir John Franklin,

Mr. Wolryche Whitmore,

Dr. Fitton,

Mr. Francis Baily,

Mr. (now Sir John) Herschel.

Being satisfied, upon inquiry, of the following facts, they came to the annexed resolutions:—

"1st. That Mr. Babbage was originally induced to take up the work, on its present extensive scale, by an understanding on his part that it was the wish of Government that he should do so, and by an advance of 1,500l, at the outset; with a full impression on his mind, that such further advances would be made as the work might require.

"2nd. That Mr. Babbage's expenditure had amounted to nearly 7,000l., while the whole sum advanced by Government was 3,000l.

"3rd. That Mr. Babbage had devoted the most assiduous and anxious attention to the progress of the Engine, to the injury of his health, and the neglect and refusal of other profitable occupations.

"4th. That a very large expense remained to be incurred; and that his private fortune was not such as would justify his completing the Engine, without further and effectual assistance from Government.

"5th. That a personal application upon the subject should be made to the Duke of Wellington.

"6th. That if such application should be unsuccessful in procuring effectual and adequate assistance, they must regard Mr. Babbage (considering the great pecuniary and personal sacrifices he will then have made; the entire expenditure of all he had received from the public on the subject of its destination; and the moral certainty of completing it, to which it was, by his exertions, reduced) as no longer called on to proceed with an undertaking which might destroy his health, and injure, if not ruin, his fortune.

"7th. That Mr. Wolryche Whitmore and Mr. Herschel should request an interview with the Duke of Wellington, to state to his Grace these opinions on the subject."

Mr. Whitmore and Mr. Herschel accordingly had an interview with the Duke of Wellington; and some time after they were informed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whom they had applied for his Grace's answer, that the Duke of Wellington intended to see the portion of the Engine which had been then made.

In November, 1829, the Duke of Wellington, accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goulburn) and Lord Ashley, saw the Model of the Engine, the drawings, and the parts in progress. On the 23rd of that month Mr. Babbage received a note from Mr. Goulburn, dated on the 20th, informing him that the Duke of Wellington and himself had recommended the Treasury to make a further payment towards the completion of the Machine; and that their Lordships had in consequence directed a payment of 3,000l. to be made to him. This letter also contained a suggestion about separating the Calculating from the Printing part of the Machine, which was repeated in the letter from the Treasury of the 3rd of December, 1829, communicating officially the information contained in Mr. Goulburn's private note, and stating that directions had been given—

"To pay to you the further sum of 3,000l., to enable you to complete the Machine which you have invented for the calculation of various tables; but I have to intimate to you that, in making this additional payment, my Lords think it extremely desirable that the Machine should be so constructed, that, if any failure should take place in the attempt to print by it, the calculating part of the Machine may nevertheless be perfect and available for that object."

Mr. Babbage inferred from this further grant, that Government had adopted his view of the arrangement entered into with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in July, 1823; but, to prevent the recurrence of difficulty from any remaining indistinctness, he wrote to Mr. Goulburn, stating that, before he received the 3,000l., he wished to propose some general arrangements for expediting the completion of the Engine, further notes of which he would shortly submit to him. On the 25th of November, 1829, he addressed a letter to Lord Ashley, to be communicated to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, stating the grounds on which he thought the following arrangements desirable:—

1st. That the Engine should be considered as the property of Government.

2nd. That professional engineers should be appointed by Government to examine the charges made for the work already executed, as well as for its future progress; and that such charges should be defrayed by Government.

3rd. That under this arrangement he himself should continue to direct the construction of the Engine, as he had hitherto done.

Mr. Babbage also stated that he had been obliged to suspend the work for nearly nine months; and that such delay risked the final completion of the Engine.

In reply to these suggestions, Mr. Goulburn wrote to Lord Ashley, stating—

"That we (the Government) could not adopt the course which Mr. Babbage had pointed out, consistently with the principle on which we have rendered him assistance in the construction of his Machine, and without considerable inconvenience. The view of the Government was, to assist an able and ingenious man of science, whose zeal had induced him to exceed the limits of prudence, in the construction of a work which would, if successful, redound to his honour, and be of great public advantage. We feel ourselves, therefore, under the necessity of adhering to our original intention, as expressed in the Minute of the Treasury, which granted Mr. Babbage the last 3,000l., and in the letter in which I informed him of that grant.

Mr. Goulburn's letter was enclosed by Lord Ashley to Mr. Babbage, with a note, in which his Lordship observed, with reference to Mr. Goulburn's opinion, that it was

"A wrong view of the position in which Mr. Babbage was placed, after his conference with Lord Goderich—which must be explained to him (Mr. Goulburn)."

"The original intention" of the Government is here stated to have been communicated to Mr. Babbage, both in the letter from the Treasury of the 3rd of December, 1829, granting the 3,000l., and also in Mr. Goulburn's private letter of the 20th of November, 1829. These letters have been just given; and it certainly does not appear from either of them, that the "original intention" was then in any degree more apparent than it was at the commencement of the undertaking in July, 1823.

On the 16th of December, 1829, Mr. Babbage wrote to Lord Ashley, observing, that Mr. Goulburn seemed to think that he [Mr. Babbage] had commenced the machine on his own account; and that, pursuing it zealously, he had expended more than was prudent, and had then applied to Government for aid. He remarked, that a reference to papers and dates would confirm his own positive declaration, that this was never for one moment, in his apprehension, the ground on which the matter rested; and that the following facts would prove that it was absolutely impossible it could have been so:—

1stly. Mr. Babbage referred to the passage[5] (already quoted) in his letter to Sir Humphry Davy, in which he had expressed his opinion as decidedly adverse to the plan of making a larger Machine, on his own account.

2ndly. Mr. Babbage stated that the small Model of the Machine seen by the Duke of Wellington and Mr. Goulburn, was completed before his interview with Lord Goderich in July, 1823; for it was alluded to in the Report of the Royal Society, of the 1st of May, 1823.

3rdly. That the interview with Lord Goderich having taken place in July, 1823; the present Machine (i. e. the Difference Engine) was commenced in consequence of that interview; and after Mr. Babbage had received the first grant of 1,500l. on the 7th of August, 1823.

Haying thus shown that the light in which Mr. Goulburn viewed these transactions was founded on a misconception, Mr. Babbage requested Lord Ashley to inquire whether the facts to which he had called Mr. Goulburn's attention might not induce him to reconsider the subject. And in case Mr. Goulburn should decline revising his opinion, then he wished Lord Ashley to ascertain the opinion of Government, upon the contingent questions which he enclosed ; viz.—

1. Supposing Mr. Babbage received the 3,000l. now directed to be issued, what are the claims which Government will have on the Engine, or on himself?

2. Would Mr. Babbage owe the 6,000l., or any part of that sum to the Government?

If this question be answered in the negative,

3. Is the portion of the Engine now made, as completely Mr. Babbage's property as if it had been entirely paid for with his own money?

4. Is it expected by Government that Mr. Babbage should continue to construct the Engine at his own private expense; and, if so, to what extent in money?

5. Supposing Mr. Babbage should decline resuming the construction of the Engine, to whom do the drawings and parts already made belong?

The following statement was also enclosed:—

Expenses up to 9th May, 1829, when the work ceased [6] £6,628
Two grants of 1,500l. each, amounting to £3,000
By Treasury Minute, Nov. 1829, but not yet received 3,000
——– 6,000

In January, 1830, Mr. Babbage wrote to Lord Goderich, stating that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goulburn) would probably apply to his Lordship respecting the interview in July, 1823. He therefore recalled some of the circumstances attending it to Lord Goderich, and concluded thus:—

"The matter was, as you have justly observed on another occasion, left, in a certain measure, indefinite; and I have never contended that any promise was made to me. My subsequent conduct was founded upon the impression left on my mind by that interview. I always considered that, whatever difficulties I might encounter, it could never happen that I should ultimately suffer any pecuniary loss.

"I understand that Mr. Goulburn wishes to ascertain from your Lordship whether, from the nature of that interview, it was reasonable that I should have such expectation."

In the mean time Mr. Babbage had encountered difficulties of another kind. The Engineer who had been constructing the Engine under Mr. Babbage's direction had delivered his bills in such a state that it was impossible to judge how far the charges were just and reasonable; and although Mr. Babbage had paid several thousand pounds, yet there remained a considerable balance, which he was quite prepared and willing to pay, as soon as the accounts should be examined, and the charges approved of by professional engineers.

The delay in deciding whether the Engine was the property of Government, added greatly to this embarrassment. Mr. Babbage, therefore, wrote to Lord Ashley on the 8th of February, to mention these difficulties; and to point out the serious inconvenience which would arise, in the future progress of the Engine, from any dispute between the Engineer and himself relative to payments.

On the 24th of February, 1830, Mr. Babbage called on Lord Ashley, to request he would represent to the Duke of Wellington the facts of the case, and point out to his Grace the importance of a decision. In the afternoon of the same day, he again saw Lord Ashley, who communicated to him the decision of the Government; to the following effect:—

1st. Although the Government would not pledge themselves to complete the Machine, they were willing to declare it their property.

2nd. That professional Engineers should be appointed to examine the bills.

3rd. That the Government were willing to advance 3,000l. more than the sum (6,000l.) already granted.

4th. That, when the Machine was completed, the Government would be willing to attend to any claim of Mr. Babbage to remuneration, either by bringing it before the Treasury, or the House of Commons.

Thus, after considerable discussion, the doubts arising from the indefiniteness of the understanding with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in July, 1823, were at length removed. Mr. Babbage's impression of the original arrangement entered into between Lord Goderich and himself was thus formally adopted in the first three propositions: and the Government voluntarily added the expression of their disposition to attend to any claim of his for remuneration when the Engine should be completed.

When the arrangements consequent upon this decision were made, the work of the Engine was resumed, and continued to advance.

After some time, the increasing amount of costly drawings, and of parts of the Engine already executed, remaining exposed to destruction from fire and from other casualties became a source of some anxiety.

These facts having been represented to Lord Althorp (then Chancellor of the Exchequer), an experienced surveyor was directed to find a site adapted for a building for the reception of the Engine in the neighbourhood of Mr. Babbage's residence.

On the 19th of January the Surveyor's reports were forwarded to Lord Althorp (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), who referred the case to a committee of practical Engineers for their opinion. This committee reported strongly in favour of the removal, on the grounds of security, and of economy in completing the Engine; and also recommended the site which had been previously selected by the Surveyor. The Royal Society, also, to whom Lord Althorp had applied, examined the question, and likewise reported strongly to the same effect.

A lease of some property, adjacent to Mr. Babbage's residence, was therefore subsequently granted by him to the Government; and a fire-proof building, capable of containing the Engine, with its drawings, and workshops necessary for its completion, were erected.

With respect to the expenses of constructing the Engine, the following plan was agreed upon and carried out:—The great bulk of the work was executed by the Engineer under the direction of Mr. Babbage. When the bills were sent in, they were immediately forwarded by him to two eminent Engineers, Messrs. Donkin and Field, who, at the request of Government, had undertaken to examine their accuracy. On these gentlemen certifying those bills to be correct, Mr. Babbage transmitted them to the Treasury; and after the usual forms, a warrant was issued directing the payment of the respective sums to Mr. Babbage. This course, however, required considerable time; and the Engineer having represented that he was unable to pay his workmen without more immediate advances, Mr. Babbage, to prevent delay in completing the Engine, did himself, from time to time, advance from his own funds several sums of money; so that he was, in fact, usually in advance from 500l. to 1,000l. Those sums were, of course, repaid when the Treasury warrants were issued.

Early in the year 1833, an event of great importance in the history of the Engine occurred. Mr. Babbage had directed a portion of it, consisting of sixteen figures, to be put together. It was capable of calculating Tables having two or three orders of differences; and, to some extent, of forming other Tables. The action of this portion completely justified the expectations raised, and gave a most satisfactory assurance of its final success.

The fire-proof building and workshops having been completed, arrangements were made for the removal of the Engine. Mr. Babbage finding it no longer convenient to make payments in advance, informed the Engineer that he should in future not pay him until the money was received from the Treasury. Upon receiving this intimation, the Engineer immediately discontinued the construction of the Engine, and dismissed the workmen employed on it; which fact Mr. Babbage immediately communicated to the Treasury.

In this state of affairs it appeared, both to the Treasury and to Mr. Babbage, that it would be better to complete the removal of the drawings, and all the parts of the Engine to the fire-proof building; and then make such arrangements between the Treasury and the Engineer, respecting the future payments, as might prevent further discussion on that subject.

After much delay and difficulty the whole of the drawings, and parts of the Engine, were at length removed to the fireproof building in East-street, Manchester-square. Mr. Babbage wrote, on the 16th of July, 1834, to the Treasury, informing their Lordships of the fact;—adding that no advance had been made in its construction for above a year and a quarter; and requesting further instructions on the subject.

Mr. Babbage received a letter from the Treasury, expressing their Lordships' satisfaction at learning that the drawings, and parts of the Calculating Engine were removed to the fire-proof building, and stating that as soon as Mr. Clement's Accounts should be received and examined, they would

"Take into consideration what farther proceedings may be requisite with a view to its completion."

A few weeks afterwards Mr. Babbage received a letter from the Treasury, conveying their Lordships' authority to proceed with the construction of the Engine.

During the time which had elapsed since the Engineer had ceased to proceed with the construction of the Engine, Mr. Babbage had been deprived of the use of his own drawings. Having, in the meanwhile, naturally speculated upon the general principles on which machinery for calculation might be constructed, a principle of an entirely new kind occurred to him, the power of which over the most complicated arithmetical operations seemed nearly unbounded. On re-examining his drawings when returned to him by the Engineer, the new principle appeared to be limited only by the extent of the mechanism it might require. The invention of simpler mechanical means for executing the elementary operations of the Engine now derived a far greater importance than it had hitherto possessed; and should such simplifications be discovered, it seemed difficult to anticipate, or even to over-estimate, the vast results which might be attained. In the Engine for calculating by differences, such simplifications affected only about a hundred and twenty similar parts, whilst in the new or Analytical Engine, they would affect a great many thousand. The Difference Engine might be constructed with more or less advantage by employing various mechanical modes for the operation of addition: the Analytical Engine could not exist without inventing for it a method of mechanical addition possessed of the utmost simplicity. In fact, it was not until upwards of twenty different mechanical modes for performing the operation of addition had been designed and drawn, that the necessary degree of simplicity required for the Analytical Engine was ultimately attained. Hence, therefore, the powerful motive for simplification.

These new views acquired additional importance, from their bearings upon the Engine already partly executed for the Government. For, if such simplifications should be discovered, it might happen that the Analytical Engine would execute more rapidly the calculations for which the Difference Engine was intended; or, that the Difference Engine would itself be superseded by a far simpler mode of construction. Though these views might, perhaps, at that period have appeared visionary, both have subsequently been completely realized.

To withhold those new views from the Government, and under such circumstances to have allowed the construction of the Engine to be resumed, would have been improper; yet the state of uncertainty in which those views were then necessarily involved rendered any written communication respecting their probable bearing on the Difference Engine a matter of very great difficulty. It appeared to Mr. Babbage that the most straightforward course was to ask for an interview on the subject with the Head of the Government, and to communicate to him the exact state of the case.

Had that interview taken place, the First Lord of the Treasury might have ascertained from his inquiries, in a manner quite impracticable by any written communications, the degree of importance which Mr. Babbage attached to his new inventions, and his own opinion of their probable effect, in superseding the whole or any part of the original, or Difference, Engine. The First Lord of the Treasury would then have been in a position to decide, either on the immediate continuation and completion of the original design, or on its temporary suspension, until the character of the new views should be more fully developed by further drawings and examination.

There was another, although a far less material point, on which also it was desirable to obtain the opinion of the Government: the serious impediments to the progress of the Engine, arising from the Engineer's conduct, as well as the consequent great expense, had induced Mr. Babbage to consider, whether it might not be possible to employ some other person as his agent for constructing it. His mind had gradually become convinced of the practicability of that measure; but he was also aware that however advantageous it might prove to the Government, from its greater economy, yet that it would add greatly to his own personal labour, responsibility, and anxiety.

On the 26th of September, 1834, Mr. Babbage therefore requested an interview with Lord Melbourne, for the purpose of placing before him these views. Lord Melbourne acceded to the proposed interview, but it was then postponed; and soon after, the Administration of which his Lordship was the Head went out of Office, without the interview having taken place.

For the same purpose, Mr. Babbage applied in December, 1834, for an interview with the Duke of Wellington, who, in reply, expressed his wish to receive a written communication on the subject. He accordingly addressed a statement to his Grace, pointing out the only plans which, in his opinion, could be pursued for terminating the questions relative to the Difference Engine; namely,

1st. The Government might desire Mr. Babbage to continue the construction of the Engine, in the hands of the person who has hitherto been employed in making it.

2ndly. The Government might wish to know whether any other person could be substituted for the Engineer at present employed to continue the construction;—a course which was possible.

3rdly. The Government might (although he did not presume that they would) substitute some person to superintend the completion of the Engine instead of Mr. Babbage himself.

4thly. The Government might be disposed to give up the undertaking entirely.

He also stated to the Duke of Wellington, the circumstances which had led him to the invention of a new Engine, of far more extensive powers of calculation; which he then observed did not supersede the former one, but added greatly to its utility.

At this period, the impediments relating to the Difference Engine had been partially and temporarily removed. The chief difficulty would have been either the formation of new arrangements with the Engineer, or the appointment of some other person to supply his place. This latter alternative, which was of great importance for economy as well as for its speedy completion, Mr. Babbage had carefully examined, and was then prepared to point out means for its accomplishment.

The duration of the Duke of Wellington's Administration was short; and no decision on the subject of the Difference Engine was obtained.

On the 15th of May the Difference Engine was alluded to in the House of Commons; when the Chancellor of the Exchequer did Mr. Babbage the justice to state distinctly, that the whole of the money voted had been expended in paying the workmen and for the materials employed in constructing it, and that not one shilling of it had ever gone into his own pocket.

About this time several communications took place between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Babbage, respecting a reference to the Royal Society for an opinion on the subject of the Engine.

A new and serious impediment to the possibility of executing one of the plans which had been suggested to the Duke of Wellington for completing the Difference Engine arose from these delays. The draftsman whom Mr. Babbage had, at his own expense, employed, both on the Difference and on the Analytical Engine, received an offer of a very liberal salary, if he would enter into an engagement abroad, which would occupy many years. His assistance was indispensable, and his services were retained only by Mr. Babbage considerably increasing his salary.

On the 14th of January, 1836, Mr. Babbage received a communication from the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Spring Rice[7]), expressing his desire to come to some definite result on the subject of the Calculating Engine, in which he remarked, that the conclusion to be drawn from Mr. Babbage's statement to the Duke of Wellington was, that he (Mr. Babbage) having invented a new machine, of far greater powers than the former one, wished to be informed if the Government would undertake to defray the expense of this new Engine.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer then pointed out reasons why he should feel himself bound to look to the completion of the first machine, before he could propose to Parliament to enter on the consideration of the second: and he proposed to refer to the Royal Society for their opinion, authorizing them, if they thought fit, to employ any practical mechanist or engineer to assist them in their inquiries. The Chancellor of the Exchequer concluded with expressing his readiness to communicate with Mr. Babbage respecting the best mode of attaining that result.

From these statements it is evident that Mr. Babbage had failed in making his own views distinctly understood by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His first anxiety, when applying to Lord Melbourne, had been respecting the question, whether the Discoveries with which he was then advancing might not ultimately supersede the work already executed. His second object had been to point out a possible arrangement, by which great expense might be saved in the mechanical construction of the Difference Engine.

So far was Mr. Babbage from having proposed to the Government to defray the expenses of the new or Analytical Engine, that though he expressly pointed out in the statement to the Duke of Wellington[8] four courses which it was possible for the Government to take,—yet in no one of them was the construction of the new Engine alluded to.

Those views of improved machinery for making calculations which had appeared in but faint perspective in 1834, as likely to lead to important consequences, had, by this time, assumed a form and distinctness which fully justified the anticipations then made. By patient inquiry, aided by extensive drawings and notations, the projected Analytical Engine had acquired such powers, that it became necessary, for its further advancement, to simplify the elements of which it was composed. In the progress of this inquiry, Mr. Babbage had gradully arrived at simpler mechanical modes of performing those arithmetical operations on which the action of the Difference Engine depended; and he felt it necessary to communicate these new circumstances, as well as their consequences, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

On the 20th of January, 1836, Mr. Babbage wrote, in answer to the communication from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he did not, on re-examining the statement addressed to the Duke of Wellington, perceive that it contained any application to take up the new or Analytical Engine; and he accompanied this reply by a statement relative to the progress of the Analytical Engine, and its bearing upon the Difference Engine belonging to the Government/ The former, it was said,

"Is not only capable of accomplishing all those other complicated calculations which I had intended, but it also performs all calculations which were peculiar to the Difference Engine, both in less time, and to a greater extent: in fact, it completely supersedes the Difference Engine."

The Reply then referred to the statement laid before the Duke of Wellington in July, 1834, in which it was said,

"That all the elements of the Analytical were essentially different from those of the Difference Engine;"

and that the mechanical simplicity to which its elements had now been reduced was such that it would probably cost more to finish the old Difference Engine on its original plan than to construct a new Difference Engine with the simplified elements devised for the Analytical Engine.

It then proceeded to state that—

"The fact of a new superseding an old machine, in a very few years, is one of constant occurrence in our manufactories; and instances might be pointed out in which the advance of invention has been so rapid, and the demand for machinery so great, that half-finished machines have been thrown aside as useless before their completion.

"It is now nearly fourteen years since I undertook for the Government to superintend the making of the Difference Engine. During nearly four years its construction has been absolutely stopped, and, instead of being employed in overcoming the physical impediments, I have been harassed by what may be called the moral difficulties of the question. It is painful to reflect that, in the time so employed, the first Difference Engine might, under more favourable circumstances, have been completed.

"In making this Report, I wish distinctly to state, that I do not entertain the slightest doubt of the success of the Difference Engine; nor do I intend it as any application to finish the one or to construct the other; but I make it from a conviction that the information it contains ought to be communicated to those who must decide the question relative to the Difference Engine."

The reference to the Royal Society, proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his letter of the 14th of January, 1836,[9] did not take place; and during more than a year and a half no further measures appear to have been adopted by the Government respecting the Engine.

It was obviously of the greatest importance to Mr. Babbage that a final decision should be made by the Government. When he undertook to superintend the construction of the Difference Engine for the Government, it was, of course, understood that he would not leave it unfinished. He had now been engaged fourteen years upon an object which he had anticipated would not require more than two or three; and there seemed no limit to the time his engagement with the Government might thus be supposed to endure, unless some steps were taken to terminate it. Without such a decision Mr. Babbage felt that he should be impeded in any plans he might form, and liable to the most serious interruption, if he should venture to enter upon the execution of them. He therefore most earnestly pressed, both by his personal applications and by those of his friends, for the settlement of the question. Mr. Wolryche Whitmore, in particular, repeatedly urged upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, personally, as well as by letter, the injustice of keeping Mr. Babbage so very long in a state of suspense.

Time, however, passed on, and during nearly two years the question remained in the same state. Mr. Babbage, wearied with this delay, determined upon making a last effort to obtain a decision. He wrote to the First Lord of the Treasury (Lord Melbourne) on the 26th of July, 1838, recalling to his Lordship's attention the frequency of his applications on this subject, and urging the necessity of a final decision upon it. He observed, that if the question had become more difficult, because he had invented superior mechanism, which had superseded that which was already partly executed, this consequence had arisen from the very delay against which he had so repeatedly remonstrated. He then asked, for the last time, not for any favour, but for that which it was an injustice to withhold—a decision.

On the 16th of August Mr. Spring Rice (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) addressed a note to Mr. Babbage, in reference to his application to Lord Melbourne. After recapitulating his former statement of the subject, which had been shown to be founded on a misapprehension, viz., that Mr. Babbage had made an application to the Government to construct for them the Analytical Engine, the Chancellor of the Exchequer inquired whether he was solicitous that steps should be taken for the completion of the old, or for the commencement of a new machine,—and what he considered would be the cost of the one proceeding, and of the other?

Being absent on a distant journey, Mr. Babbage could not reply to this note until the 21st of October. He then reminded the Chancellor of the Exchequer of his previous communication of the 20th of January, 1886 (see p. 89), in which it was expressly stated that he did not intend to make any application to construct a new machine; but that the communication to the Duke of Wellington and the one to himself were made, simply because he thought it would be unfair to conceal such important facts from those who were called upon to decide on the continuance or discontinuance of the construction of the Difference Engine.

With respect to the expense of either of the courses pointed out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Babbage observed that, not being a professional Engineer, and his past experience having taught him not to rely upon his own judgment on matters of that nature, he should be very reluctant to offer any opinion upon the subject.

In conclusion, Mr. Babbage stated that the question he wished to have settled was—

Whether the Government required him to superintend the completion of the Difference Engine, which had been suspended during the last five years, according to the original plan and principles; or whether they intended to discontinue it altogether?

In November, 1841, Mr. Babbage, on his return from the Continent, finding that Sir Robert Peel had become First Lord of the Treasury, determined upon renewing his application for a decision of the question. With this view the previous pages of this Statement were drawn up, and a copy of it was forwarded to him, accompanied by a letter from Mr. Babbage, in which he observed—

Of course, when I undertook to give the invention of the Calculating Engine to the Government, and to superintend its construction, there must have been an implied understanding that I should carry it on to its termination. I entered upon that understanding, believing that two or at the utmost that three years would complete it. The better part of my life has now been spent on that machine, and no progress whatever having been made since 1834, that understanding may possibly be considered by the Government as still subsisting: I am therefore naturally very anxious that this state of uncertainty should be put an end to as soon as possible."

Mr. Babbage, in reply, received a note from Sir George Clerk (Secretary to the Treasury), stating that Sir Robert Peel feared that it would not be in his power to turn his attention to the subject for some days, but that he hoped, as soon as the great pressure of business previous to the opening of the session of Parliament was over, he might be able to determine on the best course to be pursued.

The session of Parliament closed in August, and Mr. Babbage bad received no further communication on the subject. Having availed himself of several private channels for recalling the question to Sir Robert Peel's attention without effect, Mr. Babbage, on the 8th of October, 1842, again wrote to him, requesting an early decision.

On the 4th of November, 1842, a note from Sir Robert Peel explained to Mr. Babbage that some delay had arisen, from his wish to communicate personally with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would shortly announce to him their joint conclusion on the subject.

On the same day Mr. Babbage received a letter from Mr. Goulburn (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), who stated that he had communicated with Sir Robert Peel, and that they both regretted the necessity of abandoning the completion of a machine, on which so much scientific labour had been bestowed. He observed, that the expense necessary for rendering it either satisfactory to Mr. Babbage or generally useful appeared, on the lowest calculation, so far to exceed what they should be justified in incurring, that they considered themselves as having no other alternative.

Mr. Goulburn concluded by expressing their hope, that by the Government withdrawing all claim to the machine as already constructed, and placing it entirely at Mr. Babbage's disposal, they might in some degree assist him in his future exertions in the cause of Science.

On the 6th of November, 1842, Mr. Babbage wrote to Sir Robert Peel and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, acknowledging the receipt of their decision, thanking them for the offer of the machine as already constructed, but, under all the circumstances, declining to accept it.[10]

On the 11th of November Mr. Babbage obtained an interview with Sir Robert Peel, and stated, that having given the original Invention to the Government—having superintended for them its construction—having demonstrated the possibility of the undertaking by the completion of an important portion of it—and that the non-completion of the design arose neither from his fault nor his desire, but was the act of the Government itself, he felt that he had some claims on their consideration.

He rested those claims upon the sacrifices he had made, both personal and pecuniary, in the advancement of the Mechanical Arts and of Science—on the anxiety and the injury he had experienced by the delay of eight years in the decision of the Government on the subject, and on the great annoyance he had constantly been exposed to by the prevailing belief in the public mind that he had been amply remunerated by large grants of public money. Nothing, he observed, but some public act of the Government could ever fully refute that opinion, or repair the injustice with which he had been treated.

The result of this interview was entirely unsatisfactory. Mr. Babbage went to it prepared, had his statement produced any effect, to have pointed out two courses, by either of which it was probable that not only a Difference Engine, but even the Analytical Engine, might in a few years have been completed. The state of Sir Robert Peel's information on the subject, and the views he took of Mr. Babbage's services and position, prevented Mr. Babbage from making any allusion to either of those plans.

Thus finally terminated an engagement, which had existed upwards of twenty years. During no part of the last eight of those years does there appear to have been any reason why the same decision should not have been arrived at by the Government as was at last actually pronounced.

It was during this last period that all the great principles on which the Analytical Engine rests were discovered, and that the mechanical contrivances in which they might be embodied were invented. The establishment which Mr. Babbage had long maintained in his own house, and at his own expense, was now directed with increased energy to the new inquiries required for its perfection.

In this Statement the heavy sacrifices, both pecuniary and personal, which the invention of these machines has entailed upon their author, have been alluded to as slightly as possible. Few can imagine, and none will ever know their full extent. Some idea of those sacrifices must nevertheless have occurred to every one who has read this Statement. During upwards of twenty years Mr. Babbage has employed, in his own house, and at his own expense, workmen of various kinds, to assist him in making experiments necessary for attaining a knowledge of every art which could possibly tend to the perfection of those Engines; and with that object he has frequently visited the manufactories of the Continent, as well as our own.

Since the discontinuance of the Difference Engine belonging to the Government, Mr. Babbage has himself maintained an establishment for making drawings and descriptions demonstrating the nature and power of the Analytical Engine, and for its construction at some future period, when its value may be appreciated.

To these remarks it will only be added, that at an early stage of the construction of the Difference Engine he refused more than one highly desirable and profitable situation, in order that he might give his whole time and thoughts to the fulfilment of the engagement which he considered himself to have entered into with the Government

August, 1843.

  1. Parliamentary Paper, No. 370, printed 22nd May, 1823.
  2. Afterwards Lord Goderich, now Earl of Ripon.
  3. See Note on next page.
  4. Note.—It will be convenient to distinguish between—
    1. The small Model of the original or Difference Engine.
    2. The Difference Engine itself, belonging to the Government, a part only of which has been put together.
    3. The designs for another Engine, which in this Statement is called the Analytical Engine.
  5. See page 69.
  6. The difference between this sum and 6,697l. 12s. mentioned in page 73, seems to have arisen from the fact of the former sum having included the estimated amount of a bill which, when received, was found to be less than had been anticipated.
  7. The present Lord Monteagle.
  8. See page 86.
  9. See page 88.
  10. The part of the Difference Engine already constructed, together with all the Drawings relating to the whole machine, were, in January, 1843 (by the direction of the Government), deposited in the Museum of King's College, London.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.