Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter VII

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


difference engine no. ii.

Difference Engine No. 2—The Earl of Rosse, President of the Royal Society, proposed to the Government a Plan by which the Difference Engine No. 2 might have been executed—It was addressed to the Earl of Derby, and rejected by his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It was not until 1848, when I had mastered the subject of the Analytical Engine, that I resolved on making a complete set of drawings of the Difference Engine No. 2. In this I proposed to take advantage of all the improvements and simplifications which years of unwearied study had produced for the Analytical Engine.

In 1852, the Earl of Rosse, who, from its commencement, had looked forward with the greatest interest to the application of mechanism to purposes of calculation, and who was well acquainted with the drawings and notations of the Difference Engine No. 2, inquired of me whether I was willing to give them to the Government, provided they would have the Engine constructed. My feeling was, after the sad experience of the past, that I ought not to think of sacrificing any further portion of my life upon the subject. If, however, they chose to have the Difference Engine made, I was ready to give them the whole of the drawings, and also the notations by which it was demonstrated that such a machine could be constructed, and that when made it would necessarily do the work prescribed for it.

My much-valued friend, the late Sir Benjamin Hawes, had also been consulted, and it was agreed that the draft of a letter to Lord Derby, who was then prime minister, should be prepared; in which I should make this offer. Lord Rosse proposed to place my letter in Lord Derby's hands, with his own statement of a plan by which the whole question might be determined.

Lord Rosse's suggestion was, that the Government should apply to the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers to ascertain,

1st. Whether it was possible, from the drawings and notations, to make an estimate of the cost of constructing the machine? 2ndly. In case this question was answered in the affirmative—then, could a Mechanical Engineer be found who would undertake to construct it, and at what expense?

The Institution of Civil Engineers was undoubtedly the highest authority upon the first question. That being decided in the affirmative, no other body had equal power to find out those mechanical engineers who might be willing to undertake the contract.

Supposing both these questions, or even the latter only, answered in the negative, the proposition, of course, fell to the ground. But if they were both answered in the affirmative, then there would have arisen a further question for the consideration of the Government: namely, Whether the object to be obtained was worthy of the expenditure?

The final result of this eminently practical plan was communicated to the Royal Society by their President, in his address at their anniversary on the 30th November, 1854. The following is an extract:—

"The progress of the work was suspended: there was a change of Government. Science was weighed against gold by a new standard, and it was resolved to proceed no further. No enterprise could have had its beginning under more auspicious circumstances: the Government had taken the initiative—they had called for advice, and the adviser was the highest scientific authority in this country;—your Council; guided by such men as Davy, Wollaston, and Herschel. By your Council the undertaking was inaugurated,—by your Council it was watched over in its progress. That the first great effort to employ the powers of calculating mechanism, in aid of the human intellect, should have been suffered in this great country to expire fruitless, because there was no tangible evidence of immediate profit, as a British subject I deeply regret, and as a Fellow my regret is accompanied with feelings of bitter disappointment. Where a question has once been disposed of, succeeding Governments rarely reopen it, still I thought I should not be doing my duty if I did not take some opportunity of bringing the facts once more before Government. Circumstances had changed, mechanical engineering had made much progress; the tools required and trained workmen were to be found in the workshops of the leading mechanists, the founder's art was so advanced that casting had been substituted for cutting, in making the change wheels, even of screw-cutting engines, and therefore it was very probable that persons would be found willing to undertake to complete the Difference Engine for a specific sum.

"That finished, the question would then have arisen, how far it was advisable to endeavour, by the same means, to turn to account the great labour which had been expended under the guidance of inventive powers the most original, controlled by mathematics of a very high order; and which had been wholly devoted for so many years to the great task of carrying the powers of calculating machinery to its utmost limits. Before I took any step I wrote to several very eminent men of science, inquiring whether, in their opinion, any great scientific object would be gained if Mr. Babbage's views, as explained in Ménabrèa's little essay, were completely realized. The answers I received were strongly in the affirmative. As it was necessary the subject should be laid before Government in a form as practical as possible, I wrote to one of our most eminent mechanical engineers to inquire whether I should be safe in stating to Government that the expense of the Calculating Engine had been more than repaid in the improvements in mechanism directly referable to it; he replied,—unquestionably. Fortified by these opinions, I submitted this proposition to Government:—that they should call upon the President of the Society of Civil Engineers to report whether it would be practicable to make a contract for the completion of Mr. Babbage's Difference Engine, and if so, for what sum. This was in 1852, during the short administration of Lord Derby, and it led to no result. The time was unfortunate; a great political contest was impending, and before there was a lull in politics, so that the voice of Science could be heard, Lord Derby's government was at an end."

The following letter was then drawn up, and placed in Lord Derby's hands by Lord Rosse:—

My Lord,

June 8, 1852.  

I take the liberty of drawing your Lordship's attention to the subject of the construction of a Difference Engine, for calculating and printing Astronomical and Nautical Tables, which was brought under the notice of the Government so far back as the year 1823, and upon which the Government of that day desired the opinion of the Royal Society.

I annex a copy of the correspondence which took place at that time, and which your Lordship will observe was laid before Parliament.

The Committee of the Royal Society, to which the subject was referred, reported generally that the invention was one "fully adequate to the attainment of the objects proposed by the inventor, and that they considered Mr. Babbage as highly deserving of public encouragement in the prosecution of his arduous undertaking."—Report of Royal Society, 1st May, 1823. Parliamentary Paper, 370, 22nd May, 1823.

And in a subsequent and more detailed Report, which I annex also, they state:—

"The Committee have no intention of entering into any consideration of the abstract mathematical principle on which the practicability of such a machine as Mr. Babbage's relies, nor of its public utility when completed. They consider the former as not only sufficiently clear in itself, but as already admitted and acted on by the Council in their former proceedings. The latter they regard as obvious to every one who considers the immense advantage of accurate numerical Tables in all matters of calculation, especially in those which relate to Astronomy and Navigation, and the great variety and extent of those which it is the object and within the compass of Mr. Babbage's Engine to calculate and print with perfect accuracy."—Report of Committee of Royal Society, 12th Feb., 1829.

Upon the first of these Reports, the Government determined to construct the machine, under my personal superintendence and direction. The Engine was accordingly commenced and partially completed. Tables of figures were calculated, limited in extent only by the number of wheels put together.

Delays, from various causes arose in the progress of the work, and great expenses were incurred. The machine was altogether new in design and construction, and required the utmost mechanical skill which could be obtained for its execution. "It involved," to quote again from the Report of the Committee of the Royal Society, "the necessity of constructing, and in many instances inventing, tools and machinery of great expense and complexity (and in many instances of ingenious contrivances likely to prove useful for other purposes hereafter), for forming with the requisite precision parts of the apparatus dissimilar to any used in ordinary mechanical works; that of making many previous trials to ascertain the validity of proposed movements; and that of altering, improving, and simplifying those already contrived and reduced to drawings. Your Committee are so far from being surprised at the time it has occupied to bring it to its present state, that they feel more disposed to wonder it has been possible to accomplish so much," The true explanation both of the slow progress and of the cost of the work is clearly stated in this passage; and I may remark in passing, that the tools which were invented for the construction of the machine were afterwards found of utility, and that this anticipation of the Committee has been realized, as some of our most eminent mechanical engineers will readily testify.

Similar circumstances will, I apprehend, always attend and prolong the period of bringing to perfection inventions which have no parallel in the previous history of mechanical construction. The necessary science and skill specially acquired in executing such works must also, as experience is gained, suggest deviations from, and improvements in, the original plan of those works; and the adoption or rejection of such changes, especially under circumstances similar to those in which I was placed, often involves questions of the greatest difficulty and anxiety.

From whatever cause, however, the delays and expenses arose, the result was that the Government was discouraged, and declined to proceed further with the work.

Mr. Goulburn's letter, intimating this decision to me, in 1842, will be found in the accompanying printed Statement. And that the impediments to the completion of the engine, described by the Royal Society, were those which influenced the Government in the determination they came to, I infer from the reason assigned by Mr. Goulburn for its discontinuance, viz., "the expense which would be necessary in order to render it either satisfactory to yourself or generally useful." I readily admit that the work could not have been rendered satisfactory to myself unless I was free to introduce every improvement which experience and thought could suggest. But that even with this additional source of expense, its general usefulness would have been impaired, I cannot assent to, for I believe, in the words of the Report I have already quoted, the "immense advantage of accurate Numerical Tables in all matters of calculation, especially in those which relate to Astronomy and Navigation, cannot, within any reasonable limits, be over-estimated." As to the expense actually incurred upon the first Difference Engine, that of the Government was about 17,000l. On my own part, and out of my own private resources, I have sacrificed upon this and other works of science upwards of 20,000l.

From the date of Mr. Goulburn's letter, nothing has been done towards the further completion of the Difference Engine by the Government or myself. So much of it as was completed was deposited in the Museum of King's College, where it now remains.

Three consequences have, however, resulted from my subsequent labours, to which I attach great importance.

First, I have been led to conceive the most important elements of another Engine upon a new principle (the details of which are reduced accurately to paper), the power of which over the most complicated analytical operations appears nearly unlimited; but no portion of which is yet commenced. I have called this engine, in contradistinction to the other, the Analytical Engine.

Secondly, I have invented and brought to maturity a system of signs for the explanation of machinery, which I have called Mechanical Notation, by means of which the drawings, the times of action, and the trains for the transmission of force, are expressed in a language at once simple and concise. Without the aid of this language I could not have invented the Analytical Engine; nor do I believe that any machinery of equal complexity can ever be contrived without the assistance of that or of some other equivalent language. The Difference Engine No. 2, to which I shall presently refer, is entirely described by its aid.

Thirdly, in labouring to perfect this Analytical Machine of greater power and wider range of computation, I have discovered the means of simplifying and expediting the mechanical processes of the first or Difference Engine.

After what has passed, I cannot expect the Government to undertake the construction of the Analytical Engine, and I do not offer it for that purpose. It is not so matured as to enable any other person, without long previous training and application, even to attempt its execution; and on my own part, to superintend its construction would demand an amount of labour, anxiety, and time which could not, after the treatment I have received, be expected from me. I therefore make no such offer.

But that I may fulfil to the utmost of my power the original expectation that I should be able to complete, for the Government, an Engine capable of calculating astronomical and nautical Tables with perfect accuracy, such as that which is described in the Reports of the Royal Society, I am willing to place at the disposal of Government (if they will undertake to execute a new Difference Engine) all those improvements which I have invented and have applied to the Analytical Engine. These comprise a complete series of drawings and explanatory notations, finished in 1849, of the Difference Engine No. 2,—an instrument of greater power as well as of greater simplicity than that formerly commenced, and now in the possession of the Government.

I have sacrificed time, health, and fortune, in the desire to complete these Calculating Engines. I have also declined several offers of great personal advantage to myself. But, notwithstanding the sacrifice of these advantages for the purpose of maturing an engine of almost intellectual power, and after expending from my own private fortune a larger sum than the Government of England has spent on that machine, the execution of which it only commenced, I have received neither an acknowledgment of my labours, nor even the offer of those honours or rewards which are allowed to fall within the reach of men who devote themselves to purely scientific investigations. I might, perhaps, advance some claims to consideration, founded on my works and contributions in aid of various departments of industrial and physical science,—but it is for others to estimate those services.

I now, however, simply ask your Lordship to do me the honour to consider this statement and the offer I make. I prefer no claim to the distinctions or the advantages which it is in the power of the Crown or the Government to bestow. I desire only to discharge whatever imagined obligation may be supposed to rest upon me, in connexion with the original undertaking of the Difference Engine; though I cannot but feel that whilst the public has already derived advantage from my labours, I have myself experienced only loss and neglect.

If the work upon which I have bestowed so much time and thought were a mere triumph over mechanical difficulties, or simply curious, or if the execution of such engines were of doubtful practicability or utility, some justification might be found for the course which has been taken; but I venture to assert that no mathematician who has a reputation to lose will ever publicly express an opinion that such a machine would be useless if made, and that no man distinguished as a Civil Engineer will venture to declare the construction of such machinery impracticable. The names appended to the Report of the Committee of the Royal Society fully justify my expressing this opinion, which I apprehend will not be disputed

And at a period when the progress of physical science is obstructed by that exhausting intellectual and manual labour, indispensable for its advancement, which it is the object of the Analytical Engine to relieve, I think the application of machinery in aid of the most complicated and abstruse calculations can no longer be deemed unworthy of the attention of the country. In fact, there is no reason why mental as well as bodily labour should not be economized by the aid of machinery.

With these views I have addressed your Lordship, as the head of the Government; and whatever may be my sense of the injustice that has hitherto been done me, I feel, in laying this representation before your Lordship, and in making the offer I now make, that I have discharged to the utmost limit every implied obligation I originally contracted with the country.

I have the honour to be,

&c., &c., &c.,

Charles Babbage.

Dorset Street, Manchester Square.

June 8, 1852.

As this question was one of finance and of calculation, the sagacious Premier adroitly turned it over to his Chancellor of the Exchequer—that official being, from his office, supposed to be well versed in both subjects.

The opinion pronounced by the novelist and financier was, "That Mr. Babbage's projects appear to be so indefinitely expensive, the ultimate success so problematical, and the expenditure certainly so large and so utterly incapable of being calculated, that the Government would not be justified in taking upon itself any further liability."—Extract from the Reply of Earl Derby to the application of the Earl of Rosse, K.P., President of the Royal Society.

The answer of Lord Derby to Lord Rosse was in substance—

That he had consulted the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who pronounced Mr. Babbage's project as—

1. "Indefinitely expensive."

2. "The ultimate success problematical."

3. "The expenditure utterly incapable of being calculated."

1. With regard to the "indefinite expense." Lord Rosse had proposed to refer this question to the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, who would have given his opinion after a careful examination of the drawings and notations. These had not been seen by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and, if seen by him, would not have been comprehended.

The objection that its success was "problematical" may refer either to its mechanical construction or to its mathematical principles.

Who, possessing one grain of common sense, could look upon the unrivalled workmanship of the then existing portion of the Difference Engine No. 1, and doubt whether a simplified form of the same engine could be executed?

As to any doubt of its mathematical principles, this was excusable in the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was himself too practically acquainted with the fallibility of his own figures, over which the severe duties of his office had stultified his brilliant imagination. Far other figures are dear to him—those of speech, in which it cannot be denied he is indeed pre-eminent.

Any junior clerk in his office mighty however, have told him that the power of computing Tables by differences merely required a knowledge of simple addition.

As to the impossibility of ascertaining the expenditure, this merges into the first objection; but a poetical brain must be pardoned when it repeats or amplifies. I will recall to the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer what Lord Rosse really proposed, namely, that the Government should take the opinion of the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers upon the question, whether a contract could be made for constructing the Difference Engine, and if so, for what sum.

But the very plan proposed by Lord Rosse and refused by Lord Derby, for the construction of the English Difference Engine, was adopted some few years after by another administration for the Swedish Difference Engine. Messrs. Donkin, the eminent Engineers, made an estimate, and a contract was in consequence executed to construct for Government a fac-simile of the Swedish Difference Engine, which is now in use in the department of the Registrar-General, at Somerset House. There were far greater mechanical difficulties in the production of that machine than in the one the drawings of which I had offered to the Government.

From my own experience of the cost of executing such works, I have no doubt, although it was highly creditable to the skill of the able firm who constructed it, but that it must have been commercially unprofitable. Under such circumstances, surely it was harsh on the part of the Government to refuse Messrs. Donkin permission to exhibit it as a specimen of English workmanship at the Exhibition of 1862.

But the machine upon which everybody could calculate, had little chance of fair play from the man on whom nobody could calculate.

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer had read my letter to Lord Derby, he would have found the opinion of the Committee of the Royal Society expressed in these words:—

"They consider the former [the abstract mathematical principle] as not only sufficiently clear in itself, but as already admitted and acted on by the Council in their former proceedings.

"The latter [its public utility] they consider as obvious to every one who considers the immense advantage of accurate numerical tables in all matters of calculation, especially in those which relate to astronomy and navigation."—Report of the Royal Society, 12th Feb., 1829.

Thus it appears:—

1st. That the Chancellor of the Exchequer presumed to set up his own idea of the utility of the Difference Engine in direct opposition to that of the Royal Society.

2nd. That he refused to take the opinion of the highest mechanical authority in the country on its probable cost, and even to be informed whether a contract for its construction at a definite sum might not be attainable: he then boldly pronounced the expense to be "utterly incapable of being


This much-abused Difference Engine is, however, like its prouder relative the Analytical, a being of sensibility, of impulse, and of power.

It can not only calculate the millions the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer squandered, but it can deal with the smallest quantities; nay, it feels even for zeros.[1] It is as conscious as Lord Derby himself is of the presence of a negative quantity, and it is not beyond the ken of either of them to foresee the existence of impossible ones.[2]

Yet should any unexpected course of events ever raise the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer to his former dignity, I am sure he will be its friend, as soon as he is convinced that it can be made useful to him.

It may possibly enable him to un-muddle even his own financial accounts, and to——

But as I have no wish to crucify him, I will leave his name in obscurity.

The Herostratus of Science, if he escape oblivion, will be linked with the destroyer of the Ephesian Temple.

  1. It discovers the roots of equations by feeling whether all the figures in a certain column are zeros.
  2. It may be necessary to explain to the unmathematical reader and to the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer that impossible quantities in algebra are something like mare's-nests in ordinary life.

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