Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XI

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


the late prince consort.

"Suum cuique."

Count Mensdorf mentions to the Duke of Wellington his wish to see the Difference Engine—An appointment made—Prince Albert expresses his intention of accompanying his uncle—Time of appointment altered—Their visit, accompanied by the Duke of Wellington—Portrait of Jacquard—Anecdote of Wilkie—Afghanistan arms—Extract from the Author's work on the Exhibition of 1862.

I have had one opportunity of fairly estimating some portion of the character of the late justly-lamented Prince Consort; to this I will now venture to allude.

In 1842 Count Mensdorf visited London. A few days after I had a note from the late Duke of Wellington, in which he informed me that on the previous evening he had met at the palace the Queen's uncle, Count Mensdorf, who had expressed to the Duke his wish to see my Calculating Engine. The Duke then inquired whether I could conveniently make some arrangement for that purpose. I immediately wrote to the Duke, that if he would appoint an hour on any morning of the ensuing week, I should have great pleasure in showing and explaining the Difference Engine to Count Mensdorf. It was afterwards arranged that on the following Tuesday, at two o'clock, Count Mensdorf and the Duke should pay me a visit in Dorset Street. On Monday morning I received another note from the Duke, informing me that Prince Albert had expressed his intention to accompany Count Mensdorf in the proposed visit, and that it would be more convenient if the hour were changed to one instead of two o'clock.

I must freely admit that I did not greatly rejoice at this addition to the party. I resolved, however, strictly to perform the duties thus thrown upon me as a host, as well as all those to which Prince Albert was entitled by his elevated position.

Before I took the Prince into the fire-proof building in which the Difference Engine was then deposited, I asked his Royal Highness to allow me to show him a portrait of Jacquard, which was at that time hanging up in my drawing-room, as it would greatly assist in explaining the nature of Calculating Machines.

When we had arrived in front of the portrait, I pointed it out as the object to which I solicited the Prince's attention. "Oh! that engraving?" remarked the Duke of Wellington. "No!" said Prince Albert to the Duke; "it is not an engraving." I felt for a moment very great surprise; but this was changed into a much more agreeable feeling, when the Prince instantly added, "I have seen it before." I felt at once that the Prince was a "good man and true," and I resolved that I would not confine myself to the rigid rules of etiquette, but that I would help him with all my heart in whatever line his inquiries might be directed.

The portrait of Jacquard was, in fact, a sheet of woven silk, framed and glazed, but looking so perfectly like an engraving, that it had been mistaken for such by two members of the Royal Academy.

A short time after I became possessed of this beautiful work of art, I met Wilkie, and invited him to come and see my recent acquisition. He called on me one morning. I placed him at a short distance in front of the portrait, which he admired greatly. I then asked him what he thought it was. He answered, "An engraving!" On which I asked, "Of what kind?" To this he replied, "Line-engraving, to be sure!" I drew him a little nearer. He then mentioned another style of engraving. At last, having placed Wilkie close to the portrait, he said, after a considerable pause, "Can it be lithography?"

A splendid collection of arms from Afghanistan, recently sent to me from India by Sir Edward Ryan, was lying on the tables in one of the rooms we passed through. These had attracted the notice of the Prince, and on returning, the whole party examined them with the greatest interest.

I now conducted my visitors to the fire-proof building in which the Difference Engine was placed. Prince Albert was, I understood, sufficiently acquainted with the higher departments of mathematical science to appreciate the influence of such an instrument on its future progress. But the circumstance that charmed me was—his bearing towards his uncle, Count Mensdorf. It was perfectly natural: it could be felt, admired, and honoured—but not described.

When the sad fact of the nation's loss became known to me, I immediately reverted with some anxiety to a work I had published ten years before on the Exhibition of 1851. I feared lest, in speaking of that event, I might have committed some injustice, whilst I was indignant at that under which I was myself suffering. I willingly reprint it here because it contained no empty words of flattery; but analysed the reasons which commanded our respect.

"The merit of the original conception of the present Exposition [1851] is insignificant in comparison with that of the efforts by which it was carried out, and with the importance of its practical results.

"To have seen from afar its effects on the improvement, the wealth, and the happiness of the people—to have seized the fit moment, when, by the right use of the influence of an exalted station, it was possible to overcome the deeply-rooted prejudices of the upper classes—to remove the still more formidable, because latent, impediments of party—generously to have undertaken great responsibility, and with indefatigable labour to have endeavoured to make the best out of the only materials at hand,—these are endowments of no ordinary kind.

"To move in any rank of society an exception to its general rules, is a very difficult, and if accompanied by the consciousness of the situation, a very painful position to a reflecting mind.

"Whatever may be the cause—whether exalted rank, unbounded wealth, surpassing beauty or unrivalled wit, the renown of daring deeds, the magic of a world-wide fame—to all within those narrow limits the dangers and the penalties are great. Each exists an isolated spirit; each unconsciously imprisoned within its crystal globe perceives the colours of all external objects modified by those tints imparted to them by its own surrounding sphere. No change of view can teach it to rectify this partial judgment; throughout its earthward course the same undying rainbow attends to the last its parent drop.

"Barely indeed can some deep-searching mind, after long comparison, perceive the real colours of those translucent shells which encompass kindred spirits; and thus at length enable him to achromatise the medium which surrounds his own. To one who has thus rectified the "colour-blindness" of his intellectual vision, how deep the sympathy he feels for those still involved in that hopeless obscurity from which he has himself escaped. None can so justly appreciate that sense of loneliness, that solitude of mind, which surrounds unquestioned eminence on its lofty throne;—none, therefore, can make so large an allowance for its errors;—none so skilfully assist in guiding its hazardous career."

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