Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXVIII

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hints for travellers.

New Inventions—Stomach Pump—Built a Carriage—Description of Thames Tunnel—Barton's Iridescent Buttons—Chinese Orders of Nobility—Manufactory of Gold Chains at Venice—Pulsations and Respirations of Animals—Punching a Hole in Glass without cracking it—Specimen of an Enormous Smash—Proteus Anguineus—Travellers' Hotel at Sheffield—Wentworth House.

In this chapter I propose to throw together a few suggestions, which may assist in rendering a tour successful for its objects and agreeable in its reminiscences.

Money is the fuel of travelling. I can give the traveller a few hints how to get money, although I never had any skill in making it myself.

In one tour, extending over more than a twelvemonth, I took with me two letters of credit, each for half the sum I should probably require. My reasons for this were, that in case one was lost the other might still be available. One of these was generally kept about my person, the other concealed in my writing-case. Another reason was, that if I were unluckily carried off and detained for a ransom, it might thus be mitigated.

It is of great advantage to a traveller to have some acquaintance with the use of tools. It is often valuable for his own comfort, and sometimes renders him able to assist a friend. I met at Frankfort the eldest son of the coachmaker of the Emperor of Russia. He had been travelling over the western part of Europe, and showed me drawings he had made of all the most remarkable carriages he had met with. Some of these were selected for their elegance, others for the reverse; take, as an example, the Lord Mayor's.

We travelled together to Munich, and I took that opportunity of discussing, seriatim, with my very intelligent young friend, every part of the structure of a carriage.

I made notes of certain portions in case I should find occasion to have a carriage built for my own use.

The young Russian was on his way to Moscow, and was very anxious to prevail on me to accompany him thither, for which purpose he offered to wait my own time at Munich. As, however, I wished to reach Italy as soon as possible, I declined his proposition with much regret.

However, in the following year, I profited by the information I then gained. I had built for me at Vienna, from my own design, a strong light four-wheeled calèche in which I could sleep at full length. Amongst its conveniences were a lamp by which I occasionally boiled an egg or cooked my breakfast. A large shallow drawer in which might be placed, without folding, plans, drawings, and dress-coats. Small pockets for the various kinds of money, a larger one for travelling books and telescopes, and many other conveniences. It cost somewhat about sixty pounds. After carrying me during six months, at the expense of only five francs for repair, I sold it at the Hague for thirty pounds.

It is always advantageous for a traveller to carry with him anything of use in science or in art if it is of a portable nature, and still more so if it has also the advantage of novelty. At the time I started on a lengthened tour the stomach-pump had just been invented. It appeared to give promise of great utility. I therefore arranged in a small box the parts of an instrument which could be employed either as a syringe, a stomach-pump, or for cupping. As a stomach-pump, it was in great request from its novelty and utility. I had many applications for permission to make drawings of it, to which I always most willingly acceded. At Munich, Dr. Weisbrod, the king's physician, was greatly interested with it, and at his wish I lent it to the chief surgical instrument-maker who produced for him an exact copy of the whole apparatus.

Having visited the Thames Tunnel a day or two before I started for the Continent, I purchased a dozen copies of the very lucid account of that most interesting work. Six of the copies were in French and the other six in the German language. I frequently lent a copy, and upon some occasions I gave one away; but if I had had twice that number I should have found that I might have distributed them with advantage as acknowledgments of the many attentions I received.

Another most valuable piece of travelling merchandise consisted of a dozen large and a dozen small gold buttons stamped by Barton's steel dies. These buttons displayed the most beautiful iridescence, especially in the light of the sun. They were formed by ruling the steel die in parallel lines in various forms. The lines were from the four to the ten thousandth of an inch apart.

I possessed a die which Mr. Barton had kindly given me. This I kept in my writing-case; but I had had a small piece of steel ruled in the same way, though not with quite the same perfection, which I always kept in my waistcoat pocket; it was also accompanied by a small gold button in a sandalwood case. These were frequently of great service. The mere sight of them procured me many little attentions in diligences and steamboats.

Of course I never appeared to be the possessor of more than one of these treasured buttons; so that if any one had saved my life, its gift would have been thought a handsome acknowledgment. If I had travelled in the East, as I had originally intended until the battle of Navarino prevented me, my buttons might have given me unlimited success in the celestial empire.

The Chinese, like ourselves, have five orders of nobility. They are indicated by spherical buttons. The Chinese nobles, however, wear them on the top of their caps, whilst our nobility wear their pearls and strawberry-leaves in their armorial bearings.

It is a curious circumstance that the most anciently civilized nation should have invented an order of knighthood almost exactly similar to our own—the order of the Peacock's Feather—which, like our own Garter, is confined to certain classes of nobility of the highest rank. Of the two the decoration of the Chinese noble is certainly the more graceful.

One out of many illustrations may show the use I made of a button. During my first visit to Venice I wished to see a manufactory of gold chains for which that city is justly celebrated. I readily got permission, and the proprietor was so good as to accompany me round his factory. I had inquired the price of various chains, and had expressed my wish to purchase a few inches of each kind; but I was informed that they never sold less than a braccia of any one chain. This amount would have made my purchase more costly than I proposed, so I gave it up.

In the meantime we proceeded through several rooms in which various processes were going on. Observing some tools in one of the shops, I took up a file and asked whence it was procured. This led to a conversation on the subject, in which the proprietor gave me some account of files from various countries, but concluded by observing that the Lancashire files, when they could be got, were by far the best. I took this opportunity of asking him whether he had seen any of our latest productions in steel: then pulling out of my waistcoat-pocket the piece of hardened steel, ruled by a diamond, I put it into his hands. The sun was shining brightly, and he was very much interested with it. I remarked that in a darkened room, and with a single lamp, it would be seen with still greater advantage. A room was soon darkened, and a single lamp produced, and the effect was still more perfect. My conductor then observed that his managing man was a very skilful workman, and if I could afford the time, he should much wish to show him this beautiful sight. I said it always gave me pleasure to see and converse with a skilful workman, and that I considered it as time well spent. The master sent for his superintendent, who, being of a judicious turn of mind, was lavish in admiring what his master approved. The master himself, gratified by this happy confirmation, turning to me, said that he would let me have pieces of any or all of his gold chains of any length, however short I might wish them to be.

I thanked him for thus enabling me to make my countrymen appreciate the excellence of Venetian workmanship, and purchased small samples of every kind of chain then manuactured. These, on my return to London, I weighed and measured, and referred to them in the economy of manufactures as illustrations of the different proportions in which skilled labour and price of raw material occur in the same class of manufactured articles.

A friend of mine, then at Venice, again visited that city about five years afterwards. He subsequently informed me that he had purchased, at the manufactory I visited, samples of gold chains about an inch or two long, fixed on black velvet, and that it formed a regular article of trade in some demand.

A man may, without being a proficient in any science, and indeed with only the most limited knowledge of a small portion of it, yet make himself useful to those who are most instructed. However limited the path he may himself pursue, he will insensibly acquire other information in return for that which he can communicate. I will illustrate this by one of my own pursuits. I possess the slightest possible acquaintance with the vast fields of animal life, but at an early period I was struck by the numerical regularity of the pulsation and of the breathings. It appeared to me that there must exist some relation between these two functions. Accordingly, I took every opportunity of counting the numbers of the pulsations and of the breathings of various animals. The pig fair at Pavia and the book fair at Leipsic equally placed before me menageries in which I could collect such facts. Every zoological collection of living animal which I visited thus gained an additional interest, and occasionally excited the attention of those in charge of it to making a collection of facts relating to that subject. This led me at another period to generalize the subject of inquiry, and to print a skeleton form for the constants of the class mammalia. It was reprinted by the British Association at Cambridge in 1833, and also at Brussels in the 'Travaux du Congress Général de Statistique,' Brussels, 1853.

I have so frequently been mortified by having the utterly-undeserved reputation of knowing everything that I was led to inquire into the probable grounds of the egregious fallacy. The most frequent symptom was an address of this kind:—"Now Mr. Babbage, will you, who know everything, kindly explain to me — — — ." Perhaps the thing whose explanation was required might be the metre of some ancient Chinese poem: or whether there were any large rivers in the planet Mercury.

One of the most useful accomplishments for a philosophical traveller with which I am acquainted, I learned from a workman, who taught me how to punch a hole in a sheet of glass without making a crack in it.

The process is very simple. Two centre-punches, a hammer, an ordinary bench-vice, and an old file, are all the tools required. These may be found in any blacksmith's shop. Having decided upon the part of the glass in which you wish to make the hole, scratch a cross (X) upon the desired spot with the point of the old file; then turn the bit of glass over, and scratch on the other side a similar mark exactly opposite to the former.

Fix one of the small centre-punches with its point upwards in the vice. Let an assistant gently hold the bit of glass with its scratched point exactly resting upon the point of the centre-punch.

Take the other centre-punch in your own left hand and place its point in the centre of the upper scratch, which is of course nearly, if not exactly, above the fixed centre-punch. Now hit the upper centre-punch a very slight blow with the hammer: a mere touch is almost sufficient. This must be carefully repeated two or three times. The result of these blows will be to cause the centre of the cross to be, as it were, gently pounded.

Turn the glass over and let the slight cavity thus formed rest upon the fixed centre-punch. Repeat the light blows upon this side of the glass, and after turning it two or three times, a very small hole will be made through the glass. It not unfrequently happens that a small crack occurs in the glass; but with a little skill this can be cut out with the pane of the hammer.

The next process is to enlarge the hole and cut it into the required shape with the pane of the hammer. This is accomplished by supporting the glass upon the point of the fixed centre-punch, very close to the edge required to be cut. A light blow must then be struck with the pane of the hammer upon the edge to be broken. This must be repeated until the required shape is obtained.

The principles on which it depends are, that glass is a material breaking in every direction with a conchoidal fracture, and that the vibrations which would have caused cracking or fracture are checked by the support of the fixed centre-punch in close contiguity with the part to be broken off.

When by hastily performing this operation I have caused the glass to crack, I have frequently, by using more care, cut an opening all round the cracked part, and so let it drop out without spreading.

This process is rendered still more valuable by the use of the diamond. I usually carried in my travels a diamond mounted on a small circle of wood, so that I could easily cut out circles of glass with small holes in the centre. The description of this process is sufficient to explain it to an experienced workman; but if the reader should wish to employ it, his readiest plan would be to ask such a person to show him how to do it.

The above technical description will doubtless be rather dry and obscure to the general reader; so I hope to make him amends by one or two of the consequences which have resulted to me from having instructed others in the art.

In the year 1825, during a visit to Devonport, I had apartments in the house of a glazier, of whom one day I inquired whether he was acquainted with the art of punching a hole in glass, to which he answered in the negative, and expressed great curiosity to see it done. Finding that at a short distance there was a blacksmith whom he sometimes employed, we went together to pay him a visit, and having selected from his rough tools the centre-punches and the hammer, I proceeded to explain and execute the whole process, with which my landlord was highly delighted.

On the eve of my departure I asked for the landlord's account, which was duly sent up and quite correct, except the omission of the charge for the apartments which I had agreed for at two guineas a week. I added the four weeks for my lodgings, and the next morning, having placed the total amount upon the bill, I sent for my host in order to pay him, remarking that he had omitted the principal article of his account, which I had inserted.

He replied that he had intentionally omitted the lodgings, as he could not think of taking payment for them from a gentleman who had done him so great a service. Quite unconscious of having rendered him any service, I asked him to explain how I had done him any good. He replied that he had the contract for the supply and repair of the whole of the lamps of Devonport, and that the art in which I had instructed him would save him more than twenty pounds a year. I found some difficulty in prevailing on my grateful landlord to accept what was justly his due.

The second instance I shall mention of the use to which I turned this art of punching a hole in glass occurred in Italy, at Bologna.

I spent some weeks very agreeably in that celebrated university, which is still proud of having had the discoverer of the circulation of the blood amongst its students. One morning an Italian friend accompanied me round the town, to point out the more remarkable shops and manufactories. Passing through a small street, he remarked that there was a very well-informed man who kept a little shop for the sale of needles and tape and a few other such articles, but who also made barometers and thermometers, and had a very respectable knowledge of such subjects. I proposed that we should look in upon him as we were passing through the street. On entering his small shop, I was introduced to its tenant, who conversed very modestly and very sensibly upon various mathematical instruments.

I had invited several of my friends and professors to spend the evening with me at my hotel, for the purpose of examining various instruments I had brought with me. I knew that the sight of them would be quite a treat to the occupier of this little shop, so I mentioned the idea to my friend, and inquired whether my expected guests in the evening would think I had taken a liberty with them in inviting the humble constructor of instruments at the same time.

My friend and conductor immediately replied that he was well known to most of the professors, and much respected by them, and that they would think it very kind of me to give him that opportunity of seeing the instruments I possessed. I therefore took the opportunity of asking him to join the very agreeable party which assembled in my apartments in the evening.

We now made a tour of the city, and reached the factory of the chief philosophical instrument-maker of Bologna. He took great pleasure in showing me the various instruments he manufactured; but still there was a certain air f presumption about him, which seemed to indicate a less amount of knowledge than I should otherwise have assigned to him. I had on the preceding day mentioned to my Italian friend, who now accompanied me, that there existed a very simple method of punching a hole in a piece of glass, which, as he was much interested about it, I promised to show him on the earliest opportunity.

Finding myself in the workshop of the first instrument maker in Bologna, and observing the few tools I wanted, I thought it a good opportunity to explain the process to my friend; but I could only do this by applying to the master for the loan of some tools. I also thought it possible that the method was known to him, and that, having more practice, he would do the work better than myself.

I therefore mentioned the circumstance of my promise, and asked the master whether he was acquainted with the process. His reply was, "Yes; we do it every day." I then handed over to him the punch and the piece of glass, declaring that a mere amateur, who only occasionally practised it could not venture to operate before the first instrument-maker in Bologna, and in his own workshop.

I had observed a certain shade of surprise glance across the face of one of the workmen who heard the assertion of this daily practice of his master's, and, as I had my doubts of it, I contrived to put him in such a position that he must either retract his statement or else attempt to do the trick.

He then called for a flat piece of iron with a small hole in it. Placing the piece of glass upon the top of this bit of iron, and holding the punch upon it directly above the aperture, he gave a strong blow of the hammer, and smashed the glass into a hundred pieces.

I immediately began to console him, remarking that I did not myself always succeed, and that unaccountable circumstances sometimes defeated the skill even of the most accomplished workman. I then advised him to try a larger[1] piece of glass. Just after the crash I had put my hand upon a heavier hammer, which I immediately withdrew on his perceiving it. Thus encouraged, he called for a larger piece of glass, and a bit of iron with a smaller hole in it. In the meantime all the men in the shop rested from their work to witness this feat of every-day occurrence. Their master now seized the heavier hammer, which I had previously just touched. Finding him preparing for a strong and decided blow, I turned aside my head, in order to avoid seeing him blush—and also to save my own face from the coming cloud of splinters.

I just saw the last triumphant flourish of the heavy hammer waving over his head, and then heard, on its thundering fall, the crash made by the thousand fragments of glass which it scattered over the workshop.

I still, however, felt it my duty to administer what consolation I could to a fellow-creature in distress; so I repeated to him (which was the truth) that I, too, occasionally failed. Then looking at my watch, and observing to my companion that these tools were not adapted to my mode of work, I reminded him that we had a pressing engagement I then took leave of this celebrated instrument-maker, with many thanks for all he had shown me.

After such a misadventure, I thought it would be cruel to invite him to meet the learned professors who would be assembled at my evening party, especially as I knew that I should be asked to show my friends a process with which he had assured me he was so familiar. The unpretending maker of thermometers and barometers did however join the party; and the kind and considerate manner in which my guests of the university and of the city treated him raised both parties in my estimation.

I will here mention another mode of treating glass, which may occasionally be found worth communicating.

Ground glass is frequently employed for transmitting light into an apartment, whilst it effectually prevents persons on the outside from seeing into the room. Rough plate-glass is now in very common use for the same purpose. In both these circumstances there is a reciprocity, for those who are within such rooms cannot see external forms.

It may in some cases be desirable partially to remedy this difficulty. In my own case, I cut with my diamond a small disc of window-glass, about two inches in diameter, and cemented it with Canada balsam to the rough side of my rough plate-glass. I then suspended a circular piece of card by a thread, so as to cover the circular disc. When the Canada balsam is dry, it fills up all the little inequalities of the rough glass with a transparent substance, of nearly the same refracting power; consequently, on drawing aside the suspended card, the forms of external objects become tolerably well defined.

The smooth surface of the rough plate-glass, not being perfectly flat, produces a slight distortion, which might, if it were worth while, be cured by cementing another disc of glass upon that side. In case the ground glass itself happens to be plate-glass, the image of external objects is perfect.

Occasionially I met, in the course of my travels, with various things which, though not connected with my own pursuits, might yet be highly interesting to others. If the cost suited my purse, and the subject was easily carried, or the specimen of importance, I have in many instances purchased them. Such was the case with respect to that curious creature the proteus anguineus a creature living only in the waters of dark caverns, which has eyes, but the eylids cannot open.

When I visited the caves of Adelsburg, in Styria, I inquired whether any of these singular creatures could be procured. I purchased all I could get, being six in number. I conveyed them in large bottles full of river water, which I changed every night. During the greater part of their journey the bottles were placed in large leathern bags lashed to the barouche seat of my calash.

The first of these pets died at Vienna, and another at Prague. After three months, two only survived, and reached Berlin, where they also died—I fear from my servant having supplied them with water from a well instead of from a river.

At night they were usually placed in a large wash-hand basin of water, covered over with a napkin.

They were very excitable under the action of light. On several occasions when I have visited them at night with a candle, one or more have jumped out of their watery home.

These rare animals were matters of great interest to many naturalists whom I visited in my rambles, and procured for me several very agreeable acquaintances. When their gloomy lives terminated I preserved them in spirits, and sent the specimens to the collections of our own universities, to India, and some of our colonies.

When I was preparing materials for the 'Economy of Manufactures,' I had occasion to travel frequently through our manufacturing and mining districts. On these occasions I found the travellers' inn or the travellers' room was usually the best adapted to my purpose, both in regard to economy and to information. As my inquiries had a wide range, I found ample assistance in carrying them on. Nobody doubted that I was one of the craft; but opinions were widely different as to the department in which I practised my vocation.

In one of my tours I passed a very agreeable week at the Commercial Hotel at Sheffield. The society of the travellers' room is very fluctuating. Many of its frequenters arrive at night, have supper, breakfast early the next morning, and are off soon after: others make rather a longer stay. One evening we sat up after supper much later than is usual, discussing a variety of commercial subjects.

When I came down rather late to breakfast, I found only one of my acquaintance of the previous evening remaining. He remarked that we had had a very agreeable party last night, in which I cordially concurred. He referred to the intelligent remarks of some of the party in our discussion, and then added, that when I left them they began to talk about me. I merely observed that I felt myself quite safe in their hands, but should be glad to profit by their remarks. It appeared, when I retired for the night, they debated about what trade I travelled for. "The tall gentleman in the corner," said my informant, "maintained that you were in the hardware line; whilst the fat gentleman who sat next to you at supper was quite sure that you were in the spirit trade." Another of the party declared that they were both mistaken: he said he had met you before, and that you were travelling for a great iron-master. "Well," said I, "you, I presume, knew my vocation better than our friends."—"Yes," said my informant, "I knew perfectly well that you were in the Nottingham lace trade." The waiter now appeared with his bill, and announced that my friend's trap was at the door.

I had passed nearly a week at the Commercial Inn without having broken the eleventh commandment; but the next day I was doomed to be found out. A groom, in the gay livery of the Fitzwilliams, having fruitlessly searched for me at all the great hotels, at last in despair thought of inquiring for me at the Commercial Hotel. The landlady was sure I was not staying in her house; but, in deference to the groom's urgent request, went to make inquiries amongst her guests. I was the first person she questioned, and was, of course, obliged to admit the impeachment. The groom brought a very kind note from the late Lord Fitzwilliam, who had heard of my being in Sheffield, to invite me to spend a week at Wentworth.

I gladly availed myself of this invitation, and passed it very agreeably. During the few first days the party in the house consisted of the family only. Then followed three days of open house, when their friends came from great distances, even as far as sixty or eighty miles, and that at a period when railroads were unknown.

On the great day upwards of a hundred persons sat down to dinner, a large number of whom slept in the house. This was the first time the ancient custom of open house had been kept up at Wentworth since the death of the former Earl, the celebrated Whig Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire.

  1. The larger the piece of glass to be punched the more certainly the process succeeds.