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Babbage, the Analytical Engine and the Turin Academy of Sciences

  • Marco Segala
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 233)

Abstract

Called a “pioneer of the computer,” Charles Babbage (1792–1871) is a prominent figure in the history of mathematics, engineering technology and statistical economics. His fame is connected with his attempt to build two kinds of calculating machines: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. As Babbage repeatedly stressed, the purpose of these machines was not simple calculation, but computation and printing without the errors of most mathematical and numerical tables. That meant offering a highly reliable instrument to pure and (this was an important argument) applied sciences. Mathematicians and astronomers could obtain logarithmic, trigonometric and astronomic tables. Shipping merchants and the insurance companies could acquire nautical and life assurance tables. Babbage was conscious of the unlimited possibilities offered by his machine: “as soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of science.”2 In this sense he was really the “pioneer of the computer.”

Keywords

Difference Engine British Association Analytical Engine Foreign Fellow Italian Scientist 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Atti della seconda riunione degli scienziati italiani tenuta in Torino nel settembre del 1840 (Torino: Tip. Cassone e Marzorati, 1841), p. 47: “The distinguished Mr. Babbage of London, come to shed lustre on our Assembly, frequently gathered at his residence many members of our Section, demonstrating many products of his fertile intellect. Among them he described the project of a very ingenious machine for performing both numerical and algebraic calculations. If such a machine could be built, it would certainly be an enormous advantage to Society.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (London: Longman-Green, 1864), p. 137.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On the projected reform and the role of the 1830 book, see Anthony Hyman, Charles Babbage. Pioneer of the Computer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 88102.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cited in Doron Swade, Charles Babbage and his calculating engines (London: Science Museum, 1991), p. 26.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Hyman, op. cit. (3), p. 181: “in 1840… Babbage did feel ready, and accepted an invitation from Plana to present the Analytical Engine before the assembled philosophers of Italy.” But Babbage did not speak of his project at the Meeting of Italian scientists.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Luigi Federigo Menabrea di Valdora, “Notions sur la machine analytique de M. Charles Babbage,” Bibliothèque universelle, 41 (1842), 352–376.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Babbage, Passages, op. cit. (2), pp. 135–136.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Babbage, Passages, op. cit. (2), p. 430: “in 1827 I visited Italy, and during my residence at Florence had many opportunities of observing the strong feeling of the reigning Grand Duke Leopold II, not only for the fine arts, but for the progress of science, and for its application to the advancement of the arts of life.”Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See Hyman, op. cit. (3), pp. 67–72. His first time in Italy was in summer 1821 (see Hyman, op. cit. (3), pp. 60–61) but there is no indication of more than a touristic interest.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See appendix V (pp. 123–125) in L. Bulferetti, “Un amico di Charles Babbage: Fortunato Prandi,” Memorie dell’Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere. Classe di lettere, XXX (1968), 82–165. A second publication of the manuscript, seemingly without Bulferetti’s knowledge, was by Giuliano Pancaldi, “Nuove fonti per la storia dei congressi. Scritti inediti di Charles Babbage, Carlo Luciano Bonaparte e Lorenz Oken,” in G. Pancaldi, ed. I congressi degli scienziati italiani nell’età del positivismo, (Bologna: CLUEB, 1983), pp. 181–201 (see pp. 184–187).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Babbage, Esquisse d’un projet pour la formation d’une Académie Européenne pour l’avancement des sciences physiques, Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Segreteria di gabinetto, Appendice n. 69/3, 9. The quotation is from Bulferetti, op. cit. (10), p. 123.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Babbage, Esquisse d’un projet pour la formation d’une Académie Eurpéenne pour l’advancement des sciences physique. The quotation is from Bulferetti, op. cit. (10), p. 124.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Amongst his contributions (mathematical analysis, mathematical physics, astronomy, geodesy), his masterwork was Théorie du mouvement de la Lune, (Turin: Imprimérie Royale), 1832, the solution of the lunar movement problem based only on the law of universal gravity.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Plana II 13, n. 12, sheets 5–6. The handwriting is not Babbage’s and the document does not bear a date or Babbage’s signature. It is a French translation — not by Plana: it is not his handwriting. Its content suggests a date around the end of 1834 and the beginning of 1835 (see sheet 1: “la prémière machine je l’avais commencée il y a environ 14 ans”).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    I thank Massimo Mazzotti for having discussed with me this aspect of the history of mathematics.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Babbage, Passages, op. cit. (2), p. 129. Babbage had appreciated Plana’s metaphor so much, that he had already quoted it in a letter of 24 March 1841 to Angelo Sismonda (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22341).Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    See Pancaldi, “Nuove fonti per la storia dei congressi,” op. cit. (10), pp. 181–182.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    Babbage, Passages, op. cit. (2), p. 128. Description of the machine covers 7 sheets of 8 of the letter: Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Plana II 13, n. 12, sheets 2–8.Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Plana II 13, n. 12, sheets 8 and 1.Google Scholar
  20. 22.
    Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Plana H 13, n. 11 and n. 10.Google Scholar
  21. 23.
    Baruffi’s meeting with Babbage was narrated by himself in Pellegrinazioni autunnali ed opuscoli (Torino: Cassone e Marzorati, 1840), pp. 279–280, and recalled by Plana’s biography: Albert Maquet, L’astronome royal de Turin Giovanni Plana (1781–1864). Un homme, une carrière,un destin (Bruxelles: Palais des Académies, 1965), p. 161.Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Plana II 13, n. 14.Google Scholar
  23. 25.
    It is worth mentioning that Babbage declined the invitation of the Grand Duke of Tuscany to be present at the first meeting of Italian scientists, held at Pisa in 1839. He was one of the promoters of the historical event, but he did not participate. Was his decision perhaps connected with Plana’s absence from Pisa?Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    Babbage did not speak at the Meeting. On 29 September 1840 Menabrea described Babbage’s idea for collecting in a book all the “constants of nature.” The Proceedings of the Meeting mention that Babbage met privately some of the Italian scientists to discuss the Analytical Engine (Atti della seconda riunione degli scienziati italiani tenuta in Torino nel settembre del 1840, Torino, op. cit. (1), pp. 46–47). It is also worth mentioning that he did not attend any other meeting of the Italian scientists. He definitely went to Turin to meet Plana and his scholars.Google Scholar
  25. 28.
    His election as “socio corrispondente” was proposed by Plana, Sismonda and Menabrea (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, Cat. III, Adunanze di Classe e Verbali, Classe I, Mazzo 22, p. 35).Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 24 March 1841 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22341–22342). Hyman, op. cit. (3), p. 185 quotes part of this same letter (from the manuscript kept at the British Library: the text is slightly different). It is the only passage where he admits that Babbage went to Turin not to give but rather to obtain support.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 24 March 1841 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22342).Google Scholar
  28. 31.
    The only official record of Babbage’s visit is in the minutes of the 22 November 1840 session at the Academy of Sciences: Plana read a letter informing them that Babbage had made the Academy a present of drawings and a wood model of the Analytical Engine (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, Cat. III, Adunanze di Classe e Verbali, Classe I, Mazzo 42, p. 227).Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 1 December 1840 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22339).Google Scholar
  30. 34.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 1 December 1840 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22339–22340).Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 24 March 1841 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22342).Google Scholar
  32. 36.
    In Reflections on the decline of science in England and on some of its causes, (London, 1830) he denounced the lack of values in English science: it was a strong attack on the scientific establishment which contributed to Babbage’s isolation in England.Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    Babbage to Sismonda, 1 December 1840 (Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Archivio, cart. 22339).Google Scholar
  34. 38.
    The argument is intriguing and is the plot of a novel: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (New York: Bantam Dell, 1991).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marco Segala
    • 1
  1. 1.Università degli Studi di L’AquilaItaly

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