Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Babbage's Other Woman

An enormous amount has been written about Ada Lovelace and almost nothing about another woman with whom Charles Babbage corresponded frequently: Countess Teleki.

Countess Teleki was born Jane Frances Bickersteth in Britain in 1836 and married the Hungarian/Romanian Count Alexander Teleki in 1857. She corresponded with Babbage frequently concerning the Analytical Engine writing in 1862:

The more I think of it, the more I am distressed at your thinking it possible that you should give up the Analytical Engine. To strangle an idea and a great invention after so much pains to bring it to perfection, appears to me a kind of moral murder, and an inquiry to the whole human race, which it cannot be right to inflict... It is certain that you, and you only, are capable of completing the Analytical Engine, which if you abandon it, must perhaps remain unrealized for ages, and great though it be to conceive an idea hundreds of years in advance of one's kind, it surely is greater, by realizing that idea, to make the human race, in one generation, outstrip the progress of many.

Babbage replied: "I find no flaw in your reasoning about the Analytical Engine; I admire it; but you are aware that it rests entirely on the hypothesis that I care for the 'whole human race'".

Babbage was continually refining plans for the Analytical Engine (up to his death) and the Countess attempted to persuade him to actually build it writing in 1863:

I am very glad to hear your progress has been so satisfactory, and I hope that as you have now arrived at the ultima Thule of simplicity you will now really make the engine without searching further improvements. Don't forget the proverb I have often already quoted to you: le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

The Countess' quotation from Voltaire would be translated into English as "The better is the enemy of the good."

All three of the women important in Babbage's life (if I exclude his mother who was very supportive of her son) preceded him to the grave. His wife, Georgiana died age 31, Ada Lovelace died aged 36 and Countess Teleki died a year before Babbage aged 34. It's sobering to think of the stunning rate of death associated with childbirth in the 1800s.

More about the Countess and Babbage can be found in Bruce Collier's excellent thesis on Babbage. He concludes his thesis writing:

In final conclusion, if one were to draw a moral from the history of Charles Babbage and his calculating machines, it would have to be that while there is certainly truth in Countess Teleki's maxim: "The Best is the enemy of Good", it is also true, as illustrated by Babbage's life and work, that "The Satisfactory is the enemy of the Marvellous".


David Cotton said...

I am fascinated by a lesser-known connection of Babbage's: that with Joseph Whitworth. Whitworth worked in Clement's workshop during the aborted manufacture of the Difference Engine; he later made a fortune out of machines that allowed standardised engineering, for instance the Whitworth standard for threads. Before Whitworth, every town (and sometimes every blacksmith) had different styles of threads.

That situation could not last through the industrial revolution. Whitworth not only developed a standard, but also the machines to make threads to that standard.

There is an obvious connection between standardised threads, precision machine tools and the work required to construct the Difference Engine. I sometimes wonder if Whitworth got his ideas on standardisation whilst working for Clement. If so, then Whitworth's inventions were debatably the biggest legacy of Babbage's work...

John Graham-Cumming said...

David. There's definitely a connection. Even Babbage was aware that what he done in forcing the manufacture of these precision parts was very important. He actually tried to use this as leverage to get Government money warning that if a foreign power built a Difference Engine they would gain the knowledge of the manufacturing techniques which Babbage considered important to the country.

He wrote in a letter: "I have frequently heard at different times from men I had employed in former years that amongst their own class it was frequently said that: Mr. Babbage made Clement, Clement made Whiteworth, Whitworth made the tools."

I suggest reading Collier's thesis (which Babbage and Clement with reference to Whitworth) and IIRC Swade's book also talks about this connection.

David Cotton said...

I must admit that I haven't read Collier's thesis (although I will now); I read about the inferred connection in a book many years ago (possibly one of Smiles').

Whitworth has been a hero of mine for some time. His inventions seem so obvious and simple - rustic even - nowadays. For that reason, I would like to see the quotation from Babbage as being self-serving. The railways' requirements alone meant that the idea of standardisation was of the time.

Yet this is to take nothing away from Babbage. He was an amazing and fascinating character, displaying some of the same characteristics of the most brilliant software engineers I have known.

Perhaps it is best to say that Babbage was far ahead of his time, whilst Whitworth was of his time. This could be why Whitworth made a fortune whilst Babbage did not. ;-)

I am intrigued by the idea of constructing an analytical engine. Unfortunately I have few skills that could be contributed except goodwill.

One small thought, which might be totally inapplicable - it strikes me that a similar engineering project was the construction of the A1 Tornado steam locomotive. It involved finding and deciphering old plans, digitising them, and finally the construction, all on a small budget, and with much of the work being done by volunteers. They were also told that it was an impossible project. Are there any lessons that could be learnt from the way they did things? As I said, I am probably way off target.