A Christmas Trinity II: Charlie, Ivor, Robert and me.

Charles Babbage, who was born on 26th December 17911, is famous as a pioneer in the history of the computer, a fame that is to some extent exaggerated as his work, although spectacular (his analytical engine was a full von Neumann machine more than a century before von Neumann became famous for defining the same), had no real influence on the later actual development of the computer, the later inventors only becoming aware of Babbage’s work after the fact.

However Babbage is significant in the history of science and technology not only for his calculating engines. He was for a number of years the holder of the Lucasian Chair for mathematics at Cambridge, whose current holder is Michael Green the string theorist and whose previous occupants include Stephan Hawking the cosmologist, the physicists Paul Dirac and Gabriel Stokes, the astronomer and optical physicist George Biddell Airy (a friend of Babbage), its original occupant Isaac Barrow and his successor Isaac Newton. Babbage was also instrumental in the founding of a number of scientific societies most notably the Royal Astronomical Society and the British Society for the Advancement of Science.

As well as working on his calculating engines he worked as a scientific advisor to governments and rulers throughout Europe and distinguished himself as an inventor. One Internet site has the following list of his inventions, “the dynamometer, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, heliograph ophthalmoscope. He also had an interest in cyphers and lock-picking.” For me the most fascinating fact is that he also invented that essential stage prop of Hollywood westerns the cowcatcher! This was actually conceived to push aside small obstacles on the tracks and not cows!

Over the years Babbage has gained a reputation as an English eccentric based largely on his own autobiography Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864) and in particular for the often-quoted chapter XXVI therein Street nuisances, which he even published as a separate pamphlet. Here Babbage complains bitterly about the noise pollution produced by street musicians and street criers, to quote just one such passage:

It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances.

He is here complaining the he and others like him are unable to work because of the noise produced by street musicians. Such passages and others like them from this chapter are quoted as evidence that Babbage was at best an eccentric and at worst a loony. I beg to differ.

Another noted British eccentric of more recent vintage was the Scottish poet, musician, storyteller and educationalist Ivor Cutler whose quirky humour and fascinating ditties enriched my childhood and my youth. I still own and love his wonderful LP Ludo. Cutler was much loved by John Peel and played a role in the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film. He is said to be probably the only artist to have loyal audiences on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. Cutler was notorious for his many eccentricities and in particular for his passionate support of the Noise Abatement Society. He would ask to see the manager in cafes and bars with background music and complain that the sound was hurting his sensitive ears. He always won and got the offending sound system turned off. In supermarkets with music systems he would also summon the manager and complain that he was unable to think about what he wished to purchase because of the intruding noise of the background music.

Robert Fripp legendary guitarist of King Crimson is another Englishman who has been labelled an eccentric. A man whose scorching lead solos have graced no only his own music but also such classics as Bowie’s Heroes or the new Grinderman single defies the etiquette for rock lead guitarists and plays sitting down. In a business whose public image in defined by the catchphrase “sex and drugs and rock and roll” Fripp is an abstinent intellectual who read the Financial Times and pontificates on the morals of the music business. Fripp writes a very entertaining Internet road diary and here he comments sarcastically on the Noise Pollution Units (music systems) at the breakfast troughs in the hotels where he stays whilst underway. He has taken to carrying his so-called noisebusters, an ipod loaded with suitable classical music of his own choosing.

I too have a local reputation as an English eccentric, an aging English hippie living in Franconia who is accompanied everywhere by a large shaggy mongrel dog. I too like my fellow British eccentrics intensely dislike being barraged by other people’s choice of music in bars, cafes, restaurants, shops, on the streets and even today in medical practices. I love music and even call myself a music junkie. I spent a large part of my life earning my living as a concert promoter, concert manager and live concert sound technician. I have an obscenely large record collection (an expression that dates me especially considering the fact that the majority of the music I own is now actually on CD). My favourite occupation is listening to music both live and recorded but I want to listen to the music of my choice in a space conceived for intensive listening. I do not want to be forced to listen to somebody else’s choice of music when I’m drinking a coffee, buying my groceries, having dental surgery (I once got very dirty looks in a dental clinic when I requested that they turn off the aural pollution) or just simply strolling down the street.

Today, Green politicians are very active about environmental pollution and astronomers about light pollution I think more people should take an active stand with Charlie, Ivor Robert and me on noise pollution!

1) This should have been posted yesterday but real life intervened.

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8 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical, History of Computing

8 responses to “A Christmas Trinity II: Charlie, Ivor, Robert and me.

  1. clearly, you are as mad as the other englishmen you mention.

  2. Pingback: Three for the price of one | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Good to see Ivor Cutler get a mention. My other (rather frivolous) website was named after my favourite Cutler piece: http://gruts.com

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