Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part 2: Babbage, Airy and financing the Difference Engine.

Charles Babbage first announced his concept for his first computer, the Difference Engine, in a Royal Astronomical Society paper, Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables in 1822.

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Engraving of Charles Babbage dated 1833 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He managed to convince the British Government that a mechanical calculator would be useful for producing numerical tables faster, cheaper and more accurately and in 1823 they advance Babbage £1700 to begin construction of a full scale machine. It took Babbage and his engineer, Joseph Clements, nine years to produce a small working model but costs had spiralled out of control and the government suspended payment at around £17,000, in those days a small fortune, in 1833.

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A portion of the difference engine. Woodcut after a drawing by Benjamin Herschel Babbage Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage and Clement had parted in dispute by this time. The next nine years saw Babbage negotiating with various government officials to try and get payment reinstated. Enter George Biddel Airy (1801–1892).

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George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Airy entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1819, graduating Senior Wrangler and Smith Prize man in 1823. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and Lucasian Professor of mathematics beating Babbage for the position in 1826. In 1828 he was elected Plumian Professor of astronomy and director of the new Cambridge Observatory. Babbage succeeded him as Lucasian Professor. Airy proved very competent and very efficient as the director of the observatory, which led to him being appointed Astronomer Royal at the Greenwich Observatory in 1835 and thus the leading state scientist and effectively the government scientific advisor. It was in this capacity that the paths of the two Cambridge mathematicians crossed once again[1].

In 1842 Henry Goulburn (1784–1856), Chancellor of the Exchequer in the cabinet of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was asked by Peel to gather information on Babbage’s Difference Engine project, which he would have liked to ditch, preferable yesterday rather than tomorrow. Goulburn turned to Airy as the countries leading scientific civil servant and also because the Royal Observatory was responsible for producing many of the mathematical tables, the productions of which the Difference Engine was supposed to facilitate. Could Airy offer an opinion on the utility of the proposed mechanical calculator? Airy could and it was anything but positive:

Mr Babbage made the approval of the machine a personal question. In consequence of this, I, and I believe other persons, have carefully abstained for several years from alluding to it in his presence. I think he lives in a sort of dream as to its utility.

An absurd notion has been spread abroad, that the machine was intended for all calculations of every kind. This is quite wrong. The machine is intended solely for calculations which can be made by addition and subtraction in a particular way. This excludes all ordinary calculation.

Scarcely a figure of the Nautical Almanac could be computed by it. Not a single figure of the Geenwich Observations or the great human Computations now going on could be computed by it. Indeed it was proposed only for the computation of new Tables (as Tables of Logarithms and the like), and even for these, the difficult part must be done by human computers. The necessity for such new tables does not occur, as I really believe, once in fifty years. I can therefore state without the least hesitation that I believe the machine to be useless, and that the sooner it is abandoned, the better it will be for all parties[2].

Airy’s opinion was devastating Peel acting on Goulburn’s advice abandoned the financing of the Difference Engine once and for all. Even the personal appeals of Babbage directly to Peel were unable to change this decision. Airy’s judgement was actually based on common sense and solid economic arguments. The tables computed by human computers were comparatively free of errors and nothing could be gained here by replacing their labour with a machine that would probably prove more expensive. Also setting up the machine to compute any particular set of tables would first require human computers to determine the initially values for the algorithms and to determine that the approximations delivered by the difference series remained within an acceptable tolerance range. Airy could really see no advantages in employing Babbage’s machine rather than his highly trained human computers. Also any human computers employed to work with the Difference Engine would, by necessity, also need first to be trained for the task.

Airy’s views on the utility or rather lack thereof of mechanical calculators was shared by the Swedish astronomer Nils Seelander (1804–1870) also used the same arguments against the use of mechanical calculators in 1844 as did Urbain Le Verrier (1811–1877) at the Paris Observatory.

Babbage was never one to take criticism or defeat lying down and in 1851 when the working model of the Difference Engine No. 1 was on display at the Great Exhibition he launched a vicious attack on Airy in his book The Exposition of 1851: Views of The Industry, The Science and The Government of England.

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Babbage was not a happy man. By 1851 Airy was firmly established as a leading European scientist and an exemplary public servant and could and did publically ignore Babbage’s diatribe. Privately he wrote a parody of the rhyme This is the House that Jack Built mocking Babbage’s efforts to realise his Difference Engine. Verse seven of This is the Engine that Charles Built reads as follows:

There are Treasury lords, slightly furnished with sense,

Who the wealth of the nation unfairly dispense:

They know but one man, in the Queen’s vast dominion,

Who in things scientific can give an opinion:

And when Babbage for funds for the Engine applied,

The called upon Airy, no doubt, to decide:

And doubtless adopted, in apathy slavish,

The hostile suggestions of enmity knavish:

The powers of official position abused,

And flatly all further advances refused.

For completing the Engine that Charles built.[3]

Today Charles Babbage is seen as a visionary in the history of computers and computing, George Airy very clearly did not share that vision but he was no Luddite opposing the progress of technology out of principle. His opposition to the financing of Babbage’s Difference Engine was based on sound mathematical and financial principles and delivered with well-considered arguments.

[1] The following account is based almost entirely on Doran D. Swade’s excellent paper, George Biddell Airy, Greenwich and the Utility of Calculating Engines in Mathematics at the Meridian: The History of Mathematics at Greenwich, de. Raymond Flood, Tony Mann & Mary Croarken, CRC Press, Boca Raton, London New York, 2019 pp. 63–81. A review of the entire, excellent volume will follow some time next year.

[2] All three quotes are from Airy’s letter to Goulburn 16 September 1842 RGO6–427, f. 65. Emphasis original. Quoted by Swade p. 69.

[3] Swade p. 74 The whole poem can be read in Appendix I of Doran David Swade, Calculation and Tabulation in the Nineteenth Century: Airy versus Babbage, Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD, University College London, 2003, which of course deals with the whole story in great depth and detail and is available here on the Internet.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Computing, History of Mathematics, History of science

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