Saturday, August 2, 2008
Nonsense 101: Folied By Fuckin' Flautists! Fuck!
Don’t get me wrong: Charles Babbage was a very smart man.
He invented the cowcatcher.
He invented the heliograph opthalmoscope to examine the interior of the eyeball.
His liberal thoughts on the division of labour partly inspired Karl Marx to write Das Kapital.
Oh yeah ... and he almost invented the computer in the early 19th Century.
He lacked the proper tools and components – they were not yet invented – but one of his fully functional crunchin’ machines sits in the London Science Museum. In 1991, a buncha nerds following his diagrams built one capable of advanced logarithmic and trigonometric functions.
Nine years after his first schematics, Babbage also invented a printer for his machine. According to the same nerds -- and we have no reason to doubt them -- that would have worked as well.
So it may seem odd to call the grandfather of the modern computer one of history's all-time great fuck ups. It's just that his greatest claim to fame wasn't almost inventing a computer.
It was how much he really fucking hated organ grinders.
I can hear the outcry from the many, many mathemeticians who read this page.
'Go to hell - Charles Babbage was a genius!'
'Yes he was a genius -- a genius who was mocked and taunted in the streets because he really fucking hated organ grinders."
Okay ... he didn't hate just organ grinders – he hated street artists of all kinds. He calculated in the London Times that “25% of his working power had been destroyed “ by various buskers.
So Babbage took matters into his own hands. He would scream and chase these musical pests down the street. He would write letter upon letter to London newspapers. He would appeal to Parliament.
And it worked ... in theory.
Legislators passed ‘Babbage’s Act' in 1854 to outlaw the “street nuisances” that had Chuck working at 3/4 of his mental power. Unfortunately for Babbage, his Act wasn’t practical or enforceable. All it did was piss off organ grinders and the people who loved them.
According to J.A.N. Lee in his 1994 Babbage biography …
The public tormented him with an unending parade of fiddlers, Punch-and-Judys, stilt-walkers, fanatic psalmists, and tub-thumpers. Some neighbours hired musicians to play outside his windows. Others willfully annoyed him with worn-out or damaged wind instruments. Placards were hung in local shops, abusing him. During one 80-day period Babbage counted 165 nuisances. One brass band played for five hours, with only a brief intermission. Another blew a penny tin -whistle out his window toward Babbage's garden for a half an hour daily, for "many months".
Clearly, Babbage underestimated the common man’s love of grinding organs. Continues Lee:
When Babbage went out, children followed and cursed him. Adults followed, too, but at a distance. Over a hundred people once skulked behind him before he could find a constable to disperse them. Dead cats and other "offensive materials" were thrown at his house. Windows were broken. A man told him, "You deserve to have your house burnt up, and yourself in it, and I will do it for you, you old villain”.
In defense of Babbage, he may have been – and I’m no doctor – bat shit crazy. He once wrote a letter to the famed English poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem 'The Vision of Sin'.
"In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.
... If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."
I suspect Babbige had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
But Babbage was beating his head against the wall about how to build this unbuildable computer -- or Difference Engine, as he called it. He heard out-of-tune penny-whistles outside his window night and day. His government grants were withdrawn because he could not produce this computer and they suspected he was, well, ... bat shit crazy.
He did the only thing a man could do:
Conclude that people suck, twice run for Parliament unsuccessfully as a Whig, become a far-right conservative and then die in 1871, embittered and mocked by street musicians. According to Lee and the London Times:
Even when he was on his deathbed, the organ-grinders ground implacably away.
In 1890, Herman Hollerith, an American inventor, independently came up with the same idea. It was much bulkier and it did far less.
But it worked and, as much as history records, Hollerith was never mocked and taunted in the streets by organ grinders, mimes or puppet shows.