Charles Babbage, Humorist

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post

Babbage eyes

There are certain sections of Charles Babbage’s surveys of his life–Passages in the Life of a Philosopher, 1864–that are very unexpectedly, well, funny. I mean, there are stories told with a bald/dry sense of humor, a stony-faced delight, that I think are actually intentional. Perhaps I’m reading this all wrong–and if so someone will just have to correct me.  But rounding out long sections on the Difference Engines (1&2) and calculation and the future of  railroading and so on are long complaints regarding  the quirkiness of his day, as with the “destruction” of his time via a chapter named “street nuisances”, into which Babbage dives fairly deeply with some occasionally comic recountings of what pisses him off, which was frankly a lot. 

What most intrigues me in this interpretation is the possible found-comedic or intentionally-comedic running page titles.  These are the several word descriptions of what is on the page that floats centered and above the text at the head of each page, which was a common practice in the 19th century.  It is here where Babbage really soars with the eagles, and I prefer to believe that he and not an editor put together these mot juste–they seem cranky and irritating enough to have been somewhat carefully selected.  In any event, I recorded a number of them below, for your amusement:

  • 52 Eggs
  • Artificial Swedes
  • Weight of Nepotism
  • Game of Tit-Tat-Toe
  • Occulating Sun Signals
  • The Story of the Two Pumps
  • The author in Want of Cash
  • The Learned Ponder Dunder
  • Disturbed Vision
  • The True Use of Figures
  • Various Shakes and Smashes
  • Conversion of Attics into Cellars
  • Space Too Large for Itself (!!)
  • A Decent Waist Coat
  • Awful Crash
  • The Value of a Button
  • Winking Statues
  • Primitive Purity–It Won’t Do
  • Biscuits and Whisky
  • A Finite Machine May Make Unlimited Calculations
  • and so on

Many of these are pure clickbait–who could see “Conversion of Attics to Cellars” and not read on?  Science would demand you do so.  

In any event, the book is well worth a read, of course–I mean it is Charles Babbage, and he does discus some very interesting things with razor-sharpness. And I’m sorry somewhat for concentrating on the funny bits, but they were just so unexpected I thought I needed to haul them out and get them some sun. 

The full text via Internet archive:

By: JF Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *