Charles Dickens — man of science
He’s best known for his novels exposing the plight of the Victorian poor, yet Charles Dickens was also passionately engaged with the scientific advances of his day.
His weekly magazine, Household Words, for example, included numerous contributions from Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction. More recently, critics have cited Darwin’s theory of evolution as an influence on Bleak House.
Dickens also counted two pioneering British mathematicians, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, as friends, and all three are connected to a very special text that is now offered for private sale at Christie’s.
Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1793-1872), (Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) Mathematician, Daughter of Lord Byron, 1836. Government Art Collection. Photo: Ann Ronan/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence
The text is a rare offprint of Lovelace’s translation of an article about Babbage’s groundbreaking invention, the Analytical Engine, by the Italian scholar, Luigi Federico Menabrea.
What Lovelace wrote was much more than just a translation, however. It was a foundation text of modern computing.
When it was published in Scientific Memoirs in 1843, the publisher also gave Lovelace a handful of discrete copies in pamphlet form — and Lovelace duly gave one of these to Dickens.
From calculator to computer
In the mid-19th century, mathematical tables were used for a variety of purposes, from navigation to engineering. Such tables were, however, constructed by hand, a process that was both time-consuming and prone to error. It was in this context that Babbage conceived his Analytical Engine: a mechanical device, with a memory unit, that could perform arithmetical operations quickly and accurately.
Funding was hard to come by in the UK, however (perhaps unsurprisingly, given Babbage envisaged a hulking machine with thousands of cogwheels), so he promoted the idea abroad. In 1842, a seminar in Turin brought him into contact with Menabrea, who wrote a paper on Babbage’s invention.
For the previous few years, Babbage had been exchanging letters with a young mathematician called Ada Lovelace. He was so impressed by her intellect that he dubbed her ‘the enchantress of numbers’.
She, in turn, was sufficiently taken with the Analytical Engine to translate Menabrea’s article into English — adding so many original contributions of her own that her text came in at 20,000 words, compared to Menabrea’s 8,000.
‘While Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as a calculator, Lovelace saw it as the first step towards a programmable computer’
Indeed, according to James Essinger’s biography of Lovelace, A Female Genius, she showed a better grasp of the machine’s implications than either Menabrea or even Babbage himself. Which is to say, where they saw the Analytical Engine as a calculator, she saw it as the first step towards a programmable computer.
It could ‘do whatever we know how to order it to [do]’, she argued, suggesting it might be used for the playing of music or games.
‘Ada understood back in 1843 what a computer was,’ says Essinger. ‘She understood that the machine Babbage had invented could be used for anything. She intuited that linking the real world and abstract mathematics… opened up a whole new realm of science.’
The most famous section of Lovelace’s text is the appendix, Note G, where she set out a complex algorithm by which the machine might function. This is widely regarded today as the first ever computer program.
Alas, no Analytical Engine was ever built. ‘If it had, it would have revolutionised Victorian society,’ says Essinger. Lovelace’s insights were so far ahead of their time, they were lost for a century and only rediscovered in the 1940s, as the first working computers appeared.
The mathematician’s career was tragically short. She passed away in 1852, aged 36. When Dickens visited her on her death bed, she asked him to read the passage of Paul Dombey’s death from his novel, Dombey and Son.
As for his copy of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage... with notes by the translator, Dickens kept it in the library of his country home, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent.
For safekeeping, he had it bound in a volume with 18 other pamphlets on issues of interest to him, from penal reform to child welfare.
It is this volume that is currently being offered for sale — although there’s no doubt about its star document, which unites three great innovators: two in technology, one in literature……………