Charles Babbage’s Brain; and some advice for autobiographists

Charles Babbage is a bit of a Bookkake hero – a scientific, rather than a literary one. Considered the “father of the computer” for his invention of the Difference Engine, an immense mechanical calculator, he also came up with the railway speedometer, the cowcatcher, the actuarial table, and hacked his carriage to include a folding bed and egg-cooking-device (thanks to Sydney Padua for that one).

Of more Bookkake-ish interest is this strange fact: Babbage died in 1871, and was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, but an autopsy was performed and his brain was preserved: and not only separate from his body, but in two halves. One hemisphere resides in London’s Science Museum, close to a replica of his original Engine, while the other sits a few miles away in a jar at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincolns Inn Fields (a place so wonderful and bizarre it deserves its own post). Hence what psychogeographers have been known to refer to as “The Babbage Triangle”:

In any case, our attention was recently drawn to the great man’s autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, which is available in its entirety on the Google (and as a downloadable PDF). It’s pretty terrific, and it opens with his eminently sensible musings on the delights and dangers of autobiography, citing ennui and the “the vampires of literature” as possible causes, and suggesting that all in all, it’s a pretty silly thing:

Some men write their lives to save themselves from ennui, careless of the amount they inflict on their readers.

Others write their personal history, lest some kind friend should survive them, and, in showing off his own talent, unwittingly show them up.

Others, again, write their own life from a different motive —from fear that the vampires of literature might make it their prey.

I have frequently had applications to write my life, both from my countrymen and from foreigners. Some caterers for the public offered to pay me for it. Others required that I should pay them for its insertion ; others offered to insert it without charge. One proposed to give me a quarter of a column gratis, and as many additional lines of eloge as I chose to write and pay for at ten-pence per line. To many of these I sent a list of my works, with the remark that they formed the best life of an author; but nobody cared to insert them.

I have no desire to write my own biography, as long as I have strength and means to do better work.

The remarkable circumstances attending those Calculating Machines, on which I have spent so large a portion of my life, make me wish to place on record some account of their past history. As, however, such a work would be utterly uninteresting to the greater part of my countrymen, I thought it might be rendered less unpalatable by relating some of my experience amongst various classes of society, widely differing from each other, in which I have occasionally mixed.

This volume does not aspire to the name of an autobiography. It relates a variety of isolated circumstances in which I have taken part—some of them arranged in the order of time, and others grouped together in separate chapters, from similarity of subject.

The selection has been made in some cases from the importance of the matter. In others, from the celebrity of the persons concerned; whilst several of them furnish interesting illustrations of human character.

1 Comment

  1. Hello from The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, a picture of Babbage’s grave is available on our web site.

    Go to http://www.kensalgreen.co.uk, select ‘monuments’ from the menu on the left hand side and then go to the section entitled: Science & Engineering.

    # by FoKGC, May 13, 2009

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