Today, Charles Babbage writes a letter to Alfred
Lord Tennyson. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
The English mathematician
Babbage, who conceived programmable
computation, wrote to the young poet Tennyson. "In
your otherwise beautiful poem," he said, "one verse
Every moment dies a man," ... If this were true," he went on,
"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 [that the
next edition of your poem should read]:"
Every moment one is born.
Every moment dies a man,"Strictly speaking," Babbage added, "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."
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Babbage is obviously pulling Tennyson's leg. But
his jab brings to light the peculiar good-humored
relation between early-19th-century science and the
new force of Romantic Poetry.
Tennyson turns up again in an 1844 letter from
Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning. Someone has
criticized Tennyson's poetry, and Barrett is
annoyed. She says,
That such a poet should submit blindly to the
suggestions of his critics is ... as if Babbage
were to take my opinion & undo his calculating
machine by it.
So Barrett and Browning were as aware of
Babbage's work as he was of contemporary poetry. Of
course I strongly doubt that Barrett ever knew
Babbage had called on Tennyson to weave Malthusian
population dynamics into his poetry.
Today we look back at Babbage and imagine a lonely
genius, unknown in his time. That's a laugh. Not
only was he at the center of English intellectual
life, but his work on a seemingly intelligent
machine touched nerves in those circles. It's no
accident that his chief public spokesman was
Byron, daughter of the poet Lord Byron.
That may seem an odd alliance, but
early-19th-century poets had formed a new vision of
the mind's capacity. "We create nature by dreaming
nature," they said. Babbage's computer -- his
man-made mind -- was in perfect resonance with that
Of course we couldn't fulfill the vision until
after we had the transistor. The vision had to wait
until the 1960s. By then science had built itself a
house apart from poets. Still, that cool blue
screen is there on your desk just because science
and poetry fed upon each other 170 years ago.
So you mind-meld with your PC -- that flickering
second self. Well, that subtle and complex little
box traces straight back to the early-19th-century
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hyman, A., Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the
Computer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Bernstein, J., The Analytical Engines:
Computers, Past, Present, and Future. New
York: Random House, 1964.
From Poems of Imagination and
Alfred Lord Tennyson
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |