Book excerpt from The Philosophical Breakfast Club

In Chapter 8, “A Divine Programmer,” author Laura J. Snyder explains how Darwin’s own ideas on evolution may have been influenced at lavish parties hosted by one of the club’s members, Charles Babbage.

By | May 31, 2011

Broadway Books, 2011" > Broadway Books, 2011


On Monday, February 27, 1837, Charles Darwin delivered a talk at a meeting of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline that night with news of his success, happily reporting that two of the original founders of the society, Whewell and Sedgwick, had taken an active part in the discussion afterwards. Whewell, then president of the Geological Society, was so impressed that, less than two weeks later, he invited Darwin to serve as the organization’s secretary. The paper described one of Darwin’s discoveries during his recent voyage on the HMS Beagle: fused sand tubes found near the Rio Plata in South America. These tubes, formed when lightning struck loose sand, were useful, Darwin believed, in discovering how lightning enters the ground during an electrical storm. As he pointed out in his Voyage of the Beagle, published the following year, this area of South America was extremely subject to “electric phenomena.” In 1793, nearby Buenos Aires experienced lightning strikes at thirty-seven locations during a single storm, in which nineteen people were killed.

Although he was enjoying his visit to Cambridge, where he had taken his degree six years earlier, Darwin informed his sister that Charles Lyell was insisting he hurry on up to London. He “wants me to be up on Saturday for a party at Mr. Babbage,” Darwin halfheartedly complained. “Lyell says Babbage’s parties are the best in the way of literary people in London—and that there is a good mixture of pretty women!”

Lyell was right on both counts. The most sought-after invitations during the London social season in the 1830s were to the Saturday evening soirées hosted by Babbage and his beloved teenaged daughter, Georgiana. This was a brief bright spot in Babbage’s life; like the happiness of his early married life, this moment, too, was interrupted by tragedy. Georgiana would die in September 1834, at the age of only seventeen. That fall and winter, London was struck by an epidemic of scarlatina (also known as “scarlet fever”), which strikes mainly young adults under age twenty-two. Before antibiotics, this infection of the streptococcus bacteria, which also causes “strep throat,” could be quite dangerous; nearly one thousand were killed by it in 1834–35. At the first signs of illness, Georgiana was whisked to her aunt and uncle’s house in Worcester, the same place where her mother had died seven years earlier. Georgiana—Babbage’s only daughter, and one of only four living children at that point—was soon dead as well. In a letter from the Cape, Herschel commiserated with his friend on the “calamity.” It was, Herschel groaned, “the first occurrence which has reminded me horrifically of our distance from home.” Had he been in London, Herschel felt, he could at least have eased Babbage’s pain a bit by helping to “distract his thoughts.”

Instead, Babbage distracted himself by slowly resuming his entertaining, on an even grander scale. Several times a month, between two and three hundred men and women would gather at Babbage’s house on Dorset Street. In swallowtail jackets for the men and full-skirted ball gowns of brocade, organdy, or damask for the women, the elite of London’s society would join with scientists, literary eminences, bishops, bankers, politicians, industrialists, actors, authors, artists, and civil dignitaries from England and abroad for an evening of dancing, drinking, eating, gossiping, and demonstrations of the latest in science, literature, philosophy, and art.

Babbage’s parties brought together levels of society usually socially segregated. Female members of the titled aristocracy played whist with the wives of experimenters and fossil hunters, while on the dance floor the attractive young daughters of noblemen whirled with the unmarried scientists. Lyell told Herschel that “[Babbage] has done good, and acquired influence for science by his parties, and the manner in which he has firmly and successfully asserted the rank in society due to science.”

The evenings were always a success. Even the dour, mostly deaf social reformer and writer (and onetime flame of Darwin’s brother Erasmus) Harriet Martineau said, of Babbage, that “all were eager to go to his glorious soirees.” Darwin would later ask Babbage if he could bring his sister to one of the evenings, so that “she may see the World.”

At one party alone, on May 26, 1838, a bedazzled guest reported that the ensemble included Henry Hallam, the famous English historian and father of the doomed “A.H.H.” of Tennyson’s In Memoriam; the Reverend Henry Hart Milman, another historian and Rector of St. Margaret’s in London, son of the former physician to King George III (who came with his “pretty wife”); the bishops of Hereford and Norwich; Herschel “and his beautiful wife” (just eleven days after returning from Africa); Sedgwick; Mary Somerville, the Scottish science writer and polymath, whose clear and clever popularized translation of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste had both amazed and instructed the mathematical astronomers in England; Nassau Senior, the political economist and member of the Poor Law Commission that had formulated the New Poor Law of 1834; Sir Francis Chantrey, one of the most important sculptors of the day; and not one but two lady novelists: the Scottish Jane Porter, tall and lovely, who had written what is considered the first historical novel, her Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803); and the Irish Lady Morgan, said to have been less than four feet tall. (Lady Morgan’s 1835 book The Princess, which painted an idealized portrait of the education of women, was probably the inspiration for Tennyson’s later poem by that name, which poked fun at women who believed they were “undevelopt men,” concluding, against the more inflammatory rhetoric of Morgan, that “the woman’s cause is man’s; they rise or sink Together.” In Tennyson’s poem, “Princess Ida” is six feet tall, a likely parody of Lady Morgan’s small size.) At another memorable gathering, Alexis de Tocqueville met fellow liberal political thinker Camillo Benso, the Conte di Cavour, who would become a key figure in the unification of Italy, serving as its first prime minister in 1861.

To provide sustenance for the long night ahead, a table would be laid with punch, cordials, wine, and Madeira; tarts; fruits both fresh and dried; nuts, cakes, cookies, and finger sandwiches. The grandest repasts would include oysters, salads, croquettes, cold salmon, and various fowls. There would always be ices to refresh the ladies; although off-the-shoulder dresses with very short sleeves had come into style, the ladies were still warm in their corsets, long, deeply flounced skirts, and gloves that reached to just below the elbow.

Between sets of dancing, there were usually some amusements of a literary, artistic, or scientific bent. An author might read from his new work. The ladies might put together a tableau vivant, in which they would re-create a famous painting on stage, complete with costumes and scenery. An electrical researcher might demonstrate electromagnetic induction, by waving a magnetic loop over a battery pile and causing a sputtering electrical current. An astronomer might set up a small telescope on the front lawn and show guests the Milky Way, sparking discussion of whether the nebulous cloud was really nothing more than millions of distant stars, or a gaseous “ether” pervading the universe. At some of these parties, art and science came together, as when Babbage displayed examples of his friend William Henry Fox Talbot’s early photographs on a chiffonier in the hallway. And there was the “Silver Lady,” the mechanical dancer from Babbage’s youth, recently bought on auction, dressed in clothes made by Babbage himself—down to the silver spangle affixed to each of her little shoes—and crowned with a lock of his daughter’s auburn hair.

But by far the most eagerly anticipated of Babbage’s entertainments at his soirées were the demonstrations of his Difference Engine. In 1832 Babbage had instructed Clement to put together a small working model of the engine in order to convince the skeptical that his larger invention would work. This demonstration model was two and a half feet high, two feet wide, and two feet deep, about one seventh of the whole intended machine, with a crank handle on top rather than on the side, as it would have been in the full-sized Difference Engine. (It can be seen today at the Science Museum in London, and still calculates flawlessly.) Made of bronze and steel, the engine has three columns, each with six figure wheels; it can calculate equations with up to two orders of difference, and results up to six digits long.

At the end of 1832 Babbage fitted to the machine a “feedback mechanism” that physically connected two of the gear wheels. Babbage soon used this device to entertain his guests in a most amazing way.

Before the guests arrived, we can imagine, Babbage would set up the machine to calculate a function, such as that which counts the natural numbers from 1 to 100. The results column would be set to zero, the first order of difference column would be set to 1, and the second order of difference set to zero. However, the first order of difference column would be connected to the second digit wheel of the results column, so that when the results column read 99, and was turning to 100, the first order of difference column would be turned as well, changing the function being calculated. Instead of adding one to the results column on each crank of the handle, the Difference Engine would begin to add two.

During one of the breaks in the dancing, Babbage would invite his guests to join him in the drawing room, filled with its gleaming wood sideboards and finely upholstered settees, and rows of chairs arranged for the purpose of this demonstration. The Difference Engine was at the front of the room on a walnut stand. The fashionably dressed men and women would seat themselves before it in excited expectation. Babbage would begin with a brief discussion of the workings of the engine, noting that it could calculate any polynomial function set into the machine, and would do so automatically with the turn of the crank handle. He would invite the ladies in the front of the room to note the figure wheels in the results column—they were all turned to zero, the ladies assented. Then Babbage would begin to crank the handle. As he cranked, he continued to speak, pointing out the results: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. He spoke of the need for his Difference Engine, the great errors that lurked in all printed tables, as he continued to crank the handle: 20, 21, 22, 23. He noted the number of parts needed for creating the machine, the incredibly refined techniques of precision manufacturing required to make so many identical pieces: 35, 36, 37, 38, 39. He described the trials and tribulations of seeking funding from the government for his invention: 58, 59, 60, 61, 62. And he intimated quite clearly that his engine would change the world: 81, 82, 83, 84, 85.

Babbage pulled a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and mopped his sweating brow, continuing to turn the handle. He directed the ladies in the front row to pay close attention to the figure wheels. He nodded to one pretty young woman and asked her to read the numbers as they continued to appear: 91, 92, 93, 94, 95. Babbage raised his voice slightly and asked for everyone’s complete attention, as the young woman continued to count off the results: 96, 97, 98, 99, 100. Babbage stared portentously at the crowd, his sharp face and hooded eyes giving him the look of a tortoise, and turned the handle one more time: 102. The lady reading the numbers could scarcely believe it, and the rest of the crowd murmured, craning their heads to get a closer look. And the next number: 104. And the next, 106.

Babbage finally stopped turning the handle, and looked up at the silent crowd. What you just witnessed seemed almost miraculous, did it not? he asked them. It seemed like the machine would just keep counting by one for an eternity. And yet this was not what occurred. The machine suddenly changed its course and began to calculate by a new rule.

Is this not what we feel when we look at nature, and see wondrous and inexplicable events, such as new species arising as others die off? Babbage inquired. Is this not typically explained by supposing that God, our creator, our inventor if you will, has intervened in the world causing this event, outside of the natural order of things? Is this not exactly what we call a “miracle”?

The crowd paid rapt attention to their host. They were not expecting a sermon; some tried to get into the properly sober frame of mind for one. Others looked nervously around, wondering if they would be very visible trying to leave the room. But Babbage shocked everyone with what he said next.

As you saw, I, the inventor of the machine, did not have to intervene in its workings to bring about this change in the calculating function. Rather, with my foresight, I impressed upon the machine a rule that caused it, when the results reached 100, to change the law upon which it calculated. In like manner does God impress His creation with laws, laws that have built into them future alterations in their patterns. God’s omnipotence entails that He can foretell what causes will be needed to bring about the effects He desires; God does not need to intervene each and every time some new cause is required. To think this is to burden God with our own infirmities, the limitations of our own nature. Miracles are not cases of intercession of God outside the normal laws governing the physical world. God, the creator of these laws, has built into them the changes necessary to bring about his purposes. God, then, is like the inventor of a complex, powerful calculating engine. (And—though Babbage may have restrained himself from pointing this out—as the inventor of the calculating machine before them, he was a bit godlike himself!) The crowd, delighted, burst into applause, and then dispersed for refreshments and more dancing.

As his audiences realized, Babbage was portraying God in a most unconventional manner. On this view God was not a mechanic, constantly tinkering with his invention, but a divine programmer, who had preset his Creation to run according to natural law, requiring no further intervention. By explicitly linking this image of God with the origin of new species, Babbage was characteristically jumping headfirst into controversy. In the preceding decades geologists and amateur fossil hunters had been digging up clear evidence that new species had emerged at various times in the history of the earth. Were these new species created by an act of God, intervening outside of natural law—by a new “miracle” each and every time? Or—and few people would seriously consider this—could they have emerged through some sort of purely natural process, perhaps even by a kind of “transmutation” from the older species?

Babbage was provocatively coming down on the side of a purely natural process, even if it was one started off by a divine programmer. With this original—and, in most circles, heretical—view of God, Babbage would lead the way in pointing toward a new view of the relation between science and religion, one in which religion and science could coexist without religion being given the upper hand. This view would soon come to dominate the scientific world. And he very likely planted a seed in the mind of one of his audience members, Charles Darwin, who at that moment was trying to reconcile his belief in God with his growing suspicion that species were not “fixed,” that they in fact changed over time into new species. Darwin, too, would soon come to see God as a kind of divine programmer, setting his creation in advance with the conditions for the origin of new species.

Babbage’s public demonstrations of his view of God’s “miracles” had been sparked by an argument he was having with Whewell about God’s role in the natural world, a dispute from which their friendship—and, indeed, the unity of the Philosophical Breakfast Club—would never entirely recover.

Excerpted from The Philosophical Breakfast Club. Copyright @ 2011 by Laura J. Snyder. Reprinted by Permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.



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