No one doubted that Charles Babbage was brilliant. Nor did anyone quite understand the nature of his genius, which remained out of focus for a long time. What did he hope to achieve? For that matter, what, exactly, was his vocation? On his death in London in 1871 the Times obituarist declared him “one of the most active and original of original thinkers” but seemed to feel he was best known for his long, cranky crusade against street musicians and organ-grinders. He might not have minded. He was multifarious and took pride in it. “He showed great desire to inquire into the causes of things that astonish childish minds”, said an American eulogist. “He eviscerated toys to ascertain their manner of working”. Babbage did not quite belong in his time, which called itself the Steam Age or the Machine Age. He did revel in the uses of steam and machinery and considered himself a thoroughly modern man, but he also pursued an assortment of hobbies and obsessions — cipher cracking, lock picking, lighthouses, tree rings, the post — whose logic became clearer a century later. Examining the economics of the mail, he pursued a counterintuitive insight, that the significant cost comes not from the physical transport of paper packets but from their “verification” — the calculation of distances and the collection of correct fees — and thus he invented the modern idea of standardized postal rates. He loved boating, by which he meant not “the manual labor of rowing but the more intellectual art of sailing”. He was a train buff. He devised a railroad recording device that used inking pens to trace curves on sheets of paper athousand feet long: a combination seismograph and speedometer, inscribing the history of a train’s velocity and all the bumps and shakes along the way.
As a young man, stopping at an inn in the north of England, he was amused to hear that his fellow travelers had been debating his trade:“The tall gentleman in the corner”, said my informant, “maintained you were in the hardware line; whilst the fat gentleman who sat next to you at supper was quite sure that you were in the spirit trade. Another of the party declared that they were both mistaken: he said you were travelling for a great iron-master.”
“Well”, said I, “you, I presume, knew my vocation better than our friends.”
“Yes”, said my informant, “I knew perfectly well that you were in the Nottingham lace trade.”