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Harper's Weekly 06/07/1873


Mr. Babbage, the inventor of the calculating
machine, deemed it possible to obtain an exact
record of the succession of hot and cold years for
long periods in by-gone ages. His plan was as
follows: Among the stumps of trees in some an-
cient forests, he proposed to select one in which
both the number and the size of the rings that
have been annually produced were clearly marked.
He would write down the succession of hot and
cool summers as marked in this tree, assuming
that the larger the ring in each case, the hotter
has been the summer. He then proposed to
examine other trees of about the same date, until
he found some which recorded a series of hot and
cold seasons exactly similar to that which he had
already noted down, and until the series extend-
ed far enough for him to be sure that the resem-
blance was not accidental, but that he had before
him a natural register of the same seasons which
had been recorded in the first tree. As some of
these trees would be somewhat older than the
first tree, while others would have survived it, he
considered that it would be possible, so to say,
to piece out the information obtained from one
tree by means of the others; and that, after ex-
amining a great number of trees, his record of
warm and cold seasons might be extended at
both ends almost indefinitely.

Mr. Babbage believes that calculating machines
could not merely work out sums, but even that
they might be so constructed as to perform the
most complex processes of mathematics. He
went so far as to say that they might give the
proofs of mathematical theorems. Without ex-
pressing any personal opinion on this last point,
I may indicate how very much the statement
involves. For certain mathematical theorems
have two or more proofs already discovered, be-
sides probably others as yet undiscovered. In
regard to these cases there will be a sort of Sad-
ducean difficulty; for as the various proofs, like
the seven husbands, have about an equal claim,
the machine will have to make up its mind to
give an invidious preference, unless it thinks it
more impartial to give a turn to each in success-
sion. Mr. Babbage also held that a machine
might be made which would play games of skill,
such as chess. He of course did not mean by
this merely that it could perform the part of the
automaton, and register the moves of an unseen
player; but he held that it might take the place
of the player, and find out perfect play by itself.
On my showing signs of incredulity, he added
that he could prove this to be the case in respect
of a simple game, such as Tit-tat-to; and be-
tween Tit-tat-to and chess the difference would
be one only of degree; if a comparatively simple
machine could discover perfect play, and there-
fore provide against the possible moves of an ad-
versary, in the easier game, was there any thing
absurd in the supposition that a far more com-
plicated machine might take into account the
immense variety of the manuuvres at chess?
It thus appears that, according to Mr. Babbage,
machines might be made to find out perfect play
at chess, though the united labors of so many
generations of players have as yet failed to dis-
cover it. But, if the ingenuity of machines can
so far surpass the ingenuity of miserable mortals
in one department, why not in others? On this
supposition, do not future generations seem like-
ly to realize, in a new and almost literal sense,
the old saying, Deus ex machinâ? Or, at any
rate, is the author of “Erewhon” far wrong when
he says that at length men and machines will
have to change places, and that, instead of men
employing machinery, machines will end by em-
ploying “mannery?”

Mr. Babbage is said to have complained that
he had caught cold at dinner from mistaking a
plate-glass window behind him for an open one;
and then to have illustrated the power of imagi-
nation by adding that, on finding himself at a
strange house without his night-cap, he had been
able perfectly to replace it by tying a piece of
string round his head. Would he have carried
this reasoning further, and, after substituting a
few pieces of string for his ordinary clothes, have
defied the inclemency of the weather?

The anecdote which Mr. Babbage himself told
me, as personally interesting to me, relates to a
visit which he paid, when young, to that most
mournfully fascinating of places, Ham House,
near Richmond, where the bounty of Lauder-
dale and others has amassed countless treasures
of all sorts, which now lie buried and forgotten,
like the “unvalued jewels” which, in Clarence's
dream, lay at the bottom of the sea. To this
enchanted palace of desolation Mr. Babbage ob-
tained admission, along with a large party, one
of whom was a Dutch baron, and another an In-
dian prince. It was understood that the prince
was to be shown over Ham by a daughter of the
house, who was not beautiful merely, but rich;
but some of the visitors, including Mr. Babbage
and the baron, were left under charge of the
housekeeper. This last part of the arrangement
was unknown to the Dutchman, who surprised
his companions by the persistent eagerness with
which he kept close to his conductor. At last,
on turning a corner, they saw him on his knees,
proposing in broken English to the astonished
housekeeper, while she was in vain trying to ex-
plain to him that he had mistaken the object of
his courtship, as she herself was not the heiress.

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