THE YOUNGER GENERATION EXPANDS THE REACH OF BRITISH SCIENCE
English mathematician and mechanical genius; perfected a calculating machine, the forerunner of the modern computer.
Autograph Letter Signed, C Babbage, two pages, octavo, Com[mitte]e Room, December 1, 1832. To W. Venning.
“I regret exceedingly that on consulting my Committee they advise me not to have a meeting at Holloway on account of the shortness of the time previous to the election, and the engagements of the kind which are already nearly arranged. I am extremely sorry to be compelled to admit to the force of these reasons and hope that my sentiments will be made known to the Electors of that district, by means of my private address and by the report of those of my friends who attended the Jolington meeting. I feel particularly indebted to you for your kind attention to this subject.”
In a postscript Charles Babbage adds, “Had it been in my power to have attended at such a Meeting as the one proposed It would have given me great pleasure to have accepted your kind invitation which I am now reluctantly obliged to decline.”
At the time of this letter, Babbage was one of the most influential of the younger generation of British scientists (as scientific greats Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphry Davy had all died in the 1820’s) who were expected to carry forward the great strides made by the previous generation scientists and now threatened by competition from scientists in France and Germany. He had been appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Newton’s old chair. At his large house in London at Dorset Square, the wealthy Babbage was working on his famous “Difference Engine No. 1,” a prototype computer which would prove to be one of the legends of Victorian science.
All was not well with the younger generation, however. Their failed attempt to get John Herschel (polymath son of the astronomer William Herschel) elected President of the Royal Society in 1829 led to a breakaway movement, led by a handful of young scientists around Herschel. They would circumvent the Royal Society entirely and appeal to a wholly different constituency: the “amateur” men (and women) of science who belonged to the provincial scientific or “philosophical” societies and institutions outside London. This present letter may relate to that debate about the future of British science. Two years before, Babbage had fired a salvo when he released a slim but carefully targeted volume, provocatively entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (spring of 1830).
Throughout 1830/31, there was much campaigning, recruiting and arguing over what would later be seen as an historic expansion of Victorian science, outside the confines of London. A first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science took place at York in 1831; a second at Oxford in 1832; by the third meeting, in 1833, the British Association had begun to make an impact with its Cambridge meeting. This 1833 meeting, at Newton’s shrine (Cambridge), included almost all those who would become rising stars of the younger generation. The only notable absentee was Charles Darwin, then botanizing on the voyage of the Beagle.
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