Thursday, January 26, 2012

Man & Machine: Babbage's Silver Lady

from Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Charles Babbage (1864):
During my boyhood my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself Merlin. I was so greatly interested in it, that the Exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high.

One of these walked or rather glided along a space of about four feet, when she turned round and went back to her original place. She used an eye-glass occasionally, and bowed frequently, as if recognizing her acquaintances. The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful.

The other silver figure was an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the fore finger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings, and opened its beak. This lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible.

These silver figures were the chef-d'oeuvres of the artist: they had cost him years of unwearied labour, and were not even then finished.



I mentioned, in an early chapter, my boyish admiration of an automaton in the shape of a silver lady, who attitudinized in the most graceful manner. Her fate was singular: at the death of her maker she was sold with the rest of his collection of mechanical toys, and was purchased by Weekes who had a mechanical exhibition in Cockspur Street No attempt appears to have been made to finish the automaton; and it seems to have been placed out of the way in an attic uncovered and utterly neglected.

On the sale by auction of Weeke's Museum, I met again the object of my early admiration. Having purchased the silver figure, I proceeded to take to pieces the whole of the mechanism, and found a multitude of small holes which had been stopped up as not having fulfilled their intended object. In fact, it appeared tolerably certain that scarcely any drawings could have been prepared for the automaton, but that the beautiful result arose from a system of continual trials.

I myself repaired and restored all the mechanism of the Silver Lady, by which title she was afterwards known to my friends. I placed her under a glass case on a pedestal in my drawing-room, where she received, in her own silent but graceful manner, those valued friends who so frequently honoured me with their society on certain Saturday evenings.

This piece of mechanism formed a striking contrast with unfinished portion of the Difference Engine, No. 1, which was placed in the adjacent room: the whole of the latter mechanism existed in drawings upon paper before any portion of it was put together.

The external surface of the figure, which was beauty in form, was made of silver. It was, therefore, necessary to supply her with robes suitable to her station. This would have been rather difficult for a philosopher, but it was made easy by the aid of one or two of my fair friends who kindly intervened. These generously assisted with their own peculiar skill and taste at the toilette of their rival Syren.

Sketches were made and modists of the purest water were employed. The result was, upon the whole, highly satisfactory. One evening, however, the arrival of the new dress was postponed to so late a period, that I feared it had entirely escaped the recollection of the executive department. The hour at which my friends usually arrived was rapidly approaching.

In this difficulty it occurred to me that there were a few remnants of beautiful Chinese crape in the silver lad/s wardrobe. Having selected two strips, one of pink and the other of light green, I hastily wound a platted band of bright auburn hair round the block on which her head-dresses were usually constructed, and then pinned on the folds of coloured crepe. This formed a very tolerable turban, and was not much unlike a kind of head-dress called a toke, which prevailed at that period. Another larger piece of the same pink Chinese crepe I wound round her person, which I thought showed it off to considerable advantage. Fortunately, I found in her wardrobe a pair of small pink satin slippers, on each of which I fixed a single silver spangle: then placing a small silver crescent in the front of her turban, I felt I had accomplished all that time and circumstances permitted.

The criticisms on the costume of the Silver Lady were various. In the course of the evening, Lady Morgan communicated to me confidentially her own opinion of the dress.

Holding up her fan, she whispered, "My dear Mr. Babbage, I think your Silver Lady is rather slightly clad to-night; shall I lend her a petticoat?" to which I replied, "My dear Lady Morgan, I am much indebted for your very considerate offer, but I fear you have not got one to spare."

This retort was not a pun, but merely a 'double-entendre.' It might mean either that her Ladyship had on invisibles, but not enough to be able to spare one: or it might imply that having no garment of that kind» she was unable to lend one to a friend.



One Saturday morning an American gentleman who had just arrived from Liverpool, where he had landed from the United States on the previous day, called in Dorset Street. He was very anxious to see the Difference Engine, and quite fitted by his previous studies for understanding it well. I took him into the drawing-room in which the machine then resided and gave him a short explanation of its structure. As I expected a large party of my friends in the evening, amongst whom were a few men of science, I asked him to join the party.

It so happened on that day that the Speaker had a small dinner-party. The Silver Lady was accidentally mentioned, and greatly excited the curiosity of the lady of the house. As the whole of this small party, comprising three or four of my most intimate friends, were coming to my house in the evening, they proposed that the Speaker and his wife should accompany them to my party, assuring them truly that I should be much gratified by the visit.

The Silver Lady happened to be in brilliant attire, and after mentioning the romance of my boyish passion, the unexpected success of her acquisition, and the devoted cultivation I bestowed upon her education, I proceeded to set in action her fascinating and most graceful movements.

A gay but by no means unintellectual crowd surrounded the automaton. In the adjacent room the Difference Engine stood nearly deserted: two foreigners alone worshiped at that altar. One of them, but just landed from the United States, was engaged in explaining to a learned professor from Holland what he had himself in the morning gathered from its constructor.

Leaning against the doorway, I was myself contemplating the strongly contrasted scene, pleased that my friends were relaxing from their graver pursuits, and admiring the really graceful movements produced by mechanism; but still more highly gratified at observing the deep and almost painful attention of my Dutch guest, who was questioning his American instructor about the mechanical means I had devised for accomplishing some arithmetical object. The deep thought with which this explanation was attended to, suddenly flashed into intense delight when the simple means of its accomplishment were made apparent.

My acute and valued friend, the late Lord Langdale, who had been observing the varying changes of my own countenance, as it glanced fix>m one room to the other, now asked me, "What new mischief are you meditating?" — "Look," said I, "in that further room — England. Look again at this — two Foreigners."

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