babbage's dancer

The Games Machine

Babbage's attention turned to the prospects of a games machine. In a brief memorandum, he demonstrated that if an automaton made the right first move in a game of pure skill with a finite number of possible moves at each stage, the machine could always win. Such a device, he reckoned, must possess just those faculties of memory and foresight which he always claimed were the distinctive features of his Analytical Engine, the features which made it intelligent. So Babbage began to design an automaton which could win at noughts-and-crosses, planning to dress it up 'with such attractive circumstances that a very popular and profitable exhibition might be produced'. All his memories of Merlin, Weeks and the Regency world of mechanical wonders came into play. As he reminisced in his 1864 autobiography, 'I imagined that the machine might consist of the figures of two children playing against each other, accompanied by a lamb and a cock. That the child who won the game might clap his hands whilst the cock was crowing, after which, that the child who was beaten might cry and wring his hands whilst the lamb began bleating'.

But there was, of course, a hitch. One point of his games machine was to raise money for the more portentous Analytical Engine, and Babbage soon discovered that though 'every mamma and some few pappas who heard of it would doubtless take their children to so singular and interesting a sight', and though he could try putting three shows on at once, nevertheless the mid-Victorian public simply weren't interested any more. 'The most profitable exhibition which had occurred for many years', Babbage moaned, 'was that of the little dwarf, General Tom Thumb', Phineas Barnum's famous midget money-spinner, displayed in 1844 before gawping London audiences at the self-same Adelaide Gallery where a decade earlier the Difference Engine models, steam guns and electromagnetic engines had drawn large audiences. According to London journalists the Adelaide 'with its chemical lectures and electrical machines' had by the later 1840s 'changed its guise, and in lieu of philosophical experiments we have the gay quadrille and the bewildering polka'. So however apparently distinct, the fate of the automata shows and the calculating engines was remarkably similar, as metropolitan fashion switched away from the machines that could simulate human motions and emotions to the high life where the genteel tried these activities out for themselves.

Ultimately, Babbage's Difference Engine suffered more or less the same end as a whole range of Victorian automata, ending its days as a museum piece. In 1842, when the Government finally abandoned the project, Babbage told them it should be carefully preserved and 'placed where the public can see it, for example, the British Museum'. In the event, in January 1843 it was put behind glass in the very middle of the new Museum at King's College London, alongside a vast collection of memorabilia and eighteenth-century scientific instruments made for George III. For two decades, as Babbage bitterly remarked, 'it is remarkable that during that long period no person should have studied its structure'. The Engine was briefly brought out for the London International Exhibition of 1862 and put in what Babbage called 'a small hole, closed in and dark', where scarcely anyone could see it and, so he reckoned, it would have needed about 800 square feet of wall space to lay out all the diagrams required to explain its principles. Such exhibitions were increasingly devoted not to machines but to their products, and rapidly became the Victorians' favourite sites for display of mechanically-produced commodities. Babbage was told that he could have no more space for his calculating engines because of the room required for an appealing display of children's toys. Once again, he reflected, the British had revealed themselves to be more interested in entertaining tricks than thoughtful engineering.

This dismal fate was scarcely the sole link between the machine shows and Babbage's engines. There was an even more intriguing one, since all these devices neatly captured the puzzle of mechanical passion, of the possibility that artifices could think and feel. In his essay on the games machine, interpolated in a chapter of his autobiography entitled 'The author's further contributions to human knowledge', Babbage made the point in his characteristically pithy way. He asked his friends 'whether they thought it require human reason to play games of skill. The almost constant answer was in the affirmative. Some supported this view of the case by observing, that if it were otherwise, then an automaton could play such games'. Babbage set out to show that an automaton could do just this. For example, there would always be occasions when the automaton was faced with two equally good moves. Then Babbage would program it so that a random number could direct the machine's decision between them. 'An enquiring spectator who observed the games played by the automaton might watch a long time before he discovered the principle upon which it acted'. In combination with his celebrated principles of foresight and memory, this principle of random moves programmed in advance governed Babbage's stories about machine intelligence.

From the 1830s, his favourite party-trick, for those who got bored watching the silver dancer, was to program his Difference Engine to print out a very long series of unchanging numbers and then suddenly switch to a new series. Was this not exactly like a miracle? he would ask his guests. In summer 1833 Ada and her mother, Lady Byron, the Princess of Parallelograms, saw the trick. Lady Byron described the encounter to William King, a rather conventionally pious Cantab she'd persuaded to act informally as mathematics teacher for Ada. 'We both went to see the thinking machine (for so it seems). The Machine could go on counting regularly 1,2,3,4 & c - to 10,000 - and then pursue its calculation according to a new ratio. There was a sublimity in the views thus opened of the ultimate results of intellectual power'. The miraculous counting game was obviously a crowd pleaser, the implications of the machine's discontinuous outputs were allegedly clear and radical, and at least one of Babbage's guests, Charles Darwin, soon picked up the hint. Darwin saw that if apparently inexplicable discontinuities could really be the result of a system of mechanical laws laid down in advance, then here was a useful analogue of the way new species could emerge entirely through natural law. Indeed, for Babbage and his allies, this was turned into a definition of what made machines intelligent. They could foresee, they could remember, and they could switch their behaviour in ways which seemed random but were really determined.

And in the epoch of the new factory system and Chartist strikes, this was also just how economic journalists lauded the new machines of automatic industry. In his oleaginous work of industrial reportage, A Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842), the free-trader William Cooke Taylor described a Manchester spinning-mule which 'recedes and then returns so gracefully that I was almost going to say the effect was picturesque. I can assure you that the brightness of the machinery, which looks like steel, and the regularity of its motions, produce a tout ensemble which has a novel and striking effect. It seems to me that the machines can do everything but speak'. These machines had been developed in Lancashire, following strikes in the cotton factories, to give employers more control over the production process. Cooke Taylor piously observed that in these factories 'the human agents work with all the exactness of machinery. So strange a combination of perfect despotism with perfect freedom never before existed, and to have produced such a state is one of the noblest triumphs of morality and intelligence'. There was no mistaking the moral that the intelligence belonged to the system, not the operatives. In his notoriously eulogistic Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), published little more than a decade after Mary Shelley's novel, the Scottish science writer Andrew Ure lapsed significantly into the imagery of her Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus to describe the new spinning mule as 'the Iron Man sprung out of the hands of our modern Prometheus at the bidding of Minerva - a creation destined to restore order among the industrious classes'.

So machine intelligence was a central theme of the politics of manufacture, just as it was being worked out in the London showrooms and Babbage's workshops. In his long drawn out contests with the engineers of the Lambeth machine shops, the dominant theme was precisely the kind of intellectual property represented by the calculating engines and the skills required for their construction. Babbage might try to keep street-organs and noisy proles away from his door, but he wanted the calculating engines indissolubly linked with his property, and even tried shifting the whole engine works from Lambeth to his own back yard. He told Wellington in 1834 that his ownership of the engines was complete, 'for they are the absolute creations of my own mind'. But it had been a tradition of the machinists that all their tools belonged to the workmen, not the customers or masters, and it was thus an extremely sensitive issue as to which aspects of the calculating engines' enterprise counted as tools, and which as finished work. It was not at all obvious to a master-machinist like Joseph Clement, the designer of remarkable new planing machines and facing lathes, that Babbage's mind was the unique source of these engines' value. The intelligence they embodied, therefore, was a prize contested by engineers, designers, proprietors and financiers, and intelligence's place was a major aspect of the political geography of the industrial system.

Babbage's most successful publication of the 1830s, a thorough survey of this geography, charted in great detail the ways in which mechanization automated the production process and insisted that the division of labour could be applied to mental just as much as to mechanical operations. Copying machines were one of his principal themes, and he explained them by describing such automata as the Prosopographus and the Corinthian Maid, machines shown in the Strand in the early 1830s which could apparently copy the likeness of any sitter. Babbage explained that such shows really relied on a concealed camera lucida where a backstage assistant using a pentagraph linked to the automaton's own hand could quickly produce a reasonably accurate portrait of the customer. Here intelligence turned out to be the result of concealed skill in alliance with ingenious mechanization. In all these places, indeed, the puzzle of thinking engines was wrapped up with the problem of selective vision. Cooke Taylor aestheticized the cotton factory so that its intelligence seemed vested in the machinery, not the labour force. Ure saw the machines as the immediate intellectual offspring of the manufacturers, just as his idol Charles Babbage claimed that the Difference Engine was the unique product of his own mind. Clement saw his own workshop as a place of intelligent skill and so refused to move his workmen and their tools to Marylebone, where they would be under Babbage's immediate gaze. There Babbage's calculating engines looked miraculously prescient because of his party-goers' ignorance of their original programs. And, inevitably, the point of the West End automata was to mimic the actions of mind by concealing the springs of their artful design. To see such devices as intelligent, it was necessary to ignore, or conceal, or divert one's gaze from, the machinations which drove them and the human skill on which they all depended.

Babbage's dancer was never just a gaudy trick. She was rather an alluring emblem of the aestheticized gaze of the impresarios of intelligence. The attribution of intelligence and reason to any machine depended on the perspective of the machine's audience, and on the visibility of the labour on which its performance relied. Babbage's friends told him that to play a game of skill needed human reason and so denied any automaton could do it unaided. They would always suspect that any automaton which could apparently play chess must somehow be accompanied by a rational human temporarily hidden from view. Babbage and his critics both had one spectacular and timely precedent, a notorious automaton chess-player, first shown in London in 1783-4 on Savile Row, and then again from 1818 at the showroom in Spring Gardens, where the charming Musical Lady also found her home. This chess-player was built at the end of the 1760s by an aristocratic Slovak engineer, Wolfgang von Kempelen, as an entertainment for Maria Theresa, and its subsequent career took it from central European court society to the more vulgar milieux of French and English showrooms.

Von Kempelen himself never took the device very seriously, and frankly confessed it relied on a blatant trick. He temporarily dismantled it in 1773. Before then, guests at his house in Bratislava, just downriver from the Habsburg capital, were shown upstairs through his workshop, stocked with tools and unfinished projects for steam engines, perpetual clocks, and especially his favoured scheme for a speaking machine, into his study, decorated with antiques, curiosities and prints. There, in the middle of the room, stood a large cabinet running on castors, and behind it an impressive full-scale model of a seated Turk smoking a pipe. On top of the cabinet was screwed a chessboard, the object of the Turk's fixed attention. Von Kempelen would open both the front and the back of the cabinet, revealing an extraordinarily complex array of gearwheels, barrels and pulleys. The custom was to shine a candle into the cabinet to show that nothing could possibly be hidden, and the Turk's torso and legs would also be stripped bare. Inanimate Reason (1784), the significantly-titled publicity sheet for von Kempelen's machine, reported that 'you see at one and the same time, the naked Automaton, with his garments tucked up, the drawer and all the doors of the cupboard open'. Then, after von Kempelen had wound up the automaton, giving it enough power to run for about a dozen moves, the games would begin, the Turk gracefully moving pieces with his left hand, nodding his head when giving check, tapping the table and replacing any piece if a false move was made by his opponent, and bowing to the spectators when the game ended, almost always with the Turk's triumphant victory. The ritual of open display and brilliant chess never varied. 'Never before did any mere mechanical figure unite the power of moving itself in different directions as circumstances unforeseen and depending on the will of any person present might require', and nowhere else in Europe did the relation between intelligence, mechanism and concealment become such a matter of public interest.


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