'They needed a calculator, but a dancer got the job' (The Marriage of Figaro, 1784)
In the steam-punk metropolis of Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine, the sickly Keats runs a cinema, Disraeli is a gossip journalist unwillingly converted to using a keyboard, and fashionable geologists visit the Burlington Arcade to buy pricey mechanical trinkets, 'outstanding pieces of British precision craftsmanship'. Above them looms Lord Babbage, his original calculating engines already outdated, his scheme for life peerages on merit become part of everyday politics. Babbage's dreams doubtless deserve this treatment from the apostles of cyberfiction - he touted his schemes in pamphlets and exhibitions all over early nineteenth century London. It was a city apparently obsessed by displays of cunning engines, enthusiastic in its desire to be knowingly deceived by the outward appearance of machine intelligence, and Babbage heroically exploited the obsession in his lifelong campaign for the rationalisation of the world.
The enterprise of the calculating engines was certainly dependent on the city's workshops, stocked with lathes, clamps and ingenious apprentices, and on government offices, stocked with ledgers, blue books and officious clerks - a heady mixture of Bleeding Heart Yard and the Circumlocution Office. But, as Gibson and Sterling see so acutely, it was also tangled up with the culture of the West End, of brightly lit shops and showrooms, of front-of-house hucksters and backroom impresarios. Put the Difference Engine in its proper place, perched uneasily between Babbage's drawing room in wealthy Marylebone, the Treasury chambers in Whitehall, and the machine shops over the river in Lambeth, but at least as familiar in the arcades round Piccadilly and the squares of Mayfair, where automata and clockwork, new electromagnetic machines and exotic beasts were all put on show.
It was in the plush of the arcades that Babbage, barely eight years old, first saw an automaton. Some time around 1800 his mother took him to visit the Mechanical Museum run by the master designer John Merlin in Prince's Street, just between Hanover Square and Oxford Street. A Liègeois in his mid-sixties, working in London for four decades, Merlin was one of the best-known metropolitan mechanics, deviser of new harpsichords and clocks, entrepreneur of mathematical instruments and wondrous machines. His reputation even rivalled that of Vaucanson, the pre-eminent eighteenth century designer of courtly automata. As he rose through fashionable society, Merlin hung out with the musical Burney family, figured largely as an amusing and eccentric table-companion, and 'a very ingenious mechanic', in Fanny Burney's voluminous diaries, sat for Gainsborough, and used his mechanical skills to devise increasingly remarkable costumes for the innumerable masquerades then charming London's pleasure-seekers. To help publicise his inventions, Merlin appeared at the Pantheon or at Ranelagh dressed as the Goddess Fortune, equipped with a specially designed wheel or his own newfangled roller-skates, as a barmaid with her own drink-stall, or even as an electrotherapeutic physician, shocking the dancers as he moved among them.
Merlin ingeniously prowled the borderlands of showmanship and engineering. He won prestigious finance from the backers of Boulton and Watt's new steam engines. He opened his Mechanical Museum in Hanover Square in the 1780s. For a couple of shillings visitors could see a model Turk chewing artificial stones, they might play with a gambling machine, see perpetual motion clocks and mobile bird cages, listen to music boxes and try the virtues of Merlin's chair for sufferers from gout. After unsuccessfully launching a plan for a 'Necromancic Cave', featuring infernal mobiles and a fully mechanized concert in the Cave of Apollo, he began opening in the evenings, charged his visitors a shilling a time for tea and coffee, and tried to pull in 'young amateurs of mechanism'.
Babbage was one of them. Merlin took the young Devonshire schoolboy upstairs to his backstage workshop to show some more exotic delights. 'There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high'. The first automaton was relatively banal, though 'singularly graceful', one of Merlin's well-known stock of figures 'in brass and clockwork, so as to perform almost every motion and inclination of the human body, viz. the head, the breasts, the neck, the arms, the fingers, the legs &co. even to the motion of the eyelids, and the lifting up of the hands and fingers to the face'. Babbage remembered that 'she used an eye-glass occasionally and bowed frequently as if recognizing her acquaintances'. Good manners, it seemed, could easily be mechanized. But it was the other automaton which stayed in Babbage's mind, 'an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak'. Babbage was completely seduced. 'The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible'. 'At Merlin's you meet with delight', ran a contemporary ballad, and this intriguing mixture of private delight and public ingenuity remained a powerful theme of the world of automata and thinking machines in which Babbage later plied his own trade.
Merlin died in 1803, and much of his Hanover Square stock was sold to Thomas Weeks, a rival 'performer and machinist' who had just opened his own museum on the corner of Tichborne and Great Windmill Streets near the Haymarket. The danseuse went too. The show cost half-a-crown, in a room over one hundred feet long, lined in blue satin, with 'a variety of figures inert, active, separate, combined, emblematic and allegoric, on the principles of mechanism, being the most exact imitation of nature'. Like Merlin, Weeks also tried to attract invalids, emphasising his inventions of weighing-machines and bedsteads for the halt and the lame. There were musical clocks and self-opening umbrellas, and, especially, 'a tarantula spider made of steel, that comes independently out of a box, and runs backwards and forwards on the table, stretches out and draws in its paws, as if at will. This singular automaton that has no other power of action than the mechanism contained in its body, must fix the attention of the curious'.
Once again, seduction was an indispensable accompaniment of the trade in automata. One of the most famous automata of the early nineteenth-century, a 'Musical Lady', was originally brought to London in 1776 by the great Swiss horologist Jaquet-Droz. His London agent Henri Maillardet put her on show after the turn of the century at the Great Promenade Room in Spring Gardens behind Whitehall: 'the animated and surprizing Motion of the Eye aided by the most eloquent gesture, are heightened to admiration in contemplating the wonderful powers of Mechanism which produce at the same time the actual appearance of Respiration'. The accomplished lady's eyes really moved, her breast heaved. 'She is apparently agitated', a contemporary remarked, 'with an anxiety and diffidence not alway felt in real life'. Such shows often turned to titillating effect modish materialist philosophies which, in the wake of enlightened theories of sensibility and mesmeric strategies for restoring health, sought to mechanize the passions, and especially those of women. Maillardet's adverts put love on sale:
If the Poet speaks truth that says Music has charms Who can view this Fair Object without Love's alarms Yet beware ye fond Youths vain the Transports ye feel Those Smiles but deceive you, her Heart's made of steel For tho' pure as a Vestal her price may be found And who will may have her for Five Thousand Pounds.
The neat connection between passion, exoticism, mechanism and money permeated the showrooms. Since the 1760s, London designers, especially Merlin and his erstwhile employer James Cox, had built extraordinary automata for the East India Company's China trade, opened shops in Canton where mandarins could acquire mechanical clocks, mobile elephants and automatic tigers, and thus oiled the wheels of the booming tea business. Maillardet and his partners joined in the market. But this lucrative eastern commerce languished, as after American independence and a huge reduction in the tea duty, the British entrepreneurs found it ever harder to balance imports of the precious leaf. Bengal opium and Indian cotton were now used to help pay for Chinese tea, and successive delegations to the Chinese imperial court failed to impose what they tended to see as rational economic relations. Cox's firm went broke, and, while Weeks never quite managed to revive it, he ruthlessly exploited the appealing orientalist gloss it gave his Haymarket show. The word 'factory', it's worth remembering, was used for Company store-houses in the Indies before it was used to described workshops back in Europe, and the automata shifted between both these worlds. According to Weeks' advertisements for his machines, 'these magnificent specimens which constitute almost all the labour of a long life, and were all executed by one individual, were originally intended as presents for the east, they have, indeed, all the gorgeous splendour, so admired there, and we can fancy the absorbing admiration they would create in the harems of eastern monarchs, where their indolent hours must be agreeably relieved by these splendid baubles, which however are so constructed as to combine in almost every instance some object of utility'. The slippery move between images of langorous oriental baubles and honest utilitarian labour defines the significantly ambiguous place the automata occupied in a metropolis equally impressed by the mechanical ingenuity, excess wealth and eroticised luxury which all marked its new world-wide imperium. This was an apt stage for automatic Turks, mechanical elephants, and clockwork women.
The silver dancer never went on show at Weeks' Museum, but stayed neglected in an upstairs attic. Blocked from the Chinese trade, and failing to win London audiences, Weeks' Museum closed and its nonagenarian owner died in 1834. By now, Babbage was an engineer and entrepreneur in his own right, the heir to a fortune of over £100,000 from his banker father. Throughout 1834 he was in the toils of a disastrous dispute with his master-machinist Joseph Clement, a fight which soon ended with the abandonment of the Difference Engine project. At the start of the year, he presciently commissioned two demonstration models of the Difference Engine from the instrument-maker Francis Watkins, who also supplied electromagnetic and mechanical equipment to the new Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science, an exhibition of newfangled steam guns, clockwork model steamboats and telegraphic devices, in the Lowther Arcade just off the Strand and round the corner from Weeks' old showrooms. And in the midst of these machine plans and troubles, Babbage also took the time to visit Weeks' auction and buy, for £35, the long-lost silver lady. He painstakingly restored the automaton and put her on a glass pedestal in his Marylebone salon in the room next to the unfinished portion of the first Difference Engine.
What was proper to a machinist's storeroom was slightly risqu/ in the drawing room of a gentleman of science - the naked dancer needed a dress. Though he commissioned a new robe from local dressmakers, Babbage initially made do with a few strips of pink and green Chinese crepe, a turban, a wrap and 'a pair of small pink satin slippers, on each of which I fixed a single silver spangle'. She was a hit, drew amused if slightly off-colour jokes from his visitors, and provided Babbage with the chance to teach a portentous moral about the decline of the industrial spirit in England. 'A gay but by no means unintellectual crowd' of English guests could all too easily be entertained by the dancer's 'fascinating and graceful movements'. Only sterner Dutch and American inquirers would bother to visit the Difference Engine next door. Babbage ever after used the divergence to teach his audience about the sinister contrast between foreign seriousness and domestic triviality, between the easy charms of the silver dancer and the demanding challenges of the calculating engine.
Babbage worked hard to make, then exploit, this distinction between catchpenny and serious machines. He expostulated noisily and persistently against music machines, organ-grinders and steam-engines and published a long pamphlet, Street Nuisances (1864), describing the persecution he'd suffered in his once peaceful Marylebone home: 'the neighbourhood became changed: coffee-shops, beer-shops, and lodging houses filled the adjacent small streets. The character of the new population may be inferred from the taste they exhibit for the noisiest and most discordant music'. Eventually 'Babbage's Act' against street music became law: 'a grinder went away from before my house at the first word', reported Babbage's friend the London mathematics professor Augustus de Morgan. And the barrier between popular machines and scientific ones had more than merely the advantages of domestic tranquility. The story of the silver dancer was partly designed to help contrast the appeal of fashion with the demands of manufacture. In the midst of his tortuous negotiations of 1834 about funding a new Analytical Engine, Babbage told the Duke of Wellington that the switch from the older difference-based design to the new mechanism was not to be damned as modish novelty. 'The fact of a new superseding an old machine in a very few years, is one of constant occurrence in our manufactories, and instances might be pointed out in which the advance of invention has been so rapid, and the demand for machinery so great, that half-finished machines have been thrown aside as useless before their completion'. This was scarcely likely to mollify a penny-pinching administration, but throughout Babbage's career he felt it necessary to explain to what he saw as an irredeemably puerile public how to spot the difference between the engines which could make them rich and intelligent and those which deluded them into the gaudy fantasies of tricksy parlour-games and theatrical delights. The inquisitive polymath Sophia Frend, later de Morgan's wife, recalled that most of the audience for Babbage's engine 'gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun'.
The obscure objects of desire embodied in the automata were never self-evidently distinct from any of Babbage's projects. For example, like the automata of Cox, Merlin and Weeks, the Difference Engine apparently was also an object of fascination to the Chinese, and one visitor from China asked Babbage whether it could be reduced to pocket-size. Babbage replied that 'he might safely assure his friends in the celestial empire that it was in every sense of the word an out-of-pocket machine'. Indeed, in the later 1840s, when all his engine schemes had run into the sand, he cast about for new ways of raising money to revive them, including writing novels, but was dissuaded because he was told he'd surely lose money on fiction. One such entirely abortive scheme involved designing an automaton 'to play a game of purely intellectual skill successfully'. This was at least partly an attempt to assert the very possibility of building an automatic games-player. Babbage knew, at least at second-hand, of just how seductive gambling could be - his close friend Ada Lovelace, Gibson and Sterling's dark lady of the Epsom motor-races, lost more than £3000 on the horses during the later 1840s. 'Making a book seems to me to be living on the brink of a precipice', she was told by her raffish gambling associate Richard Ford in early 1851.