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Charles Babbage
Difference Engine
Francis Place
Jacquard loom


The Automatic System and Skill
part 4

"Everything which has been produced is the work of men's hands, that is, has been made by the hands of the labouring portion of the people and of right belongs to them. No matter when it was produced or by whose head work as well as by their hands' work it was produced, it all belongs to them because they are the workmen, or in their own language, producers" Francis Place, 1826. [27]

The first automaton which Babbage ever saw was a danseuse, one foot high, "her eyes full of imagination and irresistible", when a very young visitor to the backstage workshop of a London exhibitor. Thirty years later he bought the danseuse at an auction sale of a bankrupt mechanical show and, after restoring its gears, displayed it at his house-parties. "A gay but by no means unintellectual crowd surrounded the automaton. In the adjacent room the Difference Engine stood nearly deserted: two foreigners alone worshipped at that altar". [28] The anecdote illuminates the social site which the calculating engines occupied as competitors for polite attention with the vast array of automata and mechanisms on display in the London showrooms, the Jacquard looms and more catchpenny artifices among them. The trade brought a living to many operators. After he was hired in 1829 by Maudslay, the young engineer James Nasmyth sold the model of a steam engine which had got him the post to a London maker "who supplied such apparatus to lecturers at mechanics' institutions". Similarly, in early 1834 two models of the Difference Engine itself were made by the instrument designer Francis Watkins, who plied his trade as electrician and showman at the Adelaide Gallery. His models were designed to help Lardner's public lectures on the Engine's principles. When the Engine had been abandoned Babbage insisted "it should be placed where the public can see it". It was put on display at the Strand museum of King's College London. Next door, at the Admiralty Museum in Somerset House, visitors could view Maudslay's celebrated block-making machinery designed for the Portsmouth naval dockyards. These technical systems were on show as the highest achievements of the early Victorian machine-tool industry. [29]

The London machine shows were designed to win income and teach important lessons to a wide range of publics. This was not an audience which knew exactly what it wanted and certainly not an audience that obviously wanted exactitude. Babbage reckoned that automatic systems, notably his own calculating engines, should yield specific truths about the relation between intelligence, work and mechanism. These truths were by no means self-evident nor uncontroversial, especially during the Swing riots and machine-breaking in the countryside and the factory towns which raged during the struggle for Reform. A Kent observer of the riots told Babbage in 1830 that "you in London, except the conspirators who are there, can form no idea of the effect the ceaseless fires are producing". [30] Babbage's lessons hinged on the proper ownership of machinery and thus, in the jargon of his favourite science, the source of productive value. The rights of the workers to the whole value of their labour informed much of the radical protest of these key years. Babbage announced that the capacity of his engines to produce reliable and exact values depended on their capacity to act automatically and demonstrated the immediate relationship between the intelligence of the analyst and the machine's performance. Who should "own" these machines? Whose labour did they embody? The political implications of these questions could not have been missed, even if Babbage had not touted them so publicly in his Finsbury election campaign of 1832. During the revolutionary struggles of 1830-32, meliorist observers such as the London tailor and journalist Francis Place were persistently struck by "the systematic way in which the people proceeded", while the "people" themselves protested against the campaigns "to make us tools" or "machines". Plebeian agitators had been dispossessed by machines and treated as machines. These issues made urgent the problem of the source and ownership of the skills embodied in machines confessedly designed to perform mental work. [31]

 
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