babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

The Economy of Machinery

Babbage's publications on the political and domestic economy of the factory were exactly contemporary with the project to build the calculating engines. In the late 1820s Babbage took the Lucasian chair of mathematics in Cambridge and, in a series of lectures he planned to deliver in the university, he composed a thorough survey of British manufactures, first released as a contribution on the mechanical arts in the popular Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1829), then published in 1832 as On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. This remarkable exercise in the political economy of machinery reached a fourth edition by 1835 and was, by then, already in print in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Russian. In Britain it was published by the agent of the reformist Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Charles Knight. When the leading Ricardian economist John McCulloch, a principal advocate of the benevolent effects of mechanization, complained about the absence of political economic data from the first edition, Babbage added new sections against the abstractions of the Ricardians and made more use of the numbers available to him through his allies in the statistical movement. Babbage put the third edition in the library of the London Mechanics' Institution, a forum for the educational improvement of metropolitan artisans, and he used the text during his unsuccessful election campaign on a radical platform in the London constituency of Finsbury in late 1832: "if you are a manufacturer...and would see industry as free as the air you breathe - Go and vote for Mr Babbage. If you are a mechanic, depending on your daily bread on a constant and steady demand for the products of your skill.... - Go and vote for Mr Babbage", thundered the Mechanics' Magazine. [15]

Babbage himself made no attempt to deny the link between the engine project and the engine survey. The book's very first sentence reads: "the present volume may be considered as one of the consequences that have resulted from the calculating engine, the construction of which I have been so long superintending. Having been induced, during the last ten years, to visit a considerable number of workshops and factories....I was insensibly led to apply to them those principles of generalization to which my other pursuits had naturally given rise". [16] In his chapter on "the division of mental labour" Babbage cashed out this promissory note with a discussion of French schemes for the application of labour management to mathematical tabulation. The principles of hierarchy and the minimization of mental skill which Babbage found in G.F.Prony's celebrated programme for the computation of new decimal tables in the 1790s were there made explicit as foundations of a general science of machine intelligence. This programme had been Babbage's inspiration from his first pamphlets of 1822. Despite the fact that these tables were never published, they remained emblematic for British proponents of mechanized calculation. When Babbage visited Paris in 1819 he met the tables' printer Didot and was given a copy of the section of the sine tables which had been set. Babbage left this invaluable compilation to his son in his will. One lesson he drew from the work of Prony and Legendre was that the subordinate computers "had no knowledge of arithmetic beyond the two first rules which they were thus called upon to exercise, and that these persons were usually found more correct in their calculations than those who possessed a more extensive knowledge". [17]

This intriguing relation between subordination and accuracy was immediately applied to the calculating engines. Babbage always contrasted mechanisms which "perform the whole operation without any mental attention" and those which "require a moderate portion of mental attention". His popular expositions of this distinction invoked the analogue with human intelligence revealed in the French project to dramatise the equivalence with machine intelligence and then to point out a contrast. Thus the fundamental operation of addition might be mechanized by "following exactly the usual process of the human mind". But since "the calculations made by machinery should be done in a much shorter time than those performed by the human mind, Babbage argued that it was necessary to mechanize the "faculty of memory" rather than that of addition. "Memory" in the carriage of digits was, for example, represented as the addition of an extra projecting tooth to each number wheel in the difference engine, a tooth which could in its turn by engaged after the first stage of summation was completed. Finally, memory was to be replaced by anticipation. This was the key change between the Difference and the Analytical Engine. "It occurred to me that it might be possible to teach mechanism to accomplish another mental process - namely, foresight". [18]

The transition from the Difference to the Analytical during the later 1830s raised three salient problems in the mechanization of memory and foresight. First, an issue discussed with the great science writer Mary Somerville and the Irish mathematician James McCullagh, the capacity of the engines to carry unlimited numbers of functions and variables and to represent unlimited series of digits, briefly, "an unlimited number of laws". Babbage's solution to this hard task was to draw on the Jacquard principle and to translate the "infinity of space, which was required by the conditions of the problem, into the infinity of time". This "infinity of time" would be occupied by printing cards for the mill and in the printer itself, however long it be used, "the force to be exerted always remains the same". The resources Babbage drew from political economy were directly deployed in the planning of the Analytical Engine through the application of time economy and supervision of work rate. [19] The second issue which Babbage raised was discussed with McCullagh and the German scientists Friedrich Bessel and Karl Jacobi, Prussian delegates to the 1842 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Manchester. This involved the engine's "knowledge" of tabular numbers used during calculations. Babbage designed his engines to recognize correct values of logarithms and other variables and to ring a bell and stop when needed. The mechanism for the machine to check tabular inputs meant that "the Engine will always reject a wrong card by continually ringing a loud bell and stopping itself until supplied with the precise intellectual food it demands". Once again, this anthropomorphic language exemplified Babbage's move to make specialised mental labour redundant. Ultimately, he claimed, such tabular inputs would be made unnecessary. [20] Finally, Babbage even playfully contemplated means by which the Analytical Engine could be stopped during operation and its figure wheels disturbed; the Engine would then automatically restore the wheels to their proper values. "The property itself is useless", he wrote, but it dramatised the self-regulation he sought to embody in his Engines. This self-regulatory automatism was a key aspect of the general division of labour which he sought to design into these analytical mechanisms, and thus the systematic character he wished to grant them. [21]

In each division of the Analytical project, the interaction between engine design and the principles of machinofacture was understood through Babbage's model of intelligence, a term designed to capture both "information" and "skill". Machine intelligence was therefore at once managerial skill, the skill embodied in machines and the data amassed by the analyst of machinofacture. At the same time, machine intelligence was mapped by the progressive redundancy of operatives' manual skills. Babbage's text on the economy of machinery was itself supposed to be an experiment in these principles of intelligence. It included series of questionnaires which managers were to complete when gathering exact information on mechanization. "The habit of forming an estimate of the magnitude of any object or the frequency of any occurrence, immediately previous to our applying to it measure or number, tends materially to fix the attention and improve the judgment". [22] Babbage's work in political economy depended on the application of precision measures and calculation to surveys of the factories and within them. He then erected a basic analogy between the development of the calculating engines and that of the economy at large. In 1851, for example, he announced his development of the engines with the statement that "man is a tool making animal". The science of progress was emblematic of these arguments about mechanization and improvement. Progress was defined as "the substitution of machinery, not merely for the skill of the human hand, but for the relief of the human intellect". The same principle guided the move from individual tools to complete factories. [23] As the Analytical Engine was a "manufactory of figures", Babbage had to outline his definition of a "manufactory". "A considerable difference exists between the terms making and manufacturing", he explained. The difference lay in the economical regulation of the domestic system of the factory. This led to Babbage's implementation of the division of labour, and, as he emphasised, the fundamental principle of that division which allowed the sensitive analytical regulation of the process of manufacture. The "Babbage principle", as it came to be known, applied equally to the regulation of the factory and of the calculating engines:

"That the master manufacturer by dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill or of force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process; whereas if the whole work were executed by one workman, that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious of the operations into which the art is divided". [24]

As Babbage and his allies among the political economists showed, the disaggregation of the production process into its simplest components allowed a series of economies and practices of surveillance. Mechanized production required strict discipline. The same was true of the Analytical Engine. Parcelling the processes of Lagrangean algebra into specific components allowed the increase in speed of the machine, the transformation of infinities of space into manageable durations of time, the most economical recompense to each component in terms of consumed power (if mechanical) or consumed wages (if human). "The whole history of the invention has been a struggle against time", Babbage wrote in 1837. The replacement of individual human intelligence by machine intelligence was as apparent in the workshop as in the engines. In the former, this task was both politically and economically necessary. "One great advantage which we derive from machinery is the check which it affords against the inattention, idleness or the dishonesty of human agents". This set of failings could produce erroneous astronomical tables, hence the significance of Prony's reports on the performance of the least intelligent computers when subject to the right management. Unreliable agents could also form trade union combinations, which, Babbage held, were always "injurious" to the workforce itself. His aim here was to contest the influence of "designing persons" and show the working classes that "the prosperity and success of the master manufacturer is essential to the welfare of the workman", even though "I am compelled to admit that this connexion is in many cases too remote to be understood by the latter". [25]

Babbage's political strategies of the strife-ridden decade of the 1830s outlined a crucial role for the analytic manager. In his texts on political economy, such as his brief chapter on "the future prospects of manufacture as connected with science", he mapped out this role in some detail. The combination of theory and practice adumbrated both in the Economy of Machinery and in the notes on the Analytical Engine was necessary and possible, if only because the machinery of the factory and the calculating engines precisely embodied the intelligence of theory and abrogated the individual intelligence of the worker. Only the superior combination and correlation of each component guaranteed efficient, economical, planned and therefore intelligent performance. This general, abstract, lawlike behaviour was only visible to the overseer, the manager, men such as Babbage. No doubt his own status as a gentlemanly specialist helped. He inherited £100,000 from his banker father in 1827, while the state spent more than £17,000 on his engines within the next decade. "The efforts for the improvement of its manufactures which any country can make with the greatest probability of success", he argued in his text on machinery, "must arise from the combined exertions of all those most skilled in the theory, as well as in the practice of the arts; each labouring in that department for which his natural capacity and acquired habits rendered him most fit". Such declarations, reiterated in Babbage's successive reformist propaganda throughout his career, made his new class of managerial analysts the supreme economic managers and legislators of social welfare. In good Bonapartist style he thought they should be rewarded with newfangled life peerages and political power. The original cases of the division of mental labour had both inspired the first Difference Engine and also demonstrated the relevance of the principles of manufacture to the sciences themselves. This made the science of calculation the supreme legislative discipline, just as, according to Plana, the calculating engines provided both legislative and executive co-ordination. In 1832 Babbage spoke on the hustings in a Clerkenwell pub about the political advantage of his "wholesome be careful in the obtaining and sifting of facts". In 1838 Babbage claimed that "whenever engines of this kind exist in the capitals and universities of the world, it is obvious that all the enquirers who wish to put their theories to the test of number" would design their work so that it would be subjected to the engines' sums. "Those who neglect the indication" would be reduced to fallible human labour and thus excluded from the community of science. And in 1842, in the midst of a stormy interview with the premier Robert Peel, Babbage quoted at him Plana's remarks about the new "control over the executive" offered by his engines: "Sir R. Peel seemed excessively angry when I knocked over his argument about professional service". [26] This political and managerial language was not merely an elegant reformist metaphor. The calculating engines were themselves products of the system of automatic manufacture which Babbage sought to model, indeed, they were some of that system's most famous and most visible accomplishments.


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