babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

Radical Conflicts

The radical conflicts of the 1830s often centred on a contrast between two accounts of skilled labour. Working class interests appealed to traditional custom, in which skill was recognized as a property inherent in the persons of the workers themselves. As such, skill was reckoned to be scarcely communicable outside carefully controlled milieux which were designed to remain opaque to the surveillance of managers and inspectors. Thus attempts by observers such as Babbage to gather intelligence about machines and the workforce were politically controversial. In contrast to the traditional model, philosophers of machinery promoted an account of rational valuation, attempting to render the labour process transparent and skills rather easily measurable in the marketplace of wage labour. Babbage's programme of intelligence about machinery and intelligence embodied in machinery was inevitably conflicted. These are early nineteenth century English conflicts which, following E.P.Thompson, we now typically associate with political economic campaigns of the against the Corn Laws and the customary moral economy of the grain rioters, where economic rationality fought with traditional forms of exchange, or, following Michel Foucault, with Benthamite strategies for the surveillance of the body in the illuminated spaces of the Panopticon. Babbage's campaigns for machine intelligence take their place alongside these more familiar strategies for the reconfiguration of the productive body. [32]

In this context, the faculties of memory and foresight with which Babbage sought to endow the Analytical Engine also characterize his self-presentation as the unique author of the machine. They embodied his control over the engine and disembodied the skills, and camouflaged the workforce, on which it depended. He explained his view of the property of skill involved in the calculating engines in an appeal to the Duke of Wellington about their future in late 1834. He used the language of reform to defend his own status as their author. "My right to dispose, as I will, of such inventions cannot be contested; it is more sacred in its nature than any hereditary or acquired property, for they are the absolute creations of my own mind". [33] This remarkable declaration followed a decade of strife with Clement, the brilliant (but here characteristically unnamed) engineer on whose work so much of the engine's development depended. When the project was inaugurated Babbage had to work out whether the design was in "such a form that its execution [might be] within the reach of a skilful workman". In turn, this prompted his immediate examination "in detail of machinery of every kind". Fights were endemic about Babbage's claims that the workforce should submit to, and only needed slavishly to follow, his detailed recipe for the calculating engines and that any results of this labour would belong to Babbage himself. [34]

Whatever his own sense of the capacities of the London engineers, Babbage's first specifications placed unprecedented demands on the capacities of the machine-tool workshops at a key moment in their history. For the first engine mill he required at least six coaxial gear wheels turned to an extraordinary exactitude, while the printing system needed a further set of interlocking gears engraved with letters and figures. A report drafted in 1829 for the Royal Society by Babbage's closest allies, including John Herschel and William Whewell, conceded that "in all those parts of the machine where the nicest precision is required the wheelwork only brings them by a first approximation (though a very nice one) to their destined places, and they are then settled into accurate adjustment by peculiar contrivances which admit of no shake or latitude of any kind". [35] The troublesome terms in these bland remarks by the gentlemen of science were the references to nice precision, accurate adjustment and shake or latitude. At the start of the century such demands would have been judged proper solely to the closeted capacities of millwrights and turners. The great Manchester engineer William Fairbairn reminisced that "the millwright of former days was to a great extent the sole representative of mechanical art". But in very rapid succession, in fields such as clock making, ornamental turning and, above all, the development of steam pistons and screw gears, masters such as Joseph Bramah and his chief workman Henry Maudslay began to design self-moving cutting lathes to allow the production of precise planes, reliable screws and slide-rests to control the work in the chuck. Their network of machine-tool firms dominated the training and regulation of precision engineering. Maudslay set up his own London works in Lambeth in 1797, and employees there followed suit: Richard Roberts in 1814 in Manchester, James Nasmyth, hired by Maudslay in 1829 before setting up in Manchester in 1836, and Joseph Whitworth, who began working for Maudslay in early 1825 and established his own firm in Manchester in 1833. The careers of all these men were charted and moralised in the mid-century by Samuel Smiles, the indefatigable chronicler of self-improvement and engineering achievement. [36] Clement was one of Smiles' heroes and a veteran of this system too. The son of a handloom weaver, the trade which suffered most from rapid mechanization, Clement worked as a turner in Glasgow before training with Bramah and Maudslay in the 1810s. In 1817 he set up shop in Southwark, near Maudslay and the centre of the London engineering trade, where he soon introduced a new form of slide rest to render lathe-work regular and manageable. This remained rather domestic labour. When Babbage commissioned him in 1823 on the recommendation of the eminent engineer Marc Brunel, Clement had just one lathe set up in his own kitchen. As cash began to flow for the calculating engine project, Clement's firm soon expanded to a scale of workforce, and of individual machine tools, quite new in the trade. Up to one-third of his business depended on the Difference Engine project. Whitworth was hired to work for Clement on the design. The Manchester City News observed that "Mr Clement contrived and manufactured numerous tools for executing the several parts of this [calculating] machine, educating, at the same time, special workers to manipulate and guide them....Mr Whitworth was possessed of a special aptitude for that minute accuracy of detail in mechanical work which necessarily must have been a marked characteristic of the skilled workmen engaged on Babbage's machine". [37]

These workshops were designed to train apprentices in the production of regular and repeatable accurate work through the use of highly standardised and automatic tools. A Lancashire engineer working in the 1840s recalled that "men in large shops are not troubled with a variety of work, but had one class of work and special tools. The men soon became expert and turned out a large quantity of work with the requisite exactness without a little of the thought required of those who work in small shops where fresh work continually turns up but always the same old tools". However, as the comments on Whitworth reveal, the shops were also highly private sites of specialist aptitude routinely judged to be the personal quality of some privileged individual. Nasmyth remembered how his drawings of high pressure steam engines were decisive in obtaining employment at Maudslay's shop: "Mechanical drawing is the alphabet of the engineer. Without this the workman is merely a hand; with it, he indicates the possession of a head". Such local entanglements of standardised production and individualised skill were not easily unravelled by Babbage's campaign for the mechanisation and quantification of the value of mental and manual labour. [38] Two critical problems haunted the work on the calculating engines. Firstly, the place of skill and the social and cognitive distance between designers, machinists and draughtsmen was vital for the project's conduct. When Babbage set out on a European tour in 1828 he left Clement what he reckoned were "sufficient drawings to enable his agents to proceed with the construction of the Difference Engine during his absence". Such written recipes soon proved hopelessly inadequate. Two years later, on his return, Babbage demanded that the engine construction site be moved from Clement's works across the river to Babbage's own house in Dorset Street. Brunel helpfully suggested a compromise site at the British Museum. When the government funded a new workshop next door to Dorset Street, Clement demanded a large financial recompense for the costs of splitting his workforce between two places. The financiers refused and Clement sacked most of his men. Jarvis, Clement's ex-draughtsman and future co-designer of the Analytical Engine, explained to Babbage why it was important that work proceed "under your immediate inspection": "you might be at once appealed to whenever it was found very difficult to produce nearly [the desired] effect which is a very common case in machinery". The lesson is a familiar one. The production and reproduction of skills and material technology requires intense and immediate interaction in spaces specifically designed for the purpose. Such designs violated the conventions by which the machinists plied their trade. In Maudslay's works, a large locked door protected "his beautiful private workshop" where "many treasured relics of the first embodiments of his constructive genius" were hung. "They were kept as relics of his progress towards mechanical perfection". Such shrines were importantly protected from the intrusions of customers and patrons alike. Clement, for example, always refused to make out bills for his work and tools "because it not the custom of engineers to do so". [39]

A second decisive problem for the engine project was therefore the issue of ownership and public knowledge. The costs of the work were traditionally in the hands of the engineer, while his tools, in this case the lathes, planes and vices, were always his own property. Thus the question of whether the Difference Engine was itself a tool became moot. From 1829 Babbage and Clement were in dispute about property and prices. Clement nominated Maudslay and Babbage nominated Bryan Donkin, designer of machinery for national weights and measures, to adjudicate the fight. Clement at once appealed to the customs of his craft: all the tools, especially the new self-acting lathes, belonged exclusively to him and he insisted on his right to make more calculating engines without Babbage's permission. Once again, Jarvis explained the point to the infuriated mathematician:

"It should be borne in mind that the inventor of a machine and the maker of it have two distinct ends to obtain. The object of the first is to make the machine as complete as possible. The object of the second - and we have no right to expect he will be influenced by any other feeling - is to gain as much as possible by making the machine, and it is in his interest to make it as complicated as possible". [40]


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