In one of those ironic twists of fate I used the internet in part to do some research for the Babbage book. So – since he was the one who started it – Babbage helped me do some of his own research! Now there’s a strange thought! He almost invented the time machine…
For a researcher these days it is a boon, this internet thingy. When I first started writing, as I think I mentioned before in one of my blog posts, I would haul myself around to different libraries to go ferreting around for snippets of information – usually I would be looking for answers to questions my last trip to the library had thrown up. I also used to haunt old bookshops. All those lovely old smelly books that felt like they were weighed down with history and knowledge, locked silently between the musty cardboard and leatherette covers waiting for someone – anyone – to open them and gasp with realisation that they were not just bits of fibrous dead weight; each was a treasure chest – unable to impart its knowledge without human intervention – my intervention.
Nowadays trawling takes a different form. You have to be imaginative of course – and dream up a search term that will yield some results from gigantic data sets. An odd keyword that will bring up odd search results that make some element of the past catch a glint of light – some insight into your research subject that might otherwise stay hidden in a dark unfrequented alley, and walked past, overlooked by the world. Most of what you would ever want to know is out there in that huge, perfectly digitally clean library. Not a speck of dust or book mildew in sight, no smell of knowledge, no yellowing edges; no secrets.
Most. That is the operative word – Most. I think that often what is lacking on the internet is the minutiae that make up the life of a person – the day to day habits and hobbies, their pastimes and their foibles. Also let me tell you that what you can find on the internet is quite amazing but what you are looking at is the already known. It’s on the internet because someone recently found it and put it out there for others to discover. That is fantastic, but what if there was more to be known that is not on the internet? What if you wanted to discover in your research something that was hidden even from the giant all Seeing Eye that is Google?
Charles Babbage owned a boat in Teignmouth and studied navigation. He would watch the ships coming and going and he knew that on each was a person known as the ship’s ‘computer’ – whose job it was to make many different calculations. Many of these calculations were essential for the safe passage of the vessel. Our mathematician friend Babbage knew that the log tables they used to perform their computations were inaccurate. He wrote:
‘what a breakthrough the corrections of these tables would mean to the safety of tens of thousands of ships upon the ocean, the accuracy of the coast surveys, the exact position of light houses the track of every shore from headland, the latitude and longitude of mid sea islands, the course and motion of the currents direction and the speed of the winds, bearing and distance… in short everything which constitutes the chief elements of international commerce in modern times, depends upon the fullness and accuracy of the table.
In his first year at university he got together some friends to discuss the calculations used in shipping and together they found ‘3,700 miscalculations’. He discussed with them the possibility of building a machine that once programmed could not be subject to human error. So – I say to the port of Teignmouth you can feel very proud of yourself – you were undoubtedly instrumental in the immeasurable achievement of this extraordinary genius Charles Babbage. Without your twists and turns at the river mouth, your tidal estuary and your shifting sandbanks requiring constant monitoring and measuring perhaps Babbage would not have conceived of the device that lead to the development of the different kind of computer we know today.
What if you needed answers to questions that could not be found in digital form anywhere on this earth? Get out there and back to the libraries and bookshops, ask to see their vaults and historical collections they are bursting goldmines – you never know what is in there – perhaps you wil find the greatest secret of them all.