In 1837 Charles Babbage was asked by Brunel to work with him on the Great Western Railway
It was a family affair as his son was working for Brunel at this time. Brunel wanted ‘research into the safety and efficiency’ of the proposed G W R. Babbage was straight on with the job – so instead of sitting in a carriage on a moving train and simply counting the number of times he is noticeably shaken, he decided to build and install in a carriage with the means of recording automatically the movements of several parts as it travelled over different stretches of the line at chosen speed.
On the floor of this stripped out carriage were long strips of wallpaper held down by mahogany rollers, with pens held over the paper tracing the motion as the train moved. This gave a permanent record of the train’s movement and the state of the track.
Charles was keen to test his invention by putting it through its paces. He wanted to see how it would respond when the train was pulling different weights. He told Brunel that the constant stopping and pulling away at stations was interrupting the effectiveness of the test and asked if he could take the train out at night. Brunel said it would be too dangerous, so a very early slot was arranged. Unfortunately the driver and the stoker fell asleep on returning to the shed and crashed through it.
Not deterred, shaken or stirred he asked if he could borrow a train on the Sunday. Oh no, not really it’s a Sabbath, OK between you and me then, unofficial like (not a quote.) Anyway Charles was up early that morning with his couple of engineers in tow. Babbage had 30 tons of ballast added to the carriages – he wanted to give it a proper testing out.
They stoked up the boiler, the engine was ready and he was about to give the order to pull away when he spotted some distance away a trail of smoke. Charles dismissed this – it was the Sabbath so no trains would be running. But he had the presence of mind to wait, who should suddenly come round the corner but Brunel by himself. He had borrowed a train to get back from a night out in Bristol.
They were on a collision course and both would have been travelling at 40 miles an hour. Brunel told Babbage he would not have stood a chance and Babbage informed him that because of the extra weight he was carrying Brunel’s engine would have turned over. What an accident that would have been – both Babbage and Brunel wiped out of existence and another history written.