Babbage and Tennyson

Charles Babbage (1791–1871), the English mathematician was the father of the idea of a programmable computer. Babbage built a mechanical computer called “the difference engine.” He once corresponded with Alfred Lord Tennyson.


In your otherwise beautiful poem “The Vision of Sin”, there is a verse which reads,

“Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.”

It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death.

I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read:

“Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1,1/16th is born…”

I am, Sir, yours, etc.

Big yuk-fest for the mechanic, but he left himself open to a rebuke from the wordsmith along these lines:

Dear Mr Babbage,

If I had sucked several thousand pounds out of the government teat, by telling them that I was building an automatic calculator, without delivering so much as a pile of rusty cogs, I would be a bit more conscious of my own foibles and a bit less ready to poke fun at the works of others. Particularly as vacuum tubes won’t be invented until 1906. So stick that in your big red engine and take the difference of it.

Your most humble and obedient servant,

Lord Tennyson.

One can easily imagine the roar of protest, and the rapid return of fire from Babbage:

To Tennyson,

Listen funny boy, the analytic engine is based on sound principles, unlike your blasted poetry. If I wanted to hear from the organ grinder, I would speak to him, not the monkey. I’ve got a good mind to come round there and duff you up, proper.

So stick it in your ear.

How could the poet resist slamming back a reply of his own:

to Babbage the wanker,

There once was a man named Babbage
Whose head was green and shaped like a cabbage

Unfortunately, you do not inspire me further. If I see you on the street, I’ll whack you with a stick Then me and my mate Wordsworth will “do” you good.

This is why today there is still not a proper accommodation between art and science.

[The above is from a posting on alt.folklore.urban from years ago by someone. He said he found it in a book (not cited) at his own garage sale.]