112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Captain Frederick Marryat and Charles Babbage: Alternative Coders of Victorian Culture

Daniel Wuebben, University of Nebraska at Omaha

This illustrated presentation analyzes the divergent thinking and practical inventions of Captain Frederick Marryat and Charles Babbage, giving special focus to Marryat’s Code of Signals (1817), Babbage’s “Difference Engine” (1823), and “Analytical Engine” (1837). Marryat and Babbage—rebels, tinkerers, restless thinkers—were to the early Victorian period what the mythical programmer-in-the-garage has been to recent revolution in computer electronics.

Proposal: 

This illustrated presentation analyzes the divergent thinking and practical inventions of Captain Frederick Marryat and Charles Babbage, giving special focus to Marryat’s Code of Signals (1817), Babbage’s “Difference Engine” (1823), and “Analytical Engine” (1837). Between 1817 and 1837, Marryat and Babbage were instrumental to the launch of orderly, global communication systems while simultaneously challenging the establishments they respectively served: the Royal Navy and Royal Society. Marryat and Babbage—rebels, tinkerers, restless thinkers—were to the early Victorian period what the mythical programmer-in-the-garage has been to recent revolution in computer electronics.

              Most studies of Marryat and Babbage begin and end at Ponder’s End, where the two classmates cultivated the wit, intellectual curiosity, and courage to challenge to authority. Of special note from this episode is the cipher-work that they performed for fun and the secret 3 am study group Babbage organized and Marryat infiltrated (which resulted in a rough-housing, fireworks, exposure, and disbandment).

My research honors their shared ideas, organizations, and publications that achieved broader circulation. For example, Babbage, along with John Hershel and George Peackock, formed the “Analytical Society” and published the first English translation of Lacroix’s Differential and Integral Calculus (1816). In 1820, Babbage formed the Astronomical Society, immediately inviting Marryat, who was versed with the charts and tables used for sea-navigation that were part of the group’s focus. Marryat responded, jokingly, “My dear Charles, I belong to so many erudite societies that I shall soon have the whole alphabet at my heels…I beg you will inscribe Capt. Marryat R.N. F.R.S. F.L.S., F.G.S., F.W.S., etc. etc…They will think me some new comet by the length of my tail.”

Marryat was originally embraced by such communities not only for his naval code and navigation skills, but also for inventing an award-winning lifeboat, and being well versed in horticulture. In 1830, the same year Marryat quit his command, Babbage published Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, in which he recycled Marryat’s joke about the “comet’s trail” and argued that any amateur British scientist could pay for admission to societies and achieve “a comet’s trail of upwards 40 letters’ as initials after his name.”  

Finally, while Marryat’s prose and fiction earned him international attention, his and Babbage’s famous communication systems (and corresponding reference texts) placed digits 0 through 9 as central referents. Marryat’s Code of Signals, which relied on flags signifying 0 to 9 and a numbered vocabulary, was the dominant code and cipher for all English-speaking Merchant ships during the first half of the nineteenth century. Early in his career, Babbage labored over massive multi-volume logarithmic, trigonometric, and astronomical tables (which were also carried on ships to help with navigation). It was the inaccuracy of the human computers and editors of these tables that inspired Babbage’s lament that such calculations could not be made by steam.  The engine that would result from Babbage’s frustration would rely on gear wheels inscribed o to 9, and Marryat shared in the excitement and frustration that ensued during his friend’s lifelong pursuit.