Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. CHARLES BABBAGE.
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher

Passages from the Life of a Philosopher

“The remarkable circumstances attending those Calculating Machines, on which I have spent so large a portion of my life, make me wish to place on record some account of past history...”

"As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of the science. Whenever any result is sought by its aid, the question will then arise—By what course of calculation can these results be arrived at by the machine in the shortest time?" - Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher



An autobiographical review of Babbage’s career and inventions, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher contains Babbage’s first and only detailed public description of the Analytical Engine, the first “Turing-complete machine” capable of functioning as a full-fledged universal computer. Though Babbage had publicly described (in 1822) his earlier invention the “Difference Engine”– capable of computing the values of polynomial functions (using the method of finite differences) – Babbage was publicly reticent about his vastly more powerful Analytical Engine. An account of the Analytical Engine was published by L.F. Menabrea and translated from French to English by Ada Lovelace, with the addition of Lovelace’s valuable commentary, but a detailed account in Babbage’s own words did not appear until he published Passages in 1864.

On the Analytical Engine:

“After building a functioning, albeit only part-finished, prototype for the Difference Engine, Babbage went on to dream up a machine that more closely adheres to the definition of a modern computer. Babbage called his new invention the ‘Analytical Engine’… Babbage explained that not only could his Analytical Engine calculate numbers, in the way the Difference Engine could, it had what could be described as a central processing unit – a processor, if you will; it also had a section which functioned as a memory, or storage space; and perhaps most amazingly, given that this was around 200 years ago, his computer was programmable.

“His ‘software’, if we can call it that, was stored on punch cards. Babbage had probably got the idea from the punch cards used to operate large looks in the textiles industry, where, it is believed, Joseph Marie Jacquard had invented the first programmable loom, the Jacquard loom, which used punch cards to create complex patters in textiles.

“However, Babbage’s concept of the Analytical Engine was far more versatile. He believed that his machine could be used in any number of contexts and industries, and that its only limitation was the human imagination…” (Abdul Montaqim, Pioneers of the Computer Age: from Charles Babbage to Steve Jobs).

On Passages from the Life of a Philosopher:

Babbage “was over seventy when he prepared this collection of anecdotes and ideas, and more obsessed than ever with his beloved engines. The book’s characteristic combination of peevishness and humor is apparent as early as the title page... The largest part of the book is, of course, devoted to his engines, with an account of their theory and principles of construction, and the sad tale of their neglect by the British Government” (Morrison, Philip; Morrison, Emily, ed., Charles Babbage: On the Principles and Development of the Calculator and Other Seminal Writings).

“Babbage’s character and originality come through in his autobiographical account entitled Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. Just like Babbage, the book does not fit into a standard mold. Too rambling and thematic for a conventional autobiography, it is an invaluable record of his unconventional point of view on his highly original life. It is also the best account of his calculating engines that Babbage published” (Norman, ed. From Gutenberg to the Internet).

The inscription and association:

This copy is inscribed by Babbage twice: on the front free endpaper “To Her Majesty / Eugenie / Empress of the French / most respectfully presented / by the Author" and with the same inscription on the rear free endpaper. The rear inscription runs from the bottom of the page towards the top (the book must be turned upside down for the inscription to be read properly) so it is likely that Babbage first inscribed it at the back, realized his mistake, then re-inscribed the book at the front.

The recipient, Empress Eugénie (Eugénie de Montijo de Guzmán), was the wife of Napoleon III and Empress of France from 1853-1870. She was an enormously influential figure, both politically and culturally. “Eugénie achieved a level of agency that went beyond that of consorts before her and she is one of the most important female figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries... During her lengthy life Eugénie lived through nearly a century of phenomenal change. In France, she was integral to the development of a social system that remains central to public life, and she was regent when the Alsace and Lorraine regions were annexed by Prussia, an event that was pivotal for both World Wars of the twentieth century. Internationally, Eugénie also witnessed the unification of countries including Italy and Germany, and in 1869 she was the leading figure of state to open the Suez Canal. After the fall of the empire, Eugénie, her husband, and her son settled in England. Napoléon III died January 9 1873; the prince imperial died in South Africa 1 June 1879. Eugénie, residing first at Chislehurst and then at Farnborough, worked to commemorate the emperor, the prince imperial, and the Second Empire. She died in Madrid on July 11 1920” (Alison McQueen, Empress Eugénie and the Arts).

The binding:

Bound in a stunning contemporary deluxe royal presentation morocco binding by Riviere featuring elaborate gilt tooling with floral motifs surrounding Empress Eugénie’s coat of arms with eagle at the center on both boards, silk endpapers, all edges gilt. It is almost certain that the book was originally presented to Eugénie in this binding. (“Bound by Riviere” stamped at the base of the front silk pastedown; shortly after 1860, Riviere bindings were stamped “Riviere & Son”).

Tomash & Williams B49 [this copy]; Origins of Cyberspace 84; Randell 1979 p.108; Van Sinderen 77.

London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864. Octavo (218x134mm), special deluxe contemporary green morocco by Riviere; custom cloth box. Complete with plate of the Difference Engine.


Price: $35,000 .

See all items in Science & Technology
See all items by