“Of the causes which have induced me to print this volume I have little to say; my own opinion is that it will ultimately do some service to science, and without that belief I would not have undertaken so thankless a task…That science has long been neglected and declining in England, is not an opinion originating with me, but is shared by many, and has been expressed by higher authority than mine.”
-Charles Babbage, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England…
”Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England…is probably responsible, in large measure, for the assumption that science in Great Britain was in a marked decline [in the early 19th century]…
…Babbage cited the French as the leading scientific people of the day.”
-Nathan Reingold, The British Journal for the History of Science
FIRST EDITION, PRESENTATION COPY IN ORIGINAL BOARDS, of Babbage’s scathing and sensational critique of the English scientific establishment. An important association copy, inscribed by Babbage to Joseph Nicolas Nicollet: “To M. Nicollet / from the Author”.
Science was not an established field in the early 1800s and Charles Babbage (1791-1871), like many of his contemporaries, was considered a 'gentleman scientist' - independently wealthy and thus able to support his personal interests. After graduating from Cambridge and settling in London, Babbage became a pre-eminent mathematician, inventor, mechanical engineer, and conceived of the first digital programmable computer. Babbage published nearly ninety papers and six full-length works between 1813 and 1868. A leader among his peers, he was elected as a fellow to the Royal Society of London in 1816 and helped establish the Royal Astronomical (1820) and Statistical (1834) societies.
His revolutionary 1830 work, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes, highlighted the neglect of science by the British government and the Royal Society. The publication of this text directly contributed to the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1831, an organization which sought to transform science from a self-funded venture of the wealthy to a government-funded profession and hoped to be a catalyst for social and economic development.
In Decline Babbage portrayed English science as moribund, English scientists as amateur and corrupt, and English scientific culture and reform as lamentably inferior to those of other countries, especially France. "To the observer with [the] advantage of hindsight, the charge that science was in decline seems ridiculous: Lyell's Principles of Geology had begun to appear, Darwin was setting off on the Beagle, and Faraday was beginning his revolutionary research into electricity and magnetism. But Decline, with its attacks on the Royal Society and the English universities, and its demand for more honors and sinecures for scientists, caused a sensation." (Knight, p. 144)
Though many found the vehemence of Babbage's views objectionable, his sentiments were widely shared, and this "broadside of outrage and insult... gave a decisive boost to the movement to reform organized science" (Swade, “Babbage, Charles”). In addition to the founding of the BAAS, a number of reforms within the Royal Society followed, and university curricula including both theoretical and applied science was established.
Even though many agreed with Babbage in private, his public attacks on the scientific establishment proved that diplomacy was not his forte. Babbage offended many whose support he needed yet he carried on his work and remained a proud and principled scientific figure. He continued to be a force on the London social scene and his exclusive Saturday soirees were a hub of social and intellectual activity. Always captivating and provocative, he was a much sought-after dinner guest.
This copy of Decline was presented to Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (1786-1843), a respected French geographer, astronomer, mathematician, and professor. Nicollet was a fitting recipient, as a member of the Bureau des longitudes, the English equivalent of which is much maligned by Babbage in Decline. Babbage first met Nicollet during his European tour of 1824 and they showed considerable interest in each others’ work. The Sotheby's sale catalog of Babbage's library reveals that Babbage owned several of Nicollet's works, including a copy of the Lettre sur les assurances qui ont pour base les probabilités de la durée de la vie humaine, seconde édition (Sotheby's 1872, catalog no. 586) and a few other papers.
Nicollet moved to the U.S. in 1832 and the men would never meet again. An accomplished scientist in his own right, Nicollet admired Babbage from afar for the rest of his career. Babbage, who expressed decidedly pro-French views, aspired to model British scientific reforms after his neighbors across the Channel.
While Babbage is best known for being the ‘father’ of the computer, he was a true polymath. He contributed to the development of the modern postal system in England, established the first reliable actuarial tables, created a type of speedometer, and invented the locomotive cowcatcher -- a device mounted at the front of a train car to deflect obstacles on the track that might otherwise lead to damage or derailment.
The importance of Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes cannot be understated. The reforms that followed the publication of this volume demonstrate the significant impact Babbage had on the scientific community in Britain. This copy, in particular, shows the value he placed on building relationships with continental colleagues.
Note:: Decline was published simultaneously in an octavo edition of 228 pages (as here) and a quarto edition of 120 pages. According to a note tipped into the Honeyman copy of the quarto edition, only "a few copies were printed in quarto, for the use of those gentlemen who may wish to bind up the work with the Philosophical Transactions for the year 1830", a nicely satirical touch in a work that was primarily a diatribe against the Royal Society.
London: printed for B. Fellowes, & J. Booth, 1830. Octavo, original boards sympathetically rebacked with paper and paper spine label; edges untrimmed. Housed in custom box. With four pages of publisher’s ads at rear. With neat ownership signature of I.H. Alexander on title. Boards a little soiled and worn at extremities, inner hinges discreetly strengthened with Japanese tissue, tiny perforation underneath inscription, top right corners of leaves P5-6 torn (not affecting text). Text in general remarkably crisp and clean.
AN IMPORTANT TEXT, SCARCE INSCRIBED AND IN ORIGINAL BOARDS.
Charles Babbage. Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes. London: B. Fellowes, & J. Booth, 1830.
Diana H. Hook and Jeremy M. Norman. Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing, Networking and Telecommunications. Novato: Norman Publications, 2002.
David M. Knight. Natural Science Books in English 1600-1900. London: David & Charles, 1972.
Nathan Reingold. The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, No. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
Doron Swade. “Babbage, Charles,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. www.oxforddnb.com, 2009.
Alfred W. Van Sinderen. “The Printed Papers of Charles Babbage,” The Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 2, Number 2, April/June, 1980.
Price: $4,500 .