Thrilling Adventure! Treasure Discovered!

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Meanwhile..

So here’s a little tale for you.  As it features ME, it is of course a gripping, hair-raising story of FUN and COOL and… okay, it’s a tale of.. LIBRARIES.

So I’ve been tromping all over London in search of a few bits and bobs of books on Babbage, and a public library catalogue search for “The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage” took me down to the fine Upper Norwood Public Library (additional  geek note: I have a map of London in my head that consists of locations of Sherlock Holmes stories).

I couldn’t find the book on the shelves, so I asked the librarians; and one of them went down into the basement to see if it might be there.  The other librarian told me they used to have quite a few Babbage books there because he was born right around the corner, and had I seen the plaque?

I had not seen the plaque, so I ran out and looked at the Blue Plaque (it was blue! and a plaque!) and when I came back the librarian was emerging from the basement looking downcast and apologetic.  “I’m really sorry– I can’t find the books you’re looking for; we must have cleared them out.  This is the only book we have on Charles Babbage.”  And she hands me this:


“Huh!”  I said, “It’s Babbage’s autobiography, Passages From the Life of a Philosopher! I had no idea there was a modern reprint!”  So I start flipping through it and then I say “Waaaaiit a minute.. I don’t think this IS a modern reprint..”

Call me crazy, but I think this is a first edition:


Click for larger, and to read the wildly inappropriate quotation from Byron’s “Don Juan”.

I could be wrong of course, but it certainly feels old, and there’s no other copyright in there.  Hilariously, inside that criminal modern binding it’s got the traditional little library flag with all the stamps.  It was last let out in 1972.

So I grabbed it and fled to Panama!

No no, of course not, I checked it out like a civilized person and THEN I fled to Panama.

Actually, it’s probably not worth THAT much, even if it is the real thing– copies in fair condition still in the original binding go for around 2000 pounds, so this one is… I dunno, a few hundred?  It’s pretty beat up, sadly. Anyways I figure if it IS a first edition, and if the library is cool with it, I might take a little whip-round here on the site and see if I can get it re-bound properly and maybe put on display or something, I don’t know… it seems wrong to just put it back in the basement.

addendum for those burning with anxiety: I did finally track down The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage in another libarary.. so far I haven’t gotten even one good gag out of it, can you believe it!

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  1. Alice on January 5, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    You are so lucky! I live in Canada (specifically in Edmonton, Alberta, where buildings constructed in the 80s are considered ‘modern’ and buildings constructed in the 70s are considered ‘heritage sites’) and the chances of just walking into a library here and stumbling on a first edition of anything worth reading are about equal to the chances of Babbage funding a street performer’s festival. Heck, the chances of finding ANY edition of anything worth reading are fairly slim.

    Why is England such a superlative place, anyway? Thank goodness for the internet and websites like yours, that’s all I have to say.

  2. Burra Peg on November 13, 2009 at 7:13 am

    > (additional geek note: I have a map of London in my head
    > that consists of locations of Sherlock Holmes stories).

    Sydney, are you familiar with the wonderful series of introductory programming books written a few decades ago by a Dr. Henry Ledgard, whose whole premise was the use of the analytical engine by Sherlock Holmes for crime solving where large amounts of date were involved? There were a number of books and stories by him along these lines but I recall the titles of two were ‘Elementary Pascal’ and ‘Elementary BASIC’. Of course, BASIC and other languages have no actual historic application to Babbage’s machine (or to Holmes) but the books were very well written, by Watson of course, and quite charming. There were quaint old illustrations of Holmes with the engine, etc. I thought them very well done and quite in the spirit of the original tales. Here are a couple of quick google hits.

    By the way, I love ‘Lovelace and Babbage’. Cheers, and keep up the good work, Stew

  3. David Singmaster on September 26, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I’m pleased to find Babbage/Lovelace enthusiasts. The birthplace of Babbage was unknown until Anthony Hyman investigated baptismal records near Elephant and Castle and found the baptismal entry for Babbage at St. Mary Newington and deduced that he must have been born at his father’s house on the Walworth Road. He published this in a letter in 1976 and in his biography of Babbage. Sometime in the 1980s, I was giving a course for local teachers and students in history of mathematics and I posed the problem of determining just where Babbage’s house and Clement’s workshop had been. One group went off to the Walworth Library and examined the rate books for the period and found the Babbage family house and determined that it was actually where the Library is today. where Larcom Street meets Walworth Road. I wrote to Southwark Council and urged them to put up a plaque, and Anthony Hyman had also written. They erected a Historic Southwark plaque on the site in 1991. Though sometimes called Blue Plaques, I would describe the colour as aqua.
    The church of St. Mary Newington was also where Michael Faraday was baptised. Examination of maps from the 1790s shows it was where Churchyard Row meets Newington Butts and there is some old wall there which may have been part of the church. It was rebuilt a short way down the road toward Clapham and that was bombed in WW2 and then rebuilt.
    My interest in Babbage extended to Ada Lovelace. I suggested a Blue Plaque be erected at her birthplace, Lord Byron’s house, 13 Piccadilly Terrace, now 139 Piccadilly, but English Heritage deemed that this house had been changed so much that it wasn’t the best place. They choose the Lovelace house at 12 St. James’ Square which they had done up shortly after their marraige and was still pretty much as they had left it. A Blue Plaque was unveiled on 12 October 1992 by John Barnes, Chairman of Ada UK and a major developer of the ADA language. I was privileged to be present. The current occupant of the house is some sort of financial institution and showed us around their trading rooms, etc. Ada died at 6 (now 32) Great Cumberland Place, just north of Marble Arch. I have been told that the building was destroyed in WW2. At present it appears to be the Marble Arch Synagogue. Her husband, Lord Lovelace, had her buried in the Byron family vault at Hucknall Torquard, about 6 miles north of Nottingham, near Newstead Abbey where Byron was born and raised. Her coffin was placed touching that of the father she had never known.
    A few years later I was attending a meeting of the Byron Society where Betty Toole was speaking on her book based on Ada’s letters and I was introduced to Lord Byron – he doesn’t look much like the poet and he explained that the line of descent had several kinks.

    • sydney on September 26, 2009 at 11:07 pm

      This is fantastic information– many thanks! Someday I mean to go down to Totnes where Babbage grew up– might be a little more atmospheric than Elephant and Castle…

      A line of descent with several kinks is surely the most appropriate way to be descended from Byron!

  4. Bella Green on September 16, 2009 at 3:48 am

    So, I was re-reading “The Economic Model”, and I find that I need a tee shirt of Ada in panel six of part one, where she says, “I’m beginning to be of the opinion that we require mental stimulation.” It’s brilliant!! It fits most of the social situations in which I find myself these days. Pretty-please?

  5. John on September 10, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    I’ve never been to Panama, myself, but a friend who has described a similar sound that turned out to be what passed for plumbing where she lived. So that might not be guilt. And you might want to find a better hovel before the book gets wet.

    And ditto on the Mozart comic. Sydney has a very active style, but I also read XKCD, so a sufficiently good idea can certainly overcome “substandard” (whatever that may mean) visual arts.

  6. Smallpotato on September 6, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I’ve checked the Leiden University Library (my own university *beams proudly*), and it contains the complete works of Charles Babbage (eleven volumes), which were, apparently, reprinted in 1989.
    There were 37 books that popped up when I randomly typed ‘Babbage’ in the library’s search engine (this included the 11 books by Babbage, the rest were *about* him), but weirdly only two books about Ada Lovelace! Scandalous!

    BTW, I totally get your squee-ing. I found, through the Royal Library at The Hague, books from 1837 in which my beloved Emmanual Schikaneder was a character (apparantly the author had knows Schikaneder in his youth and it was an accurate description of the man – squee!). It was a penny dreadful, but it had Emanuel Schikaneder in it!!
    You have Lovelace and Babbage, I obsess about Mozart and Schikaneder. Twenty years ago, I vowed I would make a comic about them, one day. I never did, because, although I’m a pretty good artist, I’m way out of your league. But, apart from giving me pleasure in itself, your Lovelace and Babbage webcomic has given me hope. Who knows… One day… *dreams on*

    • sydney on September 7, 2009 at 9:33 pm

      LOL, you should totally do that comic! I wouldn’t worry too much about style- I’ve seen great comics drawn with all kinds of looks, it just depends on how you deploy your resources.

  7. bruce on September 3, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    “I have a map of London in my head that consists of locations of Sherlock Holmes stories”

    Marry me.
    No, seriously.

  8. Nick Harkaway on September 3, 2009 at 8:29 am

    There actually is a modern reprint of some sort – a paperback thingy which is basically a scan of the original. There’s also an edition from the 60s which is unprepossessing, but slightly more interesting than the scanned version…



    Make more of the pictures with the Babbage man and the Lovelace lady happen!


  9. O. Negative on September 1, 2009 at 12:32 am

    I am also very much a Sherlock Holmes fan. I thought you’d find this quote interesting, which I found in this Wikipedia article:

    “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love” –Arthur Conan Doyle

  10. sydney on August 31, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Ceridwen- Wow. This makes me wonder how much public libraries lose to book theft.. Oh all right I’ll give it back.. after I’ve renewed it
    a few times! It wasn’t even in their system, so it’s on my record as ‘a book’.

    Richard- I haven’t got up the energy to jump through the British Library’s hoops yet.. but I’ve found the Wellcome Collection has nearly everything I’ve been looking for, and a very snazzy reading room to boot. Some go there to cure cancer.. I go to do totally unnecessary research for imaginary comics.

    musiccaptain– In my quest to track down “Autobiography of an Oyster” the mystery only deepens.. I first found this odd thing which led me to this odd thing, and finally to a tantalizing snippet. There the scent went cold.

    I’ll add something about the Byron quote, though it’s just a personal opinion– Babbage was no Lothario as far as I know (although this aspect of his life has been SADLY NEGLECTED by biographers), but he did love women– I mean loved them as people. He was very close to his mother, and writes feelingly (though only once) about his wife who died when in her early thirties; many of his closest friends were women; he argued for the inclusion of women to scientific bodies. Sometimes he gives me an impression that he was (going out on a limb here) more comfortable around women than men, or at least that his relations with women were never tainted the bitterness and politicking that plagued so much of his life.

    That said, “Don Juan” might not be the best way to illustrate that thought.. although I do wonder if he wasn’t thinking about Ada there.

    Tobias– He may be making complicated math gags but if so they’re over my head..

    John– I can’t enjoy Panama under my CRUSHING LOAD OF GUILT.. the book.. louder and louder, I can hear the beating of its hideous heart!

  11. John on August 31, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    The Don Juan quote was sooo close to being appropriate, and then he went and kept on talking. I imagine that’s emblematic of Babbage, actually.

    So…how’s Panama? And why no picture of the (alleged) Blue Plaque? Its very blueness (and plaqu…asity?) has my curiousity up.

  12. Tobias on August 31, 2009 at 6:54 am

    It seems mysterious that you couldn’t get any gags out of the book, maybe Babbage was, I don’t know, being serious? I mean, serious in a more traditional way? But just the idea of that sounds fairly preposterous!

  13. musiccaptain on August 31, 2009 at 5:10 am

    I would just lurrrve to to hear Babbage give an explanation of the Bryon quote. And forgive me, but is the oyster quote completely invented or from some source everyone but me knows…

  14. DU on August 31, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Hey, I think my work library has that book! (The one you were looking for, not the one you found.) I’m gonna leave this unread in Google Reader so I remember to check. FYI.

    Also, I could look at those old-timey technical drawings all day.

  15. EFH on August 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    How cool is that!

  16. Richard on August 30, 2009 at 3:21 am

    you are a reader at the British Library, right? Or, if you’re exhibiting at the Museum of Histor of Science, perhaps you could get a Bodleian reader’s ticket. They’ll have all the good stuff.

  17. Ego Scribo on August 29, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Don Juan and The Autobiography of an Oyster… side by side… on the page, and in Charles Babbage’s brain…

    The juxtaposition hints at many things, and some of them are things we are not meant to think about.

  18. Ceridwen on August 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I love finding things in the library. Ours back in Vermillion had a copy of the first full American printing of Mein Kampf, somewhere between June and September, 1939. The book is boring, but the footnotes are great. “Mr. Hitler” instead of, as we do, plain “Hitler,” and mentions of the invasion of Czechoslovakia but not of Poland.

    Congrats on the find!