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'I can think of nothing else but this machine.'
James Watt, in a letter to Dr James Lind, 29 April 1765, writing about the steam engine
The Britain into which Charles was born on 26 December 1791 was the richest country in the world by aggregate wealth, but a land in which the distribution of wealth was fantastically unequal.
The economist Joseph Massey estimated in the late 1750s that the bottom 40 per cent of the British population, wealth-wise, had to live on 14 per cent of the nation's wealth. Massey also produced an estimate of Britain's social structure for 1759, which is still regarded as accurate by modern historians.
According to Massey, only about 310 families in Britain had an annual income in 1759 of more than £5,000; this made them peers and grand landowners. The next category comprised about 1,000 families with an annual income of more than £1,000; these were also gentry, though not quite as elevated as the first category. Next came wealthy merchants and squires; there were about 3,400 families fitting into this category, and they had an annual income of £600 or above. It is important to bear in mind that in those days when industrialisation, while burgeoning, had not been burgeoning for long, most of the wealth of the nation still came from farming. If you owned substantial land, you were rich; if you didn't, by and large you weren't.
Next along came small landowners, clergy, traders and professionals who had an annual income of about £100 or more. There were about 105,000 of these families. Then there were about 160,000 families whose annual income was between £50 and £100. These were small traders, lesser clergy and moderately prosperous farmers.
The rest of the population, about 1.1 million families, had an income of below £50 a year and were impoverished and often also malnourished, though this was a time before the discovery of vitamins or any other elements of nutrition, so people tended to measure nourishment according to how full their bellies were. The overall population of Britain was about 6 million in 1750 and had risen to about 8 million by 1790.
It was a Britain hard to imagine today. Until the 1730s, only six decades before Charles was born, there had still been laws in force condemning witches to be burnt at the stake. The first half of the eighteenth century also saw the beginning of what is now known as the Industrial Revolution. The term – believed to have been coined by a Frenchman, the diplomat Louis-Guillaume Otto, who on 6 July 1799 had written to a friend to say that 'une revolution industrielle' had started in France – has come to be used to describe the enormous acceleration in the application of steam technology and mass manufacture throughout British industry.
The Industrial Revolution was well entrenched by the time Charles was born. In 1718, businessmen John and Thomas Lombe had set up a silk mill in Derby, five storeys high and powered by water from the River Derwent. The Lombe manufactory employed about 300 people and is regarded as one of the world's first factories.
The factories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have generally acquired a bad press today, having come to be regarded and thought of by many as ugly, cramped, noisy places of excessively strict rules. Cramped and noisy they often were, but when they were first built they weren't as bad as they became. They were once new, after all. It's true that the rules prevailing in them were draconian – for example, in some factories workers were routinely fined more than a day's pay for being even slightly late, and were sometimes fined the following day's pay too. Yet we need to bear in mind that, at the time, for many people who went to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, the alternative was solitary toil, such as at handlooms up muddy country lanes in damp, miserable cottages for unpredictable and starvation pay. For such people, going to work in a factory at least offered the advantages of regular wages, reasonable working conditions and new social possibilities.
George Eliot, in her inspired novel Silas Marner (1861), tells the story of a solitary weaver of linen who lives in a little cottage and grows half-demented (and extremely miserly) from loneliness until he accidentally becomes the guardian of a little girl on whom he dotes, and who eventually comes to regard him as her father. Mary Essinger, somewhat more recently, worked in clothing factories in the British Midlands city of Leicester in the 1950s and writes, in her memoir Mary, Quite Contrary (2016), about the difference between how factories are often perceived today and what it was like to work in them back then:
The Leicester knitwear industry has all but vanished and I thought of the generations of skilled workers making dresses, jumpers, underwear and socks ... Factory workers were considered 'common'. It made me think of all the beautiful girls who worked alongside me in the factory and the fun we had. And none of them were common.
Factories were not dark, satanic mills, sewing needs daylight and factories had lots of windows. Leicester's vibrant and creative industry once helped to clothe the world with high-quality knitted outerwear and underwear.
While factory regulations of the early Industrial Revolution do often seem draconian and indeed outrageous to modern sensibilities, the rules were thought necessary at the time to try to create reliable factory workers out of people who had never worked in those places before. Not that this excuses what the regulations were like. In due course, government legislation curtailed much of the excessive strictness inflicted on factory workers – who were usually referred to as 'hands', as if that were the only part of their anatomy that really mattered.
Even though most people in eighteenth-century Britain lived in savage poverty, many families were growing more prosperous. Sometimes insights into what a particular period was really like are gleaned from, on the face of it, relatively trivial statistical information that suggests a significant new pattern of behaviour. To take one example, the sale of wallpaper in Britain rose from 197,000 yards in 1713 to more than 2 million yards in 1785, a more than tenfold increase in a little over seventy years.
Inevitably, as the infrastructure slowly became better, this had a beneficial effect on the poor as well as the wealthy. It is, after all, a common-sense fact that if (say) wealthy people install streetlights on a road, then the impoverished can benefit from those lights as well as the rich who installed them. This helps to explain why improvements in infrastructure tend to benefit the whole community, not only the instigators. Moreover, infrastructure improvements, by speeding up social and economic processes and making the process itself more efficient, tend to increase economic prosperity anyway.
* * *
The Britain into which Charles was born was going through a revolution in physical communications as well as of industry. Before the middle of the eighteenth century, long-distance travel in Britain was rare. Roads were sometimes little more than dirt tracks, often with deep ruts that would have broken the wheel of a horse-drawn carriage. Often the only reliable way of travelling was on foot. In July 1618, the English playwright Ben Jonson wanted to go to Scotland from London; he did so by the simple but laborious expedient of walking there. It took him two weeks.
In the early eighteenth century the idea of travelling a long distance for pleasure was still generally a contradiction in terms. For example, the fastest journey between London and Cambridge, a distance of about 60 miles, took a long day in a horse-drawn coach that would travel at an average of 5 miles an hour, with the horses usually being changed at every coaching inn for fresh, watered ones. Travelling the 160 miles from London to Shrewsbury by horse-drawn coach could take more than three days. The journey to Edinburgh by coach still took around ten days, not much shorter than Jonson's walk. Some travellers even made their wills before starting on a journey; this wasn't at all an irrational thing to do, as coaches often overturned on bad roads, or encountered swollen rivers, often with fatal consequences.
But by the middle of the eighteenth century, things were getting better. Roads were being improved. Privately financed turnpike roads had spread from London and around the capital to major English cities including Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham. In the 1770s, these private turnpike roads spread further into Wales and Scotland.
Yet people still braved the old Roman roads and bridle paths, which were often the only routes available in many parts of the country. Some journeys were remarkably ambitious. For example, every year, tens of thousands of cattle from the Scottish Highlands were driven southwards until they reached the Smithfield meat market in London. More and more demand for manufactured goods fostered the spread of inland trade, as did increasing industrial specialisation in British regions.
Altogether, the Industrial Revolution created opportunities for wealth and technological advancement and personal enrichment that were close to unimaginable until it got under way. In May 1733, a singularly ingenious inventor, John Kay, had been granted a patent for his 'flying shuttle'. This did not literally fly – instead the shuttle was shot very rapidly through a loom along wheels in a track by a weaver, who pulled a cord to operate it. Kay's invention speeded up the weaving process enormously, and increased yarn consumption so much that the flying shuttle spurred the invention of new machines that would spin yarn from cleaned and combed wool more rapidly than ever before.
The next most significant invention in the fabric-processing industry was the invention by James Hargreaves in 1764 of the 'spinning jenny', named after his daughter. The jenny was the first major breakthrough in textile machinery that comprehensively met the challenge set by John Kay. It greatly increased the rate at which yarn could be spun, though the thread produced by Hargreaves' machine was coarse and lacked strength, making it suitable only for use as weft: that is, the threads woven at right angles across a warp when making fabric.
In 1771, Richard Arkwright, a former barber who had become interested in textiles while carrying on a sideline as a wig maker, patented his 'water frame', a water-powered spinning frame that produced a yarn of a superior quality to that yielded by the spinning jenny. Arkwright built a five-storey mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, in the English Midlands. The mill operated round the clock in two twelve-hour shifts, one starting at 6 a.m. and the other at 6 p.m. Arkwright needed 200 workers for his factory, which was far more than the locality of Cromford could provide, so he built housing for his workers nearby, being one of the first employers ever to do so.
Most of Arkwright's workers were women and children, the youngest being only 7 years old. Later, the minimum age of child workers was raised to 10 – even at the time, many people were uneasy about children working in factories and Arkwright arranged for his employees' children to be given six hours of education per week. He did this, however, not so much for idealistic humanitarian reasons but so that the children could do the factory's record-keeping that their largely illiterate parents could not. Arkwright's factory was the first to be ruled by the clock rather than by daylight hours, and it eventually used hundreds of water frames. His Cromford mill grew to employ about 1,000 people, and later in life he became known as the 'father of the modern industrial factory system'. Other mills using Arkwright's machines and employment principles were built under licence, including one at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. When Arkwright died in 1792, he was the richest non-aristocratic person in Britain.
In 1779, Samuel Crompton's 'spinning mule' or 'mule jenny' had combined the main benefit of the water frame (the quality of its yarn) with the speed of the spinning jenny. The name Crompton chose for his machine exploited the pun that the name for a female donkey – mules are horse/donkey hybrids – is a 'jenny', though in fact a mule has a male donkey for a father and a female horse for a mother. Since around 1790, most of the yarn-spinning machines in Britain had been Crompton's mules. Meanwhile, Edward Cartwright had in 1784 invented the first steam-powered loom. By 1833, almost all the garments produced in Britain were woven on powered looms.
Steam power – the first practical way of producing motive force from heat – was rightly seen as the practical and mystical catalyst of the Industrial Revolution. Steam power was the wonder of the age, offering the ability to get work completed more quickly and much more reliably than the old energy sources: people, horses and running water.
In the steam engine, iron, coal, water and fire were used to create a noisy, smoky and smelly machine that at first produced up and down motion, but then was ingeniously adapted so that it could also produce rotary movement. Heat produced steam that pushed against pistons to produce reliable power even if there was no source of running water nearby, or if it had dried up.
The man who had made steam the supreme force of the British Industrial Revolution was a Scottish instrument maker and inventor named James Watt. Watt didn't, in fact, invent the first steam engine – that had been achieved by Thomas Savery, who patented an inefficient steam pump in 1698. But Watt's engines were much better than Savery's, and better even than the steam engines of an inventor called Thomas Newcomen, which were themselves a significant improvement on Savery's.
Watt's successes at making the Newcomen steam engine more efficient came to the attention of Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham-based industrialist who manufactured decorative items and who engaged Watt to build him a steam engine. Boulton grasped that steam engine manufacture itself could be a highly successful commercial venture, and in 1775 Watt and Boulton went into business together. Their collaboration made Watt rich and Boulton even richer. By 1800, their factory in Birmingham had produced more than 500 steam engines. Boulton liked to bustle influential guests around his factory, boasting that he sold 'what every man desires: POWER'.
Charles Babbage, as he grew up in the nineteenth century, had an ingenuous – and, on occasion, even naive – fascination with machinery and its reliability, and how it seemed to him to offer human beings a level of control over their environment, and over processes, which was unprecedented. Charles was not so much fascinated by machinery as obsessed with it.
* * *
The British postal service was also greatly improved in this period, although it remained far from adequate, mainly because recipients of letters had to pay for them and the postage was expensive; often recipients didn't want to pay.
London's first daily newspaper appeared in 1702. By 1760 there were four daily newspapers in London and six evening papers, published three times a week, which circulated in the capital. The provinces were still relatively autonomous culturally and generated their own newspapers, their own books, dictionaries, magazines, printed advertisements and primers.
In 1695, Parliament had passed legislation allowing printing presses to be established outside London; between 1700 and 1750, printing presses were founded in fifty-seven English provincial towns. In 1755, Dr Samuel Johnson's famous Dictionary, while too expensive for anyone who wasn't rich, nonetheless set down for the first time a reliable spelling standard which, while it has been superseded since then in the cases of some individual words, is generally still the standard.
As the eighteenth century came to a close, despite the poverty and want that afflicted far too many people and shortened their lives, the new century, the nineteenth, seemed full of potential. And indeed it proved to be so. Inventions devised in the nineteenth century include international telecommunications (the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1865), the telephone, the typewriter, the camera and, thanks to Charles Babbage, the computer. In a very real sense, we are all to some extent, at least in a technological sense, children of the 1800s.
* * *
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London was the largest city in the world, with more than 650,000 citizens. For sheer size, the capital easily dwarfed other British towns. In 1750, its nearest rival in terms of population, Norwich, had been recorded as having fewer than 50,000 people. Even so, the provincial towns, while nowhere near as big as London itself in terms of population, were also growing in size and importance. In 1700, only ten of Britain's provincial cities contained more than 10,000 people, but by 1750 there were seventeen towns with populations of that size, and by 1800 more than fifty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Charles and Ada"
Copyright © 2019 James Essinger.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Lisa Noel Babbage,
1 Britain Transformed,
3 Cambridge Days, and Ada is Born,
4 Family Matters,
5 The Epiphany that Changed Charles' and Ada's Lives,
6 1827: Charles' Year of Disaster,
7 Ada Dreams of a Flying Machine,
8 The Solitary Widower,
9 On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures,
10 Charles and Ada Meet,
11 The Remarkable Ada Byron,
12 A Fresh Tragedy; the Analytical Engine; and Ada's Marriage,
13 Dabbling in Politics,
14 A Stage Play that Held Up a Mirror to Charles' Heart,
15 Ada the Fairy,
17 Last Days,
18 So Why Did Charles and Ada Fail?,
Appendix: Information on Sources,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed this well research bio on some of the most famous names in the pioneer in computer engineering - Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, who were both well ahead of their time. Essinger was able to capture and made well use of the research and the extensive collection available in the British Library Babbage Archive in London, and also included amazing amounts of personal material on Babbages' eventful life, both tragic and private. Essinger's brilliant story telling and filling in the blanks to what Charles Babbages life was his true genius. The book read with such ease and the stories presented were so interesting that included the social history of that time. I learned a lot and really enjoyed this read with such enthusiasm that I highly recommend this amazing and well-written biography. Thank you to the author for the free copy of the book and all opinions are mine.