Babbage archive discovery

A piece of punched paper found in the MAAS collection provides insights into scholar and inventor Charles Babbage.

Piece of paper punched to be used in a Jacquard weaving machine and found in a box with the letters of Charles Babbage.
Piece of paper punched to be used in a Jacquard weaving machine and found in a box with the letters of Charles Babbage. Photo by Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

MAAS intern Lisa Chidlow was helping archive a box of Englishman Charles Babbage’s letters (dated 1830–60) at the Powerhouse Museum when she found a fragile piece of paper while working with archivist Paul Wilson.

There were some 130 letters in the box and Paul Wilson had done a rudimentary listing of the items. Lisa’s task was to expand on this, transcribing what was written, recording the date, and so on. ‘Babbage is considered the “father of the computer”, a gifted mathematician, inventor, philosopher, mechanical engineer.

‘I came to the bottom of the box and noticed a scrappy-looking folded paper.’ It was written in French and attached to the lower half was a section of perforated paper with lots of patterned holes. ‘It was an example of something from a Jacquard weaving machine in which mechanical looms were programmed to punch in various patterns. This sample was from a French exhibition in 1855 and the reason it is exciting is because it appears that Babbage has made notes on the paper about hole sizes.’

Lisa, along with other Museum staff, is excited about the discovery. ‘I knew it was significant mainly because of Babbage’s notation on the perforated section. I recognised his writing from other notes and it seemed most relevant that his comments related to his interest in punchcard technology so I took it to Paul. He called Principal Curator Matthew Connell who, being an expert on Charles Babbage, was delighted by the find. The paper was in poor condition and it was immediately put aside for conservation work.’

Paul Wilson has worked extensively with the Museum’s Babbage collection. He says, ‘Our Babbage holdings are one of the jewels of the Museum’s archival collection. The letters, invitations, documents and other material provide amazing insights into the world of Charles Babbage and how he interacted with the British intelligentsia of his day.’

Matthew Connell admits he hadn’t notice the yellowed and folded sheet of paper. He says Babbage was intrigued by Joseph Marie Jacquard’s weaving machines at this time and wondered how he could use their methods. ‘When he was thinking about how he would [develop] his analytical engine, the computing machine, he needed a way to store information and he needed a way to send new instructions. He saw Jacquard’s automatic looms shortly after they were invented and he immediately decided he would use punched cards.’

Matthew Connell, Principal Curator, with piece of paper punched to be used in a Jacquard weaving machine and found in a box with the letters of Charles Babbage.
Matthew Connell, Principal Curator, with piece of paper punched to be used in a Jacquard weaving machine and found in a box with the letters of Charles Babbage. Photo by Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Jacquard weaving machines had been using punched cardboard from the early 1800s but Matthew says using paper was a new development that revolutionised the amount and cost of storing programs in a weaving machine. He believes Babbage may have been thinking about what in 1965 would be known as Moore’s Law that predicted an ever decreasing size and cost of storing and processing data. ‘This is like a prophetic gesture from the mid 1800s that our friend Charles Babbage saw and collected for himself for his own files. This is one of the real connections to Babbage’s interest in the development of his analytical engine. He saw the application for his computing device.’

Matthew says the punched paper strip is significant but will need further investigation into the meaning of the notes. The Museum has a difference engine that was assembled by Babbage’s son Henry after his father’s death. It was a precursor to the analytical engine, which is now anticipated the structure and principles of modern computing.

Two of Babbage’s eight children emigrated to Australia. The papers were donated to the Museum by the Babbage family in 2013. Because they are fragile, the papers can’t be on display for long periods but the paper strip will be displayed in the future.

 


This article first appeared in MAAS Magazine, December 2015. To access a digital version of the magazine go here. To receive a printed copy, become a MAAS member here.

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