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Charles Babbage Once Sent The Most Pedantic Letter To Tennyson, Mathematically "Correcting" His Poem

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMay 6 2021, 15:14 UTC
Charles Babbage: Mathematician, genius, pedant.

Charles Babbage: Mathematician, genius, pedant. Image credit: Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 4.0)

Polymath Charles Babbage is often hailed as the "father of computing", basically because he was.

The mathematician, engineer, and inventor designed the Difference Engine, which, though it was never fully built in his time, was a digital device, capable of storing and carrying out complex mathematical equations. In the 1830s, he developed plans for the Analytical Engine, the real forerunner of the modern computer. The device, which was partly built in his time, was to be fully programmable using punch cards. In many ways, including planned storage space and the ability to use basic "if this then that" logic, it was ahead of computers that were built right the way up to the 1960s.

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Babbage was, to be fair, a genius. He was also a massive pedant.

In 1842, poet Alfred Tennyson wrote the poem The Vision Of Sin, which contained the lines:

Fill the cup, and fill the can:
Have a rouse before the morn:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

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The last few lines, Babbage apparently felt, needed a quick fact check. He wrote one of the most pedantic letters seen in all of history and sent it to Tennyson for corrections to be made, according to the editor of Tennyson's work.

"Sir," the letter begins, sounding rather passive-aggressive.

"In your otherwise beautiful poem “The Vision of Sin” there is a verse which reads – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born.” It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death.

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I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born.”

The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.

I am, Sir, yours, etc.,

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Charles Babbage"

The letter appears to be trolling Tennyson, of course, rather than demanding real corrections. As well as being a genius, Babbage was something of an oddity, too. According to his notes, he once baked himself in an oven at 130°C (265°F) like a flan just to "see what would happen". He didn't feel "any great discomfort" despite the heat and the five or six minutes he remained in there.

He also later organised a trip to Mount Vesuvius, famous destroyer of Pompeii, before being lowered inside so that he could get close to the lava.


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