Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Lycanthropic Launch of the Transformational Terror

                  So, we’ve looked at vampires and Frankenstein’s Monster and, as they say (although just who they are remains an open question), these things come in threes, so to complete this inhuman trio, the subject for today is the werewolf. ‘Werewolf’ has two elements – were and wolf; the final bit is easy enough, as it’s a word we still use today for the animal today, although in the past it could be used to describe any animal, (as could the word hund or hound).  


Were means an adult male human and is still used in some dialects (it’s a word I have used when speaking Lancashire dialect, although it is rare), and is related to the Latin word for a man – vir, as in virile or virility, the Welsh - gŵr and the Gaelic - fear meaning ‘a man’. It occurs in weregeld – ‘man-price’ – the compensation paid to a family or clan if a member was killed, (the Danegeld – ‘Dane-price’ – was paid to the Vikings to prevent them from ravaging England). Some say that the werewolf was a warrior who wore a wolf-skin into battle, just as the berserkers wore bear-skins, (serkr is Old Norse for shirt or coat, cognate with the Scots sark – as in Cutty Sark – ‘a short shirt’.) but I find this a little fanciful (they would be Úlfhéðnar, surely). Others have thought the werewolf derives from wargwolf, as a warg was a rogue wolf, often running alone, which slaughtered flocks of domestic animals, but this strikes me as a tautology (although a ‘wolfs-head’ was once the term for an outlaw who could be killed without impunity and who it was forbidden to aid). More usually, the werewolf is a man who transforms into a wolf, usually when the moon is full.

18th Century Werewolf

In Classical mythology, there are numerous references to men who turn into wolves. In Book IV of his Histories, Herodotus writes about the Neuri, a tribe of men who transform into wolves once every year. Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, writes of “That wolf who counterfeits a human shape” (Book VII). The legend of Lycaon tells how this King of Arcadia murders Nyctimus, one of his fifty sons, and serves the body to Zeus at a feast, in an attempt to test Zeus’s omniscience. In a fury, Zeus kills the rest of Lycaon’s sons with thunderbolts, restores Nyctimus to life, and transforms Lycaon into a wolf. 

Pausanius, in his Description of Greece, (Book VIII), gives a variation, in that Lycaon sacrifices a child to Lycaean Zeus and sprinkles the blood on the altar, whereupon he is changed into a wolf. Thereafter, a man at the sacrifice to Lycaean Zeus will always be transformed into a wolf, for nine years if he does not eat human flesh and forever if he does. The Greek word for wolf is λύκος (lýkos) and ‘human’ is άνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) – giving us another term for the werewolves – lycanthropes (wolf-men).

Zeus and Lycaon
The legend of the werewolf is found across continental Europe although it not common in England, maybe because wolves were eradicated during Anglo-Saxon times (the last English wolf was killed at Humphrey Head, Lancashire in about 1390), although there are many tales of ghostly or devil dogs. In countries where wolves are scarce or absent, there are tales of were-lions, were-tigers, were-bears, were-hyenas and so on, which indicates that the concept of men transforming into predatory animals is universal. The literature of the werewolf in the nineteenth century was largely a retelling of various medieval romances and legends and there are no real notable works; Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo, wrote The Wolf Leader in 1857, a short novella that has been described as “Dumas's drabbest hack-work.” 

Illustration from A Dumas - The Wolf Leader - 1904 trans.

The best non-fiction work from the period is Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves (1865), which brings together and examines the werewolf phenomena from myths and legends, together with cases of ‘real’ werewolves from medieval history, and remains one of the best source books on the subject. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the hero Jonathan Harker travels to the Carpathians, where he hears people speaking of  
“… vrolokj and vlkoslak both of which mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either were-wolf or vampire.

As with Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman featured in early films; the first, from 1913, The Werewolf is now lost, as is the German Werewolf (1932). Wolfblood (1925) is an oddity, a silent film set in a Canadian logging camp, where Dick Bannister, a new manager, is attacked by thugs from a rival logging concern and left for dead. He urgently needs a blood transfusion but the lumberjacks refuse to help, so the doctor uses the blood of a wolf instead (!) and Bannister begins to dream of running with wolves. The rival loggers begin to be killed by wolves and the rumour that Bannister is a werewolf begins to circulate. Edith, owner of the camp, had been engaged to the doctor but she had broken it off when she fell for Bannister, and the doctor tells her that Bannister will become more and more like a wolf, in a vain bid to win her back. Eventually, the doctor confesses that the wolf blood will do no harm to Bannister, who rides off into the distance with Edith. 

Henry Hull - Werewolf of London - 1935

In 1935, Werewolf of London featured the first bipedal, anthropomorphic wolfman, with make-up by Jack Pierce (who created Karloff’s Frankenstein), but failed at the box office, where it was seen as too similar to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde released three years earlier. 

Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman

In 1941, Lon Chaney Jr starred in The Wolf Man, a film which set the standard for all future werewolf films and is referenced by many of them, not least in the verse: - 
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf
When the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.’
Larry Talbot, the main character, is transformed into a wolfman after being bitten in the chest by a werewolf and goes on a killing spree in the local village. Eventually, his father beats him to death with his own a silver-headed cane. Chaney, playing Talbot, reprieved the role in a number of sequels over the years. 

Jack Pierce making-up Lon Chaney Jr

The cinematic wolfmen fall into two broad categories, the vicious, mindless killers or the tragic, haunted victims, and many of the ‘traditions’ of the werewolf come from the films - the ‘infection’ by the bite of a werewolf, the transformation at the full moon, the immunity to all weapons bar the silver bullet, the increased speed and strength, the interaction with real wolves and so on and so forth. The werewolf continues to appear in modern films (I won’t list them… ) and in television programmes (… but I will mention the BBC’s superb Being Human), as well as in books and graphic novels.

An American Werewolf in London - 1981
And, of course, I cannot end without mentioning the song with what was voted by BBC Radio 2 listeners as the best opening lines of a pop song ever – Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London.

I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain
He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook's
Gonna get a big dish of Beef Chow Mein.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Eponymous Entanglement of the Creator and the Creature

                            Mention the word ‘Frankenstein’ and then take out your stopwatch because it won’t be too long before someone says, “You do know that Frankenstein is the Doctor and not the Monster.” Which is perfectly true, but referring to the Monster as Frankenstein has a long pedigree and the usage is now so common that it’s a tad too pedantic to argue the point. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was one of the two works to come out of the literary challenge set by Lord Byron at Villa Diodati in June 1816, (the other being John Polidori’s The Vampyre). It was written by the eighteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley, after she married the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley), and was eventually published anonymously in 1818, as a three-volume novel, in a limited edition of 500. 

Frontispiece - M Shelley - Frankenstein - 1831 ed.

The initial reviews were not favourable but a second edition followed in 1822, in two volumes, with Mary credited as the author, following the success of a stage play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Peake, and then in a ‘popular’ edition, heavily amended and revised by Mary, was published in 1831.

William Ewart Gladstone, the four time Liberal Prime Minister, in an account of his visit to Sicily in 1838, published in Murray's 'Hand-book for Travellers in Sicily' (1864), writes of the mules that “… they really seem like Frankensteins of the animal creation.”

J Payn - By Proxy - 1878

In James Payn’s 1878 novel By Proxy, in Volume 2, Chapter 5 A Jesuitical Letter, is the sentence, 
To them the world is peopled by Frankensteins of their own creation, - who are necessarily wanting in the attributes which they do not themselves possess.”

Walter Pater, in his essay on Rossetti in Volume 4 of Ward’s English Poets (1880), wrote,  
“… his hold upon them, or rather their hold upon him, with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him.”
And in the English Illustrated Magazine for July 1895, in a short article on Prince von Bismarck, the writer says, 
Bismarck had, of course, not the faintest idea that he was creating a Frankenstein for himself and for the German monarchy.”
So, it seems, the usage was very common in works throughout the Victorian period, and not only in written texts. 

The Irish Frankenstein - Punch 1843

As early as 1843, Punch was using depictions of monsters with the title Frankenstein – an Irish Frankenstein appeared in November 1843, with another Irish Frankenstein, by Alfred Forrester, featured in 1882. 

The Irish Frankenstein - Punch 1882

Another, by John Tenniel in September 1866 depicts a Brummagen Frankenstein as a monstrous working class giant threatening John Bull.

The Brummagem Frankenstein - Punch 1866

The real uptake of the Frankenstein/Monster interchange of names began when the creature began to appear in the cinema. 

C S Ogle as The Creature in Edison's Frankenstein 1910

In 1910, in the earliest telling of the story on film, Charles Stanton Ogle appears as the monster in the ten minute silent Frankenstein by the Edison Studios. Another version, Life Without Soul, followed in 1915 but unfortunately this film is now lost. 

Lobby Card - Life Without Soul - 1915

The definitive monster appeared in the 1931 Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff (billed as ‘?’) taking the role. His make up, by Jack Pierce, has the now familiar flat-topped head and the bolt through his neck, and Karloff plays the part as a lumbering but tender giant, who kills by accident and is tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz (played by Dwight Frye). 

Boris Karloff as The Creature - 1931

The film was controversial because of the scene where the creature accidentally kills a little girl by drowning, and the line uttered by Frankenstein, “It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” caused other problems, as it was interpreted to be blasphemous. Karloff reappears in 1935, in The Bride of Frankenstein (with Elsa Lancaster in the title role) and in Son of Frankenstein (1939). 

Karloff in colour

In The Bride of Frankenstein, Frye again appears, as Karl, a crippled murderer who falls foul of the creature, and in the Son of Frankenstein, the crippled, deformed assistant, now called Ygor, is played by Bela Lugosi (who played the creature himself in the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), giving us the ubiquitous Igor now associated with the story. The name Frankenstein is now firmly associated with the creature, rather than the creator, as an avalanche of films appeared throughout the twentieth century.

Andrew Crosse

A confusion of another sort concerns Andrew Crosse, the pioneer scientist and gentleman scholar, who some claim to be the model for Victor Frankenstein. Mary Godwin knew Crosse through a mutual acquaintanceship with the poet Robert Southey, and she attended one of his lectures on atmospheric electricity in December 1814. Crosse was an early experimenter with electricity, and his use of voltaic piles at his home at Fyne Court, Somerset earned him the name ‘the thunder and lightning man.’ 

Description from Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse - 1857

In 1836, he experimented with electrocrystalization, dripping acid onto a porous volcanic stone from Vesuvius, with the apparatus linked to voltaic piles and with the intention of producing silica crystals. He noted small white excrescences appearing, which continued to grow until, on the eighteenth day, they put forth seven or eight filaments, followed by the appearance eight days later of small, perfectly formed animals which, two days later, detached themselves and moved about ‘at pleasure.’ 

Crosse's note on the Acarus

Crosse called the creatures ‘Acarus galvanicus’, placing them in the mite subclass of arachnids, although he was not a trained biologist. In reporting this occurrence in conversation with friends, there happened to be present the editor of a West of England newspaper who, unauthorised but in ‘a friendly spirit’ reported the experiment. The story spread across the country and the continent, resulting in a vicious attack on Crosse by many who believed that he had intentionally ‘created’ the creatures, thereby challenging God’s position as the Creator. He was accused of blasphemy and received death threats; one ‘gentleman’ wrote to him, calling him a ‘disturber of the peace of families,’ and ‘a reviler of our holy religion,’ and local farmers blamed him for bringing blight on their crops.Crosse’s response was that “ …he was sorry to see that the faith of his neighbours could be over-set by the claw of a mite.” Other scientists tried to repeat Crosse’s experiment – W H Weeks achieved the same result but did not publish, for fear of reprisals. Crosse himself thought that the eggs of the mites had been impregnated in his specimen rock and the general consensus now is that the apparatus had been infected by either cheese or dust mites. 

Some authors have claimed that this incident inspired Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein and his monster animated by electricity, but these same authors have overlooked one important detail – Mary began writing her story in 1816 and Crosse carried out his experiment in 1836, some twenty years later. It just goes to show – you can’t believe everything you read.

Boris Karloff - not in character


Friday, 28 September 2012

The Bloodthirsty Birth of the Sanguineous Slurpers

Raphael - St Michael the Archangel slaying a Dragon

                                       September 29th is Michaelmas, the Western Christian feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, one of the four quarter days of the year and often taken to be the first day of Autumn; Michael is one of the four principal archangels, the others being Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, but different traditions also name other archangels in addition to these. One of these, Samael (also called Samil or Sammael) is regarded as both good and bad, in Talmudic tradition he is seen as the Angel of Death, and sometimes called Satan. 

Adam and Eve

One legend tells how when God made Adam, he also made a wife for him from the same earth; her name was Lilith. Lilith refused to submit to Adam as they were both made at the same time from the same material and eventually left him, going to live instead with Samael, and refusing God’s command to return to the Garden of Eden. Adam went to God, who caused him to fall into a deep sleep and took one of Adam’s ribs, from which he formed a ‘second wife’, Eve. Samael came to Eve in the guise of a serpent and persuaded her to eat the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and then she got Adam to do the same. As God had forbidden them to eat the fruit, he cast them out of the Garden and into the world, where they were mortal, subject to illness, pain and death. 

Michelangelo - Adam and Eve

Samael came again to Eve and seduced her, making her pregnant with the first human to be born, Cain. Adam and Eve had a son of their own, Abel, and one day, thinking that God favoured Abel more than himself, Cain slew Abel. For this first murder, Cain was cursed by God and sent out into the wilderness East of Eden, bearing on him the Mark of Cain, a sign from God that He would punish anyone who killed Cain. Adam and Eve had another son, Seth, who would be the father of all mankind. Lilith and Samael gave birth to demon children, the Lilin, but because Lilith had refused to return to Adam in Eden, God punished her by killing one hundred of her children every day. In revenge, Lilith killed a hundred newborns every night, boys up to eight days old and girls up to twenty, unless they wore an amulet around their neck inscribed with the names of the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Lilith

In the legends of the Sumerians and Akkadians, going back beyond 700 BCE, Lilith and the Lilin were night demons, who came to men and women as they slept, disturbing their dreams and making love to them. The legend carried on in subsequent civilizations, with the Babylonians and the Assyrians, where they were the lilitû, becoming the shedim of the Jews, and the Ancient Greek Lamia

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

The night-stalking, child-eating demon then passed into Roman mythology and the legends of the Middle Ages, where she continued to haunt the dreams of men, feeding on their blood, as had Cain, her son, who had died in Noah’s Flood. 

Travels of Three English Gentlemen - 1744

In 1734, a work called Travels of Three English Gentlemen was written, describing a journey made through Europe, and in Carniola (now in modern Slovenia), they describe how, on Michaelmas Day, the inhabitants gathered cherries. Later, these Three Gentlemen, record a Carniolan legend, 
We must not omit observing here, that our landlord seemed to pay some regard to what Baron Valvasor has related of the Vampyres, said to infest some parts of this country.  These Vampyres are supposed to be the bodies of deceased persons, animated by evil spirits, which come out of the graves, in the nighttime, suck the blood of many of the living and thereby destroy them.” 
This is the first recorded use of the word ‘vampire’ (or ‘vampyre’) in the English language, appearing in Volume 4 of the Harleian Miscellany in 1744. The Baron Valvasor mentioned in the passage is Johann Weikhard von Valvasor, a Carniolan scientist and nobleman, who wrote a fifteen-volume The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola published in 1689, in which he records the story of Jure Grando, a Kringan (now in Croatia) peasant who died in 1656. 

Baron Valvasor

After his death, Grando haunted Kringa for sixteen years as a štrigon or vampire, who knocked on house doors where, soon after, someone would die. He called on his widow and sexually assaulted her. Eventually, some villagers exhumed Grando’s corpse, which was said to be smiling and perfectly preserved. They tried to drive a hawthorn stake into its heart but it would not pierce the skin. Prayers of exorcism were said and then one villager, Stipan Milašić, sawed the head off the body, which screamed and bled until the grave was filled. Peace returned to Kringa after the vampire was vanquished. This is the first report of a vampire in European literature. Our Three English Gentlemen also note that in Poland, the demons are called Upier and Upierzyca (male and female). Similar words occur in other European languages, upyr in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian, upir in Czech and Slovak, vampir in Croatian and Dutch, and vampyr in Danish and Swedish. As knowledge of the Balkan and Slavic countries became wider, other vampire stories spread across Europe; Arnold Paole, Peter Plogojowitz and Ruža Vlajna were all Serbian vampires who were variously investigated in the eighteenth century. 

F G Gainsford - Portrait of John Polidori

In 1819, John Polidori published The Vampyr, the first vampire novel in English, sparking a craze for vampire stories that has barely slowed since. In the book, the aristocratic Lord Ruthven (based, in part at least, on Lord Byron), newly arrived in London society, makes the acquaintance of the young Aubrey and the two travel to Rome, where Ruthven attempts to seduce the daughter of one of Aubrey’s circle, causing Aubrey to abandon him. He goes to Greece, where he falls in love with Ianthe, an innocent inn-keeper’s daughter, who tells him local tales of the vampires and their nocturnal orgies.   

Title Page - J Polidori - The Vampyre - 1819

Returning late one evening, Aubrey hears a scream and goes to investigate in a nearby hut, where an unknown assailant knocks him insensible. He is roused by villagers and sees Ianthe lying dead, the victim of a vampire. Lord Ruthven arrives in Athens, and on hearing the tale rushes to Aubrey’s sickbed. As he recovers, they make plans to travel together in Greece but as they do, they are attacked by bandits and Ruthven is shot in the shoulder. As he lies dying, he makes Aubrey promise not to mention anything about him or his death to anyone for a year and a day. Aubrey swears he will and Ruthven dies, whereupon Aubrey returns to London alone. One day, whilst out in society with his sister, he is shocked to see Ruthven apparently live and well, who whispers to him, ‘Remember your oath.’ 

A Vampyre

Aubrey has a nervous breakdown and is haunted by visions of Ruthven, but as the months pass his conditions improve and his sanity returns, until one day his sister visits him and he notices a locket around her neck. In it is a portrait of Ruthven, which he crushes underfoot, only to be told that his sister is betrothed to Ruthven. Bound by his oath, Aubrey cannot reveal Ruthven’s secret, but begs his sister on bended knee not to marry Ruthven. Convinced that his madness has returned, he is confined to his room, and his warnings go unheeded. He writes a letter and bribes a servant to deliver it but it is handed over to the doctors instead, as further proof of his madness. 

On the morning of the wedding, one year after Ruthven’s ‘death’, Aubrey escapes and confronts Ruthven, who again whispers ‘Remember your oath’, adding that he has already seduced the sister, who will be ruined if he continues to oppose the wedding. Aubrey collapses and is carried back to his rooms, and the wedding takes place. As midnight approaches, Aubrey rouses and tells his guardians the full story, then dies. The guardians rush to the honeymooner’s hotel where they find Ruthven gone and his bride, drained of blood, lying dead in bed, a victim of the Vampyre. 

Varney the Vampire

It is not, it must be said, a masterpiece of literary fiction but nonetheless it started a fashion for all-things vampire. A very popular tale was Varney the Vampire, a penny-dreadful serial that ran to over 600,000 words, as was Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire Carmilla, but the ultimate incarnation was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1895), which followed Polidori’s lead in personifying the vampire as a sophisticated aristocrat. 


Our fascination with the vampire continues (Buffy – could you please do something about Edward Cullen?), with works of variable literary and artistic quality published almost weekly, but if I might point you one, if you have not already read it – Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum.

Carpe Jugulum

- "Remember -- that which does not kill us can only make us stronger."
- "And that which does kill us leaves us dead!" 
Carpe Jugulum

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Amorous Antics of the Radical Rhymester

                          Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Sussex on August 4th 1792, the son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a gentleman landowner so dull, it was said, he “… was secured from all risk of aberration from the social conventions by a happy inaccessibility to ideas.” Percy’s grandfather, Bysshe, received a baronetcy in 1806, and began to build, at great expense, Castle Goring, a magnificent country seat although, towards the end of his life, he became a notorious miser. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley

In his boyhood, young Percy spent most of his time in country pursuits, fishing and hunting, but at ten years old he was sent to Syon House Academy, a school not yet entirely Dotheboy’s Hall but harsh enough, where he was bullied mercilessly. 

Syon House

In 1804, he attended Eton, where his refusal to conform to the ‘fagging’ system ensured he was bullied by boys and masters alike, and in 1810, he entered University College, Oxford but was expelled the following year for failing to repudiate the authorship of a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism

Later in 1811, Shelley eloped with the sixteen-year old Harriet Westbrook to Gretna Green, where they were married, causing Sir Timothy to cut off his allowance, for marrying beneath him. The marriage was unhappy, not least because Harriet insisted her elder sister, Eliza, live with them (Shelley hated both the sister and the arrangement). Shelley travelled to Keswick in the Lake District to see the poet Southey, whom he presumed was still politically active, and who advised him to contact William Godwin, author of Political Justice

William Godwin

Godwin was penniless and trying to support his large family, and saw Shelley as a potential source of income; he had two adopted step-daughters, Fanny Imlay and Claire Clairmont, and a daughter, Mary, from his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, (who had died of fever 10 days after her birth). Harriet (now pregnant with Shelley’s son, Charles) and sister Eliza (together with Shelley’s infant daughter, Elizabeth), moved back to their parent’s home; in July 1814, Shelley abandoned his wife and travelled across France to Switzerland with Mary Godwin and her half-sister Claire (both aged 16), returning destitute after six weeks. 

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Two years later, in 1816, Shelley, Mary and Claire returned to Switzerland, where they stayed with Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, and in June, Mary began to write Frankenstein. Later in 1816, after their return to England, Fanny Imlay travelled from London to Swansea where, on the night of October 9th, she killed herself with an overdose of laudanum; there have been various theories as to why, but no clear evidence – some say it was unrequited love for Shelley. In December 1816, Harriet Shelley’s heavily pregnant corpse was taken from the Serpentine, where she had drowned herself; Shelley and Mary Godwin married three weeks later. In 1818, Shelley, Mary and Claire returned to Italy, to deliver Claire’s daughter, Allegra, to Byron, her father and Shelley, encouraged by Byron wrote some of his best works. Later in the year, William Shelley, the three-year old son born out of wedlock, died of fever in Rome, and the following year, their daughter, Clara, also died. 

The Peterloo Massacre

Shelley continued to write, including The Mask of Anarchy, which was a response to the Peterloo massacre, and Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama in four acts, works for which he was probably best known in the nineteenth century. In July 1822, whilst sailing back from Leghorn, Shelley’s schooner was hit by a storm; his body was washed ashore and, due to quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach at Viareggio. He was twenty-nine. 

The Cremation of Shelley at Viareggio

Theories about the cause of Shelley’s death are legion; some say it was purely an accident, some say he fell foul of robbers or pirates, some hint at suicide and yet others are sure it was a politically motivated assassination.

Memorial Statue to Shelley

Shelley’s poetic reputation was not great during his lifetime, as his political radicalism was not well received in some circles. The critic Matthew Arnold tried to marginalise him, referring to him as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’, but the Pre-Raphaelites, other poets and early socialists were among the first to appreciate him. His status continued to rise during the twentieth century as his works became more readily available and unpublished works were published, and his political message remains just as relevant in our time.
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.” 
The Mask of Anarchy

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Dissonant Distractions of the Ligyrophobic* Literati

                      Charles Babbage was born at Teignmouth in 1791 (although the older editions of Dictionary of National Biography erroneously give the date 1792), and was a sickly child, receiving a desultory early education, although he taught himself algebra, of which he was inordinately fond. 

Charles Babbage

In 1811, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge but found himself more advanced than his tutors, (when his father asked one of the professors for any information that might prove useful for the prospective student, he received the reply, “Advise your son not to purchase his wine in Cambridge.”), so, in 1812, he founded with Herschel, Peacock and others, the Analytical Society, to promote D-ism (as opposed to the Dot-age of the university). These three conjointly translated Lacroix's Elementary Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus (1816), follow by two volumes of Examples (1820), giving an impetus to a mathematical revival in England, which introduced continental notation and analytical methods to the country. Babbage transferred to Peterhouse and graduated in 1814, with an honorary degree, was elected to the Royal Society in 1816, took an M.A. in 1817, and was instrumental in forming the Astronomical Society in 1820. 

Demonstration model of the Difference Engine

From his early days at Cambridge, Babbage had been interested in the possibility of using machines in mathematical operations, using wheelwork to calculate a series by employing a ‘method of differences’ which was much more accurate than the operation of manual methods employed by so-called ‘computers’ (people employed to ‘compute’). 

The Difference Engine No. 2

He constructed a small engine between 1820 and 1822, and presented it to the Astronomical Society in June 1822, for which he received the first gold medal awarded by the Society. The success caused Babbage to approach Sir Humphrey Davy, president of the Royal Society, with a proposal to construct a larger engine to produce the innumerable tables required for navigation, astronomical observations and so on. After favourable interviews, Babbage was awarded £1,500 from the Civil Contingencies Fund and work began in earnest to build the engine. This continued for four years, after which Babbage went abroad on a health cure for a year, where he observed continental practices and factories, and returned home in 1828. He re-applied for further funding, receiving the approval and support of the Duke of Wellington, who was favourably impressed by the progress already made. There followed a delay of about fifteen months, when Mr Clement, the engineer employed to construct the Difference Engine, objected to the removal of the works to other premises and sought substantial compensation, upon which being refused, he withdrew his labourers and removed the specialised tools necessary for the construction of the machine. 

The Analytical Engine

During this delay, Babbage developed the concept of an improved version, the Analytical Engine, which he was sure would be much faster than the original machine, and presented his case to the government. In spite of prolonged communication, Babbage did not receive an answer to his question that he should proceed with the original version, and after eight years, in 1842, Mr Goulburn, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the project was to be abandoned as the costs had now exceeded £17,000, in addition to £6,000 of Babbage’s own money. This did not take into account the improvements made in both tools and methods, the benefits of which far outweighed the costs already expended. 

Charles Babbage

The Analytical Engine was intended to use two sets of punched cards, similar to those used in Jacquard weaving looms, one set to work upon ‘variables’ and the other to work upon ‘operations’, allowing the machine to be ‘programmed’, rather than simply being a dedicated calculator. These machines have since been constructed, using Victorian tolerances, at the Science Museum and have been found to work perfectly. Charles Babbage went on to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post also held by Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking), although in eleven years he did not deliver any lectures, and he stood twice, unsuccessfully, as a parliamentary candidate. 

Organ Grinders - John Leech - Sketch from a Study Window

In his latter years, he became an implacable foe of barrel organs; a public nuisance that he calculated had cost him a quarter of his productive time during the last dozen years of his life. He was opposed to any sort of street entertainment, and produced a table enumerating the worst offenders: - 
Organs, Brass bands, Fiddles, Harpsichords, Hurdy-gurdies, Flageolets, Drums, Bagpipes, Accordions, Halfpenny whistles, Tom-toms, Trumpets, The human voice in various forms; Shouting out objects for sale. Religious canting and Psalm-singing.” 
And with similar precision he enumerates the encouragers of street music as: - 
Tavern-Keepers, Public Houses, Gin Shops, Beer Shops, Coffee Shops, Servants, Children, Visitors from the Country, and Ladies of Doubtful Virtue.” 
His efforts did not have the desired effect, as itinerant musicians were hired expressly to play in front of his house, crowds followed him whenever he went out to find a policeman, anonymous threatening letters were sent him, dead cats and other offensive things were thrown down his area, and his windows were repeatedly broken. Babbage was not alone in his hatred of barrel organs, as Thomas Carlyle, author, historian and philosopher, had his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, soundproofed against the nuisance – “The question arises, Whether to go out and, if not assassinate him, call the Police upon him, or to take myself away to the bath-tub and the other side of the house?” Dickens railed against them and started a petition to have them banned, which was signed by Tennyson, Carlyle and Millais, amongst others. 

John Leech - Cartoon from Punch 1864

John Leech, cartoonist for Punch, was particularly troubled by the noise of barrel organs, and wrote to his friend and biographer, the painter William Powell Frith, in 1864, lamenting, “Rather, Frith, than continue to be tormented in this way, I would prefer to go to the grave where there is no noise”. He died within a week, done to death by organ grinders. 

Babbage's Brain

Charles Babbage died in 1871, from renal failure secondary to cystitis, aged 80. His brain was removed and kept at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons; in 1908, Sir Victor Horsley, presented a descriptive paper on the brain and published an illustrated edition of his paper.

Ligyrophobia - The fear of noise.