The father of modern computing was also a poetry critic

Illustration for article titled The father of modern computing was also a poetry critic

Charles Babbage was known as the guy who invented the difference engine and was one of the founders of modern computing. His passion for nerdery didn't just come out in design and technology. He also wrote to Tennyson with the best poetry critique ever.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of the most well-known poets of the 1800s. He wrote a number of short poems, and is probably the reason why you've heard some obnoxious person telling you, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," after a bad break-up. (Those of you with happy romantic histories might know him better from nature documentaries that make mention of "nature, red in tooth and claw.") In other words, his work has become part of our cultural conversation. His most famous poem is probably The Charge of the Light Brigade, but another poem of his has the most famous poetry critique — at least the most famous poetry critique in science.

Tennyson wrote a poem called A Vision of Sin, which implies that empty hedonism leads only to a jaded and valueless life. It's about as happy as it sounds, and it includes these lines, "Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born." This may have been a good line, but it wasn't good enough for the guy who invented the difference engine. Charles Babbage wrote a friendly note to Tennyson and complained about the accuracy of the line as follows:

In your otherwise beautiful poem one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

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. I would suggest:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

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

Of course, the entire thing takes place in a fantasy world that the narrator dreams up, so Tennyson could have simply used the well-known comic-book creator's plea of "It was a different universe." It seems, though, that Tennyson took this in the spirit of jest. Obviously Babbage intended it to be just that. Mostly I find it intriguing that he drew the line at how accurate poetry had to be in such a specific way. Convert 1/16 to decimals and you get 0.0625. Does Babbage mean that poetry has to be accurate to three significant digits? (Actually, it only means that it needs to be accurate to one part in sixteen. That's a lot easier.) And how many poems does that have relevance to? Does anybody know some poem they need to revise, using this system?

Image: Guillaume Carels

Via Engines of Our Ingenuity



All I can think of right now is the Simon Singh criticism of Katie Melua's Nine Million Bicycles.

"We are 12 billion light-years from

the edge,

That's a guess,

No one can ever say it's true,

But I know that I will always be

with you."

was amended to...

"We are 13.7 billion light-years from

the edge of the observable universe,

That's a good estimate with

well-defined error bars,

Scientists say it's true, but

acknowledge that it may be refined,

And with the available information, I predict that I will always be

with you"

(source -