My Recent Paper on 'Multimedia' in the Romantic Age

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This was the combined result of a request from an Indian publication and the long period of inactivity due to a broken collarbone which meant that I had ample time to read The Difference Engine. In this paper, I try to trace the roots of modern programming to the Romantic Age.


Poetic Programming:

The Romantic Origins of Information Technology

It is difficult to imagine what Wordsworth would have done with an Asus Eee pc or how Keats would have felt after his first look at Chapman's Homer by clicking a hyperlink on a website designed in Flash. However, farfetched though it might seem, the computer and its versatile capabilities were not too distant from the Romantics. At a time when it was fashionable to philosophise about the clockwork mechanism of the universe and to conceive of engines that could reason, the basic principles of information technology were already current in Romantic philosophy and science.

Looking back, it seems that things could indeed have turned out very differently for the Romantics, if we are to go by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternative history novel, The Difference Engine, where a computerised Victorian England is governed by Byron and where a certain Mr Keats's reputation lies in his expertise in creating multimedia presentations. Though Gibson and Sterling's 'steampunk' world is a fantasy, the machine after which they named their novel was already partly built during the lifetime of some of the Romantics. The Difference Engine, built by Charles Babbage, and the Analytical Engine, which he later outlined, have been universally acknowledged the predecessors of the modern computer and Babbage himself has been called the 'Father of Modern Computing'. The story of computing, however, remains incomplete without mention of another important Romantic connection: Lady Ada Lovelace, the mathematically gifted daughter of Lord Byron, also called the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’.

Even as one listens to an MP3 on the latest i-phone today, the possibilities that Lovelace saw for programming Babbage's engines two centuries ago are now coming to fruition. The technology for the media may have moved far beyond the gears and levers of Babbage's engines; the concept of multimedia is, however, not as 'new' as is sometimes thought to be.

This essay will explore how the 'poetic programming' of Lady Lovelace compares with modern conceptions of multimedia. Taking this as the point of departure, it will go on to explore other similar comparisons between modern-day computing concepts and their roots in early nineteenth-century ideas.

The London of Gibson and Sterling's novel is a city governed by data-processing engines. The machines are used to store information about all those who live in England and the huge mass of gears, pulley's and levers exercise possess awe-inspiring capabilities. The following description from the novel is illustrative:

The white-washed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles [...] Tobias glanced at these majestic racks of gearage with absolute indifference. "All day starin' at little holes. no mistakes, either! Hit a key-punch wrong and it's all the difference between a clergyman and an arsonist. Many's the poor innocent bastard ruined like that.”(Gibson & Sterling 137)

The description above is that of a fictitious machine-assemblage that processes enormous amounts of data and where a single key-punch virtually determines the fate of individuals. It also mentions a new profession called 'clacking', which is the novel's version of programming in Victorian times. The resemblance to 'hacking' is more than obvious but this is not surprising given that Sterling is also famous as the author of The Hacker Crackdown. Gibson and Sterling make their case quite clearly: the possibility of a very different world was latent in the nineteenth century and the key to it all lay in Babbage's rudimentary version of the computer and the 'clacking' of the gears and switches.

In actuality, however, Babbage's machines were never completed. Work on the first Difference Engine stalled due to his dispute with Joseph Clement, his engineer for the project. The British Government had already spent the formidable sum of £17,500 and Babbage himself claimed to have invested an additional large amount: the Difference Engine was a doomed project for the nineteenth century that, as Babbage complained bitterly, was ignored for the Great Exhibition of 1951 (Hyman 219). Babbage went on to conceive another machine the Analytical Engine which would perform logical as well as mathematical operations and would be so huge and complicated that it would need to be powered by steam. Finally, he developed plans for a second Difference Engine, which, arrayed in a series, would present the awesome spectacle of the panopticon-machine reflected in Gibson and Sterling's description above.

Gibson and Sterling’s version of 'history', though bizarre, is not altogether fanciful. A decade after they published their novel, Doron Swade's team at the Science Museum, London, reconstructed Babbage's machine as it might have turned out in its completed form. The gearage was nothing short of impressive, weighing just under three tonnes and consisting of 4000 parts, and was, perhaps, somewhat similar to what Gibson and Sterling had envisaged. Swade, however, has his feet firmly grounded in reality and is conscious of the limitations of Babbage's project. He rightly points out that the 'lineage of the modern computer is not as clear-cut' (Swade 37) as to easily identify Babbage as the grand patriarch of computing. Babbage never built a successful computer, after all, and later pioneers such as Konrad Zuse in Germany or Vannevar Bush in the US have more claim to the honour in that respect. However, as Swade states, it is clear that 'Babbage was the first to embody in his designs the principles of a general purpose computational device' (Swade 35). Hundreds of design drawings and notes in some twenty 'scribbling books' are testimony to Babbage's genius. Babbage is supposed to have said, 'Judge me by my engines' and if one tends to interpret this in terms of tangible results, there is indeed very little to judge. It is, however, of signal importance not to miss the idea behind his enterprise, to consider it in terms of its milieu and to explore the Romantic traits of modern-day programming.

Even Babbage's designs, prescient as they were, did not fully develop the potential that he had in mind for the Analytical Engine. Possibly the first person to start thinking of the potential of computer programs, Babbage went as far as to ascribe human existence to a program designed by God. In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, he compares creation to the programming that is possible with his calculating machine; for him, 'in turning our views from these simple results of the juxtaposition of a few wheels, it is impossible not to perceive the parallel reasoning, which may be applied to the mighty and far more complex phenomena of nature' (Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise 44). Of course, he acknowledges that this is beyond human capabilities and 'manifests a degree of power and of knowledge of a far higher order'. Babbage's ideas about creation are by no means remarkably new: in fact, they are almost Calvinist in their advocacy of predestination. The novelty, however, lies in the imagery used by Babbage. For the first time, perhaps, the powerful creativity that programming could unleash was being considered and the results being compared to divinity itself. However, it could be argued that these ideas were themselves very much the product of the milieu. Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing for the very opposite purpose of refuting the existence of God, uses a framework which still resembles Babbage's in terms of the conception of a coded or programmed universe . Whereas, Babbage deems the world to be the result of an enormously complex program written by God, Shelley denies the existence of such a master program, maintaining instead that

We admit that the generative power is incomprehensible, but to suppose that the same effects are produced by an eternal Omnipotent and Omniscient Being, leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible. (Shelley)

It is important, here, to note that Shelley does not do away with the notion of creation as machinic. Even when he challenges the notion of a universe created and run by a god who resembles a divine programmer (somewhat similar to Blake's The Ancient of Days), Shelley nevertheless sees the world as being governed by equations and laws that are specific to the entities they govern: in a way, this would correspond to many simultaneous programs rather than one divine program. On a similar note, the 'monster' conceived by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, is an automaton, not created by God but by a Swiss scientist. The monster is an extreme manifestation of the results of human programming, much like the organic robots in the film AI, where the creative essence of Divinity is replaced by programs generated by manmade machines.

The Romantics were fascinated with automata, such as machines that danced or played games. One such machine, The Chess-playing Turk, though ultimately revealed to be a fraud, was an object of great interest in England in the 1780s.1 There were other such 'automata' like the 'Musical Lady' in John Merlin's Mechanical Museum in Hanover Square. As a child, Babbage was enthralled by this mechanical 'lady', which moved with impeccable grace. In fact, in later life, Babbage bought the 'Musical Lady' and would display it side-by-side with his calculating machine. This relationship is in no way coincidental. Simon Schaffer traces the link between the Romantic curiosity about automated figures and conceptions about thinking machines in modernity:

There is a tempting contemporary resonance to these stories of dancers, Turks, chess and calculating engines. [...] Alan Turing, brilliant Cambridge-trained mathematician and veteran of the secret wartime campaign to crack the German Enigma code, was a keen reader of Babbage and Lovelace and much concerned with the problems of automating chess. (Schaffer 78)

Modern conceptions about artificial intelligence, as embodied in Turing's 1950 paper on the subject, are deeply influenced by Lovelace's pioneering thoughts on whether machines could think for themselves.

Automation was clearly the order of the day and there was a shift towards automating even aspects of quotidian activities. One such was Joseph Marie Jacquard's improved design of the loom. Jacquard devised the plan of connecting each group of threads that were to act together, with a distinct lever belonging exclusively to that group. The levers were to pass through a perforated (punched) pasteboard, which would allow only a certain design to be worked out on the textile. It was not long before this pioneering development in the weaving of textiles would also signal a change in the ideas, mainly traceable to Lady Lovelace, about the 'weaving' of the text.

Before coming to that, however, one needs to understand how the simple idea of punching holes on pasteboard to generate designs started a revolution in the mechanisms of calculation. In Babbage's time, the calculation of mathematical tables required laborious calculations; the people employed in preparing these tables were called ‘computers’. It was the punched card that was instrumental in transforming the concept of computing from a solely human-centred activity to the present-day's machinic understanding of it. Babbage's machine, originally built to automatically generate and print complex mathematical tables using punched cards, was, therefore, the first prototype of the mechanical computer.

Luigi Menabrea, an Italian scientist and later prime minister of Italy, wrote the first description of Babbage’s machine, the Analytical Engine. His description brings up the obvious comparison with Jacquard's loom:

It will now be inquired how the machine can of itself, and without having recourse to the hand of man, assume the successive dispositions suited to the operations. The solution of this problem has been taken from Jacquard's apparatus, used for the manufacture of brocaded stuffs.(Menabrea)

In his memoir, Life of a Philosopher, Babbage provides a detailed description of his engine. Corresponding to the modern computer's memory unit, the Analytical Engine's store contained 'all the variables to be operated upon, as well as all those quantities which have arisen from the result of other operations'(Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 117). The other section, or the mill, was the counterpart of the arithmetic and logic unit in modern computer architecture.

Babbage's machine was supposed to be capable of carrying out algebraic operations. The process he describes is complicated but revealing in the sense that it shows similarities with the principles of programming:

There are [...] two sets of cards, the first to direct the nature of the operations to be performed these are called operation cards. The other to direct the particular variables on which those cards are required to operate--these latter are called variable cards. Now the symbol of each variable or constant is placed at the top of a column capable of containing any required number of digits. Under this arrangement, when any formula is required to be computed, a set of operation cards must be strung together, which contain the series of operations in the order in which they occur. Another set of cards must then be strung together, to call in the variables into the mill, the order in which they are required to be acted upon. Each operation card will require three other cards, two to represent the variables and constants and their numerical values upon which the previous operation card is to act, and one to indicate the variable on which the arithmetical result of this operation is to be placed. But each variable has below it, on the same axis, a certain number of figure-wheels marked on their edges with the ten digits: upon these any number the machine is capable of holding can be placed. Whenever variables are ordered into the mill, these figures will be brought in, and the operation indicated by the preceding card will be performed upon them. The result of this operation will then be replaced in the store. (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 118)

Babbage's detailed description needs to be considered carefully since it has many resonances in modern-day programming. The mechanism of data storage in the memory unit of a modern computer and subsequently a pre-defined operation is carried out on the data based on a series of user instructions. The same procedure, albeit perhaps taking hours instead of milliseconds, is executed by Babbage's engine. It is, therefore, not surprising that we use terms like 'strings' to denote the variables in programming (which in Babbage's day had to be 'strung' together) or 'operators' for the arithmetical and logical functions carried out in the programs. Often, very elaborate and versatile modern programs, such as the ones which run computer games, are even called 'engines': computing definitely remembers its early days, even if it is not too obvious.

The mechanism of Babbage's engine, despite its complicated description and its ability to carry out complex mathematical functions, is nevertheless based on the simple principle employed in weaving. The operation cards are 'strung together' as in a loom. The perforations on the card were the means to hold data; the gears in the mill would move to 'read' the data, which would be both numerical and analytical. As in the Jacquard loom, the data could be 'saved' as a combination of two sets of cards as a ready-to-use pattern. As Babbage comments, 'Every set of cards made for any formula will at any future time recalculate that formula with whatever constants may be required’ (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 119). In Gibson and Sterling's novel, John Keats, the expert 'clacker' is shown as creating presentations by combining numerous combinations of punched cards. The white-coated clackers of the novel lose their eyesight very young because they are always staring at the little perforations on punched card — perhaps, far more complex than the one's Babbage refers to. The novel, however, centres around an even more eminent programmer about whom more needs to be said here.

In The Difference Engine, Lady Ada Lovelace is the dissolute yet brilliant daughter of the Prime Minister, Lord Byron. She is also a first-rate clacker and the inventor of a wonder program called the modus. In the novel, the modus is an indefinite loop generating program that is capable of crashing the mighty analytical engines, belonging to the British and French governments, by giving them a task that is infinitely beyond their capabilities. In reality, as well, Ada Lovelace was no less an intriguing figure. She understood the potential of Babbage's machine and developed the ideas for using it even beyond what its maker had in mind. Lady Lovelace wrote what can called the world's first computer program: a set of instructions that would make Babbage's Analytical Engine calculate the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage was nothing short of impressed and in a poem dedicated to her, he called her the 'Enchantress of Numbers' (Lovelace ix). Ada Lovelace was also the first to conceive the possibility of developing a program from another program: in effect, the most basic principle of software development. The team of American programmers, who first created a programming language with such capabilities in the 1980s, fittingly named it ADA in her honour.

Ada's mother, Lady Byron, wished to distance her daughter from poetry and more so perhaps from any connections with her famous poet-father. Ada, however, is believed to have told her mother,'if you can't give me poetry, can't you give me "poetical science”? '(Lovelace 319). It can be argued that the story of Ada Lovelace's search for 'poetical science' is intrinsically intertwined with the history of computer programs.

Though Babbage publicly acknowledged Lovelace's genius, he was silent about a certain aspect in which she saw the development of his engines. Lovelace probably came closest her 'poetical science' in the way she understood programming. Instead of limiting her ideas to Babbage's original purpose of performing complex calculations, she imagined the Analytical Engine as performing its operations on entities other than numbers. Her observations, obviously based on the original principle of Jacquard's weaving apparatus, extend to something that Babbage did not foresee: music. As Lovelace writes,

Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent (Menabrea & Lovelace 270).

Lovelace's comment on 'weaving' musical patterns is actually very current. It is not difficult to recognise a description of multimedia in what she is saying here. Music generating software, mixing software and audio-editing software are now quite commonplace; the complex principles they are based on were, however, adumbrated almost two centuries ago. Though Lovelace uses the instance of music, she indicates that many other non-numeric entities can be similarly acted upon. The obvious computerised processes this would prefigure would be word-processing, data analysis, multimedia and even online poetry generators. Thinking of the latter, Ada Lovelace's dream of 'poetical science' seems close to realisation. Only, perhaps, it is better termed 'poetic programming', instead.

While Ada Lovelace was concerned with the potential of 'programming' using the Analytical Engine, its creator was exploring yet another key aspect of computer operations. Babbage, having compared notes with a famous contemporary locksmith, a Mr Hobbs, notes with great enthusiasm his efforts to defeat all known methods of picking locks. (Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher 234). Conversely, he also notes how much he liked deciphering coded messages in his schooldays. Code is the one definitive word in any modern conception of programming; restricting access to it and breaking through the restrictions (or 'hacking' in computer jargon) are functions of paramount importance. Babbage's prescience in identifying the importance of these aspects is admirable to say the least. After all, he is not merely concerned with dry numerical operations but his attitude is much like the modern-day programmer for whom the poetry and the challenges all exist in the code.

It is easy to miss the fact that key principles of computer programming were drafted in the 1800s, in a milieu very much influenced by the ideals of Romanticism and at the same time characterised by a sense of transition. It is true that Babbage's engines did not work as they were supposed to and indeed, they weren't even properly built; however, to dismiss them would be a cardinal mistake. Pace the proponents of 'New Media' theories, the current conceptions of media, of information-processing and even multimedia were equally current in an age where Lady Lovelace was seeking 'poetical science'. One does not need to imagine Keats clacking away at his cinematic presentations using complex punched cards in Gibson and Sterling's fictional world, to comprehend the importance of the nineteenth century in fashioning modern conceptions of Information Technology. Lady Lovelace and Babbage's 'poetic programming' speaks for itself.


Babbage, Charles. Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

---. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment. London: Cass, 1967.

Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

Hyman, Anthony. Charles Babbage, Pioneer of the Computer. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lovelace, Ada King. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer. Ed. Betty A Toole. Mill Valley, Calif: Strawberry Press, 1992.

Menabrea, Luigi. “Sketch of The Analytical Engine.” 20 Sep 2008 .

Menabrea, Luigi, and Augusta Ada Lovelace. Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage. London, 1843.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Shelley : A Refutation of Deism.” 19 Sep 2008 .

Simon Schaffer. “Babbage's Dancer and the Impresarios of Mechanism.” Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention. Ed. Jennifer S Uglow & Francis Spufford. London: Faber, 1996.

Swade, Doron. “'It will not slice a pineapple':Babbage, Miracles and Machines.”Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention. Ed. Jennifer S Uglow & Francis Spufford. London: Faber, 1996.

1A curiosity imported to England by Viennese engineer Josef Maelzel, the 'Turk' was a formidable 'mechanical' chess-player; however, the so-called automaton was revealed to be a fraud when Robert Willis exposed a concealed human player inside the mechanism.

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