Glazed looks through the kaleidoscope

August 9, 1996

CULTURAL BABBAGE:TECHNOLOGY, TIME AND INVENTION. Edited By Francis Spufford And Jenny Uglow. Faber and Faber. 313pp, Pounds 15.99. ISBN 0 571 172423

Cultural projects can come from anywhere, but this must be one of the few to have started with a novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The authors are best-known as cyberpunk operators (Gibson seems to have invented the term), but for this book they reached back into the 19th century to create a world in which Charles Babbage's computers had become reality and helped a technocratic elite take over Victorian Britain.

In Cultural Babbage, a fascinating group of academics and writers looks at interactions between technology and culture, especially but not only in the Victorian era. In the 1990s technologies can be in Dixons months after the first prototype. But in the 19th century, Babbage spent decades on premature attempts to launch the computer age, including work on the Difference Engine and its successor, the Analytical Engine.

Any visitor to the Science Museum in London can see the Difference Engine in a more complete form than Babbage did - at the time it chewed up immense government subsidies to little effect. Doron Swade, the Science Museum's curator of computing, sets this tale in the context of Babbage's diatribe against British science management, The Decline of Science in England (1830), and early ideas about machine intelligence: Lady Byron said that Babbage had "taught wheelwork to think".

The content of Cultural Babbage ranges far and wide, with material on the 20th century, including radio and Buckminster Fuller, and on the 18th, with a piece on Tom Paine, now adopted as patron saint by Wired, the Internet style magazine. Here Jon Katz proves that Paine would have loved the all-embracing world of the Internet. But there are other aspects of the cyberworld - the fact that most people cannot join in, and its increasing devotion to private enterprise - with which Paine would have been less comfortable.

The book's most fascinating articles are about the meeting of technology and Victorian values, which collided with an energy that marks the start of the modern era in which inventions that alter people's lives are everyday happenings. Marina Benjamin points to the now lost world of microphotography, whereby a domestic microscope could be used to view tiny pictures of anything from the new Menai bridge to "112 eminent men" or outer corners of the Empire. At the time, the microscope was a household accessory designed to assist with the study of natural history. With microphotography it could turn from a scientific tool into a precursor of the video machine, and participate in the taming and arguably the distortion of science that went with it.

Also gripping is Isobel Armstrong's account of the role of glass in the 19th-century imagination. Telescopes, cameras (both real ones and what we now call the camera obscura), microscopes, the nine-metre glass fountain of the Great Exhibition, hothouses, the Crystal Palace and the glass curtain of the Old Vic theatre were clues to an obsession with a culture of seeing still with us on screen and in the spread of luxuriant colour printing.

The enthusiasm for glass was encouraged by tax reforms and the advance of technology. During the Victorian era, production of window glass and other forms of glass expanded apace. Perhaps most symbolic was the kaleidoscope. Sir David Brewster wrote in his Treatise on the Kaleidoscope that 20,000 of the things were sold within three months of their first demonstration, and they were only one of a range of optical toys in which the Victorians delighted. Their shape-changing makes a powerful image of their era and ours. The book is full of many insights like this which will make it invaluable for studies of the ways cultures and technologies interact in eras of rapid change.

Martin Ince is deputy editor of The THES.

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