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Babbage and Moll on the State of Science in Great Britain: A Note on a Document*

  • Nathan Reingold


Charles Babbage's Reflections on the Decline of Science in England … is very well known to historians of science who are aware of its role in the movement to found the British Association for the Advancement of Science and to reform the Royal Society. The work is probably responsible, in large measure, for the assumption that science in Great Britain was in a marked decline in the early decades of the last century, an assumption rarely subject to exact analysis although fairly widely held. Not as widely known is a reply to Babbage written by Gerard Moll of Utrecht and presented to the English reading public by Faraday, one of the men attacked in Babbage's volume. To the best of my knowledge, Babbage's only published rejoinder to Moll appeared in 1851, dismissing Moll and other critics as not having challenged his facts.



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1 Babbage, Charles, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of its Causes (London, 1830), xiv, 228.

2 For a recent article, see: Williams, L. Pearce, “The Royal Society and the Founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society xvi (1961), 221233 as well as Williams' biography of Faraday (London, 1965). Also, SirLyons, Henry, The Royal Society, 1660–1940, a history of its administration under its charter (Cambridge, 1964), especially chapter VII, and Howarth, O. J. R., The British Association for the Advancement of Science: a retrospect, London, 1922. Williams' writings are the most explicit comments on the Babbage-Moll exchange I am aware of. See also Merz, J. T., A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London, 18961914), i, 236237n. Although not explicitly on this topic, Walter Cannon's articles on Sir John Herschel and his circle are necessary background for any study of science in Britain in the first half of the last century.

3 [Moll, G.] On the Alleged Decline of Science in England by a Foreigner (London, 1831), pp. 33. With introdn. by Michael Faraday. As one of the targets of Babbage, although not the principal one, Faraday sponsored this publication by Moll, a Dutch scientist. Like Williams, I assume that Moll's views are largely shared by Faraday.

4 Babbage, , The Exposition of 1851 (London, 1851), 2nd ed., p. 149n. Babbage denies that the opinions attacked by Moll were maintained in the book. He does not, however, deny the opinions. Given the views of Moll, his reading of Babbage is a reasonable one but, like Babbage's views in the Reflections, is exaggerated for polemical effect.

5 Babbage to Quetelet, 24 December 1831 (Quetelet Papers, Royal Academy of Science, Brussels).

6 Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. Observations of the State of Historical Literature (London, 1830).

7 Daniell, John F., An Introductory Lecture Delivered in King's College, London, 11 October 1831 (London, 1831). Daniell, like Moll, was concerned with defending British achievements in chemistry. For the purposes of this paper, I am taking their rejoinders in the proper context of a defence of British achievements in experimental science in contrast with mathematical sciences.

8 Biot, 's review (op. cit., 4149) is of great interest because it so well exemplifies what we would now consider a French attitude of that period. Biot was largely in agreement with Babbage's indictment because his basic orientation was similar. He carefully explains why France's institutions have enabled its science to achieve hegemony but deplores Babbage's lapse from good manners in his attacking British institutions. Biot smugly congratulated the French scientific community on its immunity from the personal clashes and other idiosyncratic behaviour of the British. One wonders if he ever read Moll's virulent denunciation of the authority-ridden French scientific community and its currying of favour with authority.

9 Probably referring to the 4th edn. of Gregory, Olinthus Gilbert's Treatise of Mechanics, Theoretical, Practical and Descriptive, 2 vols. (London, 1826).

10 Graves, Robert P., ed., Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton …. (Dublin, 18821889), vol. 1, 424 f., has a letter of Wordsworth to Hamilton dated 24 January 1831, explicitly linking the Babbage book attacking the Royal Society, one of the established institutions of the realm, with the agitation for the Reform Bill.

11 Lacking a suitable domestic order of knighthood or medal, the administration had to use this Hanoverian order.

12 With the exception of the antiquary Nicolas all those named are scientists. Only Brewster, a Scot, and Bell, a physician, are outside the Herschel circle.

13 Cohen, I. B., Franklin and Newton (Philadelphia, 1956), p. x.

14 Graves, op. cit. (10).

15 Biot, , op. cit. (8), 46 f.

16 Ibid., 42 f., especially the passages stressing the openness of schools to talent without the need of support from church or noble patron.

17 I am indebted to Walter Cannon for the suggestion that criticisms of science in British universities throughout the last century were based on Oxford, with Cambridge's situation passed in silence. In this century criticism has often been directed at the neglect of applied fields.

18 Moll, , op. cit. (3), p. 7.

19 Babbage returned to the assault on Sabine in The Exposition of 1851, pp. 195198. For a contemporary and authoritative appraisal of Sabine's work, see Herschel's letter to Airy, 29 December 1830 (Greenwich: Royal Observatory, Airy papers, Private, vol. i). I am preparing an article on the British participation in the study of terrestrial magnetism in the 1830's and 1840's which will deal extensively with Sabine's later career. While Sabine was not a mathematician or a mathematical physicist, he was far from the dishonest incompetent of Babbage's text.

20 Reflections, 1439.

21 “Quel pauvre et ridicule ouvrage que celui de Babbage! ces calculs de cordons de lignes, son goût pour les Princes qu'il appelle les grands seigneurs. Et ce pauvre Sabine avec ses …: comme les Anglais sont souvent si grossiers envers les étrangers j'aime à voir qu'ils se traitent eux-mêmes ainsi.” Hamy, E. T.. ed., Correspondence d'Alexandre de Humboldt avec François Arago (1809–1853) (Paris, 1908). 93.

* Research for this paper was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.


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