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Charles Babbage on Intellectual and Manual Skill

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With last year marking the one-hundredth year of Alan Turing's birth, I thought it would be an appropriate time to think about the historical relationship between mechanical and intellectual skill. In 1950 Turing rather famously posed the question of whether or not machines could think. Over a century earlier, Charles Babbage, Cambridge natural philosopher and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics of Trinity College, Cambridge, posed a slightly different, yet related, question: could machines replace intellectual skill as they had been doing to certain forms of manual skill?

Babbage was fascinated by efficiency and the relationship between intellectual and manual labor. He envisaged a division of labor with factory designers and owners at the summit, engineers and managers in the middle, and the workers, who could potentially be replaced by machines, down at the bottom. Babbage conducted considerable research on manufacturing, spending much time visiting factories and workshops throughout Britain during the 1820s and 30s, during the height of the Industrial Revolution. His research culminated in the work, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures of 1832, which sought to improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process by drawing upon Adam Smith's division of labor. He wished to dissect skilled labor into various parts so that unskilled laborers could perform as much of it as possible, saving managers both time and money. This phenomenon, known as the Babbage Principle, not surprisingly was highly criticized by Karl Marx, who argued in his Das Kapital that it resulted in labor segregation and contributed to alienation.

Similarly, Babbage was influenced by the French mathematician and engineer Gaspard de Prony's classification of mathematicians in order to create the 19-tome work of logarithmic and trigonometric tables of up to 29 decimal places, the Cadastre. There were the ten or so eminent (French) mathematicians at the top who created the mathematical theory, the next level represented the competent mathematicians who derive the equations from the theory, and at the bottom were the human calculators, potentially replaceable by machines. The Difference Engine dates back to 1821, the year in which Babbage was fascinated by another alleged attempt to mechanize thought, the Turk- a so-called chess-playing automaton. In reality, it was not an automaton, as a rather small and agile chess player was hiding in the chest below the Turk playing against his opponents.

While playing against the Turk twice in London in 1821 (and losing both times), Babbage quickly surmised that it was a hoax. The experience, however, did get him thinking about the possibility of mechanizing games of the intellect, including chess. After losing to the Turk, he wrote in his "The Author's Contributions to Human Knowledge" that every game of skill could in theory be played by an automaton. While his Difference Engine could only perform one function- i.e. calculate based on the method of differences, Babbage began to think about the possibility of programming a machine to perform numerous different functions. He called this new machine his Analytical Engine. It was to be programmed with punch cards, an idea he borrowed from the textile industry, specifically Jacquard looms. Not coincidentally, the textile industry had been undergoing mechanization, replacing more and more laborers with machines.

What was the status of manual labor vis à vis intellectual labor? Could intellectual skill be mechanized as an ever-increasing set of manual skills could? Differing responses to precision-technological practice in the nineteenth century were deeply embedded in more encompassing cultural beliefs. Questions concerning the management of such labor depended crucially on whether that labor was communicable and if so, how. The implications of these questions were (and still are) tremendous: How should scientific knowledge be taught to future scientists and engineers? How can technological, commercial firms achieve the critical balance between public and private knowledge to ensure market success and future viability? Answers to these questions not only shaped the nineteenth-century British society; they also affected the discipline of physics. In the nineteenth century, a professional class of (mostly) men began to emerge- the scientists- who dedicated themselves to the study of nature. As specialization of labor began to increase in society in general and within the scientific enterprise in particular, issues involving the nature and status of artisanal knowledge in respect to scientific knowledge and its management became more and more relevant- and indeed politically charged. The politics of labor can offer insights into how these issues were solved then and into how those solutions affect decisions being made today.