London: G. Barclay, 1845-1860.
A possibly unique collection of pamphlets, all first editions, documenting the decades-long dispute between Babbage (1791-1871) and his archenemy Sheepshanks (1794-1855), but also involving Sir James South (1785-1867) and Sir George Biddell Airy (1801-1892). “In a section [of Exposition of 1851] called “Intrigues of Science” Babbage accused Airy of being part of a vendetta against him and influencing government against his engines through personal allegiance to Babbage’s enemies. The villain of the piece (according to Babbage) is the Reverend Richard Sheepshanks, an astronomer with an early training in law and a close friend of Airy” (Swade, p. 186). Sheepshanks replied in A Letter to the Board of Visitors (1854), which was re-issued in 1860 together with a thirty-seven-page addition containing correspondence by South and Sheepshanks and relevant extracts from Babbage’s Exposition [in this copy, only the ‘addition’ from the 1860 issue of A Letter to the Board of Visitors is present, the main text being that of the 1854 first edition]. “This was one of several “piquant pamphlets” which “remain to illustrate the science of our century, and will furnish ample materials to the future collector of our literary curiosities” (De Morgan). Another dealt with the award of the ‘Neptune medal;’ a third, in 1845, with the affairs of the Liverpool observatory. “When asked why [Sheepshanks] allowed himself to enter into such disputes, he would reply that he was just the person for it; that he had leisure, courage, and contempt for opinion when he knew he was right” (De Morgan in Examiner, 8 Sept. 1855)” (Agnes Mary Clerke in DNB).
These documents shed light not only on the behind-the scenes politics of Babbage’s attempts to secure funding for his difference and analytical engines, but also on the wider scientific politics of the period, notably the class conflict between amateur and professional scientists. In the mid-nineteenth century, “science was becoming institutionalized and also more conservative. As in the case of the Analytical Society, once again the central group of academic men of science was based in Trinity College, Cambridge… and included Whewell, Airy and Sheepshanks. Far more conservative than the Analyticals, without anyone with anything like the scientific ability of Babbage or Herschel, this group played a crucial part in the academic establishment and the embryonic scientific bureaucaracy” (Hayman, p. 149).
The animosity between Babbage and Sheepshanks dates from 1830, “a period of turmoil in the Royal Society, whose amateurishness was seen by a number of leading scientists as scandalous; and [Sir James] South supported the attacks on the Society’s establishment mounted in 1830 by Charles Babbage [in his Reflections on the decline of science in England], by publishing a pamphlet of thirty-nine Charges against the President and Councils of the Royal Society” (Hoskin, p. 177). South, a leading observational astronomer, was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1829, with Sheepshanks as Secretary. The two rapidly began to feud, and Babbage, as a friend and supporter of South, was dragged in.
“Babbage alleges in Exposition that Sheepshanks was twice thwarted by Sir James South in the politics of scientific affairs. Babbage had supported South on both occasions. On the second occasion, a meeting at the Admiralty about the Nautical Almanac, Sheepshanks, a belligerent stirrer who loved nothing better than a scrap, threatened Babbage as they left the meeting room: ‘I am determined to put down Sir James South and if you and other respectable men will give him your support, I will put you down.’
“The third confrontation between the two men occurred during the notorious court case between South and the instrument makers Troughton and Simms over an allegedly defective telescope mounting supplied by the company for South’s Campden Hill Observatory. The cause célèbre split the scientific community and the ‘astronomers' war' was one of the bitterest of the century. The ever-combative Sheepshanks was prominent in the hostilities and volunteered to act for Troughton. Babbage was lined up on the other side and testified in 1834 as an ‘expert witness’ in favour of South who had a reputation as an ‘unpleasant maverick’ and is described by Hall as ‘irascible almost beyond the bounds of sanity when engaged in controversy’. After Babbage had been cross-examined he found himself alone with Sheepshanks in the courtroom. Babbage alleged that Sheepshanks threatened him and attempted to intimidate him before the cross-examination which was to continue the following day. He alleged that Sheepshanks said that Babbage’s allegiance to South made it necessary to discredit him and that ‘he would at some future time, attack me publicly on another subject’ because of his support for South. Babbage took the ‘other subject’ to mean his calculating engines. Babbage then completed the chain with the link to Airy. He asserted that through Airy’s friendship and allegiance to Sheepshanks, Airy had become party to Sheepshanks’ scheme to discredit him and that Airy was one of the dark forces behind the obstructions that had been placed in his path …
“Sheepshanks maintained that the ‘other subject’ on which he threatened to attack Babbage was not the calculating engines but Babbage’s failure to fully discharge his duties as Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage did not reside in Cambridge during his occupancy of the chair which he held between 1828-39, nor did he teach. Resentment of what was perceived as an abuse was widespread and Airy evidently shared in this.
“The logic of Babbage’s case against Airy reduces to a tortuous allegation that Sheepshanks was conducting a vendetta against Babbage because of Babbage’s support for South (for whom Sheepshanks had expressed loathing) and that Airy was personally hostile to Babbage out of sympathy with Sheepshanks, Airy’s close friend. The loop is closed with Babbage’s allegation that Airy’s grudge influenced his judgements against the engines, and his advice to Government was therefore malicious” (Swade, pp. 186-8).
“The middle 1840s saw no reduction in the vigour with which Sheepshanks sought out controversy, and in 1847 he made himself – if possible – even more hateful to Babbage by defending the RAS actions over medals for the discovery of Neptune, in contradiction of criticisms Babbage made in a letter to The Times” (Hoskin, p. 200). The competing claims of Adams and Le Verrier to priority in the discovery of Neptune split the RAS. A vote on the recipient of their gold medal for 1846 at their February 1847 meeting resulted in a stalemate and deferral. A majority of three to one was required to award the medal to Le Verrier, and Airy, along with four others, opposed it, causing the motion to fail. Airy finally got a proposal to pass that would defer the decision to the April meeting on whether they should award two medals for that year, one each to Le Verrier and to Adams. On March 15 Charles Babbage wrote a frustrated letter to The Times proposing that Le Verrier should receive the 1846 medal, as was moved in February, and that Adams should receive a special medal in 1847 for his part in the discovery of the new planet. According to their proceedings published at the end of the year, it appears that neither mathematician received the medal, as the Society found it impossible to choose between them. Sheepshanks, as Airy’s faithful supporter, responded in A Reply to Mr Babbage's Letter.
Sheepshanks continued his proxy war with South on another front by engaging in a bitter controversy with the Liverpool cotton broker, astronomer and poet John Taylor. A close ally of South, Taylor was a maverick who condemned those who blew “the ecclesiastical trumpet” in scientific disputes, and bitterly resented those who would limit authority to those who had “an M.D., an F.R.S., an F.R.A.S.L.” appended to their names. The dispute stemmed from criticisms made by Taylor to Sheepshanks’ proposed location for the Liverpool Observatory. Taylor also took issue with Sheepshanks’ view that the purpose of the observatory was merely to “get, keep and communicate true Greenwich time to the great port of Liverpool.” The two men exchanged a series of letters in the Liverpool Times, but the ultimate response from Sheepshanks was his pamphlet Correspondence respecting the Liverpool Observatory. In the Supplement Sheepshanks set out to criticize Taylor for an article that appeared in the Liverpool Mercury on 5 September 1845 entitled ‘A new cometarium’ – this was an instrument for determining the geocentric ecliptic latitude and longitude of a comet. After Taylor’s death in 1857, the cometarium passed into the renowned collection of scientific instruments owned by South (it is now in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford).
But it was Babbage who landed the final blow in his war with Sheepshanks. To the anonymous review of Babbage’s Exposition published in The Mechanics Magazine of 24 January 1852 was appended a sensational letter from South, stating that “on the late Mr. Troughton’s word to me, the Reverend Richard Sheepshanks had asked Mr. Troughton to let one of his men go to the Custom-house to clear, as an English instrument, a circle of [the French maker] Jecker’s, on which Mr. Sheepshanks had had engraved the name of “Troughton,” to evade duty.” “Sheepshanks now found himself in a very difficult situation. The complaints made by Babbage in his book had merely related to a private conversation that had taken place long ago, and conversations are open to interpretation… But the substance of the charge was true: in 1823 or thereabouts, the future Reverend Sheepshanks, FRS, had had Troughton’s name forged in order to deceive the customs and evade the duty prescribed by law. The culprit merely highlighted his own embarrassment by later arguing that on balance he had been the loser in his various encounters with the Revenue, and that everybody smuggled” (Hoskin, p. 201). Babbage pressed home the attack at the Anniversary Meeting of the Royal Society in 1853. Despite Airy’s attempt to prevent it, Babbage read out South’s letter to The Mechanics Magazine and asked Sheepshanks directly if the charges were true. He admitted two charges and denied the other two, but his defence was cut short by the meeting. “The prospect of a further attack from Babbage at the next meeting of the Greenwich Visitors [i.e. the trustees of the Royal Observatory] spurred Sheepshanks to honour an earlier pledge to publish an apologia. “Sheepshank’s polemic “in reply to the calumnies of Mr Babbage” was not yet complete by the time of the meeting of the Greenwich Visitors, but he distributed unfinished copies to those attending. At the Anniversary Meeting of the Royal Society that November he arranged for completed copies of his defence – running to no fewer than 92 pages – to be handed out to Fellows as they entered the building. When the next Anniversary Meeting took place he would be dead” (Hoskin, p. 203). “Even then this was not the end of it. So bitter was the feud that the enraged South published an attack on the Astronomical Society’s obituary [‘A Memoir of the late Rev. Richard Sheepshanks, M.A.’]” (Swade, p. 188).
All these pamphlets are rare. We have located only one other set at auction (Sotheby’s 23 March 1971, lot 14), probably the present copy.
Martin Beech, ‘The cometarium by John Taylor,’ Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 88 (2006), pp. 2-6; Anthony Hayman, Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer, 1985; Michael Hoskin, ‘Astronomers at War: South v. Sheepshanks’ Journal for the History of Astronomy 20, no. 62 (1989), pp. 175-212; Nicholas Kollerstrom, ‘John Herschel on the discovery of Neptune,’ Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 9 (2006), pp. 151-158; Doron Swade, The Difference Engine, 2000.
Together five works in one volume, 8vo, pp. 37; iv, 5-92, xiv, 15-91 [- 28]; 16; 15. Contemporary morocco (bound by Reviere), covers ruled in gilt, spine lettered and ruled in gilt, gilt turn-ins, marbled endpapers, top edge gilt (rubbed, front hinge cracked at foot).