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Comments, Queries, and Debate: On Locating the Babbage-Quetelet Letter Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129700D
Original Publication Date: 1992-Mar-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-06
Document File: 3 page(s) / 20K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Herman Berg: AUTHOR [+2]


18964 Pinehurst Street Detroit, MI 48221-1961

This text was extracted from a PDF file.
This is the abbreviated version, containing approximately 35% of the total text.

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Copyright ©; 1992 by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, Inc. Used with permission.

Comments, Queries, and Debate: On Locating the Babbage-Quetelet Letter

Herman Berg

18964 Pinehurst Street Detroit, MI 48221-1961

In his article "Babbage's Letter to Quetelet, May 1835" (Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 5, No.3, 1983, pp. 263-267), A.W. Van Sinderen wrote that the letter is important because it contains the first description of Babbage's Analytical Engine to appear in print. He also wrote that the original letter was not known to exist. Instead he produced a modern English translation of a nineteenth-century French translation to which he had access.

The question of the whereabouts of the original Babbage letter came to my attention in the course of an informal post-publication review of the article at the request of the then Editor-in- Chief of the Annals of the History of Computing, Professor Bernard A. Galler. First, Mr. Van Sinderen's sources were examined with the aid of the University of Michigan Library collections. Next, the names mentioned in the article were looked up in standard reference works: Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and international Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. In this latter, the entry for Quetelet cited

Wallens-De Donder, Liliane 1964 "La Correspondance d'Adolphe Quetelet" Archives et bibliotheques de Belgique 35:49-66.

A search of the Library of Congress National Union

Catalog yielded Welled Donder, Liliane Inventaire de la correspondence d'Adolphe Quetelet deposee a l'Academie royale de Belgique, Bruxelles, Palaisdes academies, 1966. (Academic royale de Belgique, Classe des Sciences Memoires. Collection in-8 . 2. ser. I. 37, fasc. 2)

Correspondence with the Belgian Royal Academy produced the files for Charles Babbage and Henry Prevost Babbage and a copy of the missing letter.

A comparison of the original letter with its English-to-French-to- English translation (not often exactly inverse operations) showed the two to be remarkably close. It did, however, disclose some new information:

The date of the letter is fixed as 27 April 1835. Babbage originally intended his machine to have 120 variables and then reduced this to 100. The French version's comprendre (see Van Sinderen's footnote) was used to mean capable of having. The original shows that the root extraction operation of the Analytical Engine would be limited to square root rather than the general root operation suggested in the doubly translated version.

Transcription of Babbage's letter to Quetelet*1 Dear Quetelet, If you judge me by the infrequency of my letters you win I fear not do justice to my feelings. I have neglected writing but

1 * Permission to publish this letter has been given by the Academic royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des seaux- Arts de selgique, Archives, Ponds Quetelet, Bruxelles'...