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Anecdotes: Babbage and Clemens Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129868D
Original Publication Date: 1995-Apr-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 4 page(s) / 21K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Paul Ceruzzi: AUTHOR [+2]


National Air and Space Museum Washington, DC 20560

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Copyright ©; 1995 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Anecdotes: Babbage and Clemens

Paul Ceruzzi

National Air and Space Museum Washington, DC 20560

The machine swallowed up most of the man's personal fortune. The frustrations over dealing with its builders turned him sour and spiteful of his fellow man. The machine was always on the verge of being finished, but at just those moments its inventor insisted on dismantling it, asserting that one more feature, one minor adjustment, was all that was needed to "perfect" it. Contemporaries who saw it in action debated among themselves whether the machine could "think" or not. It never really worked. Today, all that remains is a partially completed, nonworking version of the prototype, which sits in the basement of a museum. One biographer has called the machine, with its 18,000 parts, "probably the most complicated machine of the 19th century."1

This is an old story to Annals readers, right? But the man was Mark Twain, not Charles Babbage. The machine was the Paige Typesetter. Between 1886 and 1890 it absorbed almost $200,000 of Twain's money, but ultimately it failed. Although there was a need for a machine that could automatically set type, the Paige machine was overly complex and troublesome, and it could not compete in the marketplace against the Mergenthaler Linotype machine, invented about the same time. The Linotype followed the simpler expedient of casting a line of type anew each time, rather than mechanically selecting, distributing, justifying, and breaking up type as the Paige (and as human beings) did. By not trying to imitate human actions directly, Mergenthaler created a simpler design, and thus succeeded where Paige, with Twain's backing, failed.

There is little point in forcing the comparison between Twain and Babbage. Twain's misfortunes, though similar to Babbage's, owed nothing to Babbage. But there is a connection: Twain was aware of Babbage's work, so one could say that he should have heeded, but did not, the warnings implicit in Babbage's life story.

The letters Twain wrote to his colleagues, business associates, and friends about the Paige machine are heartbreaking, even more so because they are so full of life and sparkle, as is so much of Twain's prose. In a letter to his brother Orion in 1889, he described witnessing the Paige machine in actions:

  (Image Omitted: All the other wonderful inventions of the human brain sink pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical miracle. Telephones, locomotives, cotton- gins, sewing-machines, Babbage calculators, Jacquard looms, perfecting presses, all mere toys, simplicities!)

What he saw that day was the Paige machine not only setting type but also right-justifying the lines automatically2:

(Image Omitted: January 5, 1889. Dear Orion: At 12:20 this afternoon a line of...