Charles Babbage, designer in 1837 of the world’s first general purpose computer – the Analytical Engine – frequently worked himself up into a rage about people playing music in the street.
Over the years, these musicians or buskers became more and more commonplace in his London street, playing accordions, fiddles, bagpipes, beating relentlessly on drums, and grinding organs.
Indeed, the character of his once quiet neighborhood changed completely, with coffee shops, pubs, and guest houses opening.
Babbage, who needed peace and quiet to think and work, bristled at the attitudes of some of his fellow Londoners to the buskers:
Babbage reserved the greatest part of his rage for organ-grinders, who played from early morning till late at night.
Any relatively quiet street could be instantly transformed into a maelstrom of noise as different buskers vied to be heard.
Babbage described the musical plague that afflicted him in these terms:
Babbage paid musicians more than their usual pennies to leave his street entirely. No sooner did some leave than others spotted an opportunity and took their place. Babbage wrote:
The esteemed mathematician and computational scientist estimated that one-fourth of his working life over the previous 12 years had been disrupted by unwanted musicians.
Babbage wasn’t the only resident of once quiet streets who paid the musicians handsomely to go away. Indeed, playing music excruciatingly badly often resulted in higher earnings than more melodious performers could hope for. Babbage wrote:
On 25 July 1864, Babbage finally thought he could rest in peace – not because he’d gone to that great palace of computing in the sky, no – it was because the British Parliament finally passed a law that he had campaigned for: street musicians could be moved on by members of the public who objected to their melodies. If they refused to move on, they faced arrest and jail.
His campaign made Babbage deeply unpopular with London’s buskers. He commented:
Unfortunately, as he lay dying at age 79 in October 1871, the hated street musicians of his neighborhood extracted their revenge: several of them passed his house at different times grinding their organs. It was a sad end for one of the century’s most brilliant minds.
Author of this page: The Doc
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