HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE BABBAGE COLLECTION. By Dr Steven Leech, Science and Industry Museum

Curious about the ideas and objects that have inspired Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Atmospheric Memory? This online resource, curated by the Science Museum Group, will help you delve deeper into the concepts, characters and machines behind these works of art.

Author: Dr Steven Leech, Science and Industry Museum.


Can we create a machine to rewind time and retrieve the lost voices of the past? Nineteenth-century computing pioneer Charles Babbage thought so.

“The air itself is one vast library”, Babbage wrote in 1837, “on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered”. Imagine the entire history of human speech — every joke, every declaration of love, every angry word — captured in the atmosphere for all of time. Charles Babbage believed that each breath and tiny motion was imprinted at the atomic level in the air that surrounds us. With access to the right kind of calculations and machinery, he thought, you could rewind these turbulent movements and retrieve the fleeting voices of the past.

Babbage and his contemporaries investigated and speculated upon this idea of atmospheric memory as part of a new science of the ether.


Inspired by Babbage’s ideas and the Science Museum Group collection, digital artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has created Atmospheric Memory, a new installation as part of Manchester International Festival 2019.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s artworks are predominantly voice-activated and produce immersive audiovisual environments. These installations make Babbage’s “Atmospheric Memory” theory more tangible. Using augmented reality, robotics, ripple tanks and other technologies, the exhibition explores atmospheric phenomena such as polyphony, wave propagation and fluid dynamics.


The Science Museum Group holds a world class collection of objects and archives relating to Charles Babbage. This includes a vast array of Babbage’s drawings, notebooks and papers, which are open to all through the Science Museum Group’s online collection. The Science Museum also holds and displays several of Babbage’s most famous inventions, such as his calculating engines.

Read on to find out more about key items from the collection relating to Babbage and his groundbreaking ideas.

Photograph, carte-de-visite style, of Charles Babbage

Photograph, carte-de-visite style, of Charles Babbage, photographer unknown, 1860. 10.5x6cm. Reduced size version with image trimmed, of studio sitting for the International Statistical Congress 1860. Portrait, nearly FL seated to L, high chairback prominent. From a colour transparency in the Science Museum Photographic Archive.

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) designed steam-powered machines that later inspired the creation of modern electronic computers.  

From Steampunk to computing, Babbage’s influence is still felt in contemporary science and culture. He was a key figure on the scientific scene in 19th century London. Babbage was a fellow of the Royal Society and a prolific writer, publishing 83 papers and six full-length books on wide-ranging subjects including mathematics, geology, submarines and solar eclipses, as well as chess.  

Much of his career was dedicated to creating, tinkering and sometimes struggling with designs for the world’s first automatic computing machines. His most famous inventions were the Difference and Analytical Engines. These were large steam driven devices that could efficiently generate and calculate the values of mathematical tables (which had previously only ever been done painstakingly by hand) using a system of mechanised cogs and gears. 

Babbage’s work on calculating engines allowed him to think differently about the world and the wider cosmos. He imagined the universe as a giant engine, set in motion by a divine being. These ideas inspired his speculations about the movement of particles in the air and the vast archive of voices and sounds trapped in the atmosphere.  

Difference Engine

Portion of Babbage’s calculating machine, Difference Engine No.1.Credit: Science Museum Group No. 2001-575

British computing pioneer Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Difference Engine No 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. It was a decimal digital machine – the value of a number being represented by the positions of toothed wheels marked with decimal numbers. The portion shown here was assembled in 1832 by Babbage’s engineer, Joseph Clement. It consists of about 2000 parts and represents one-seventh of the complete engine. This ‘finished’ portion of the unfinished engine was demonstrated to some acclaim by Babbage and functions impeccably to this day.

Portion of Babbage’s calculating machine, Difference Engine No.1.

Portion of Babbage’s calculating machine, Difference Engine No.1. British computing pioneer Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871)  Credit: Science Museum Group No. 1862-89 Difference Engine No 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering of the time. It was a decimal digital machine – the value of a number being represented by the positions of toothed wheels marked with decimal numbers. The portion shown here was assembled in 1832 by Babbage’s engineer, Joseph Clement. It consists of about 2000 parts and represents one-seventh of the complete engine. This ‘finished’ portion of the unfinished engine was demonstrated to some acclaim by Babbage and functions impeccably to this day. Before Babbage, numerical equations had to be calculated by hand. This work was carried out teams of mathematicians, who were sometimes referred to as human “computers”.  

Charles Babbage’s steam-powered calculating engines are among the most celebrated icons in the prehistory of computing. His Difference Engine No. 1 was the first successful automatic calculator and remains one of the finest examples of precision engineering from the 19th century 

The portion shown was designed by Babbage and assembled in 1832 by engineer, Joseph Clement. It consists of about 2000 parts and represents one-seventh of the complete engine. It still works impeccably to this day. Much to Babbage’s dismay, however, the full engine was never completed. After his death, around 12 000 parts manufactured for the model were melted for scrap.  

Babbage exhibited this finished portion of the engine to great acclaim. Throughout his adult life, he held parties for distinguished guests such as Charles Darwin, demonstrating the capabilities of his machine.  

Much like a stage magician, Babbage would use his automatic calculator to test hypotheses and highlight flaws in people’s logic and reasoning. His aim was to show that automation could remove human error from complex calculations. He also wanted to challenge accepted intellectual models and test out new ways of thinking – much like his speculations on the reversible nature of time and the atmosphere.  

Difference Engine No.2.

Difference Engine No.2. Designed by Charles Babbage and completed by Science Museum in 1991.  Around 1847. Credit: Science Museum Group No. 1992-556 Pt.1 

Charles Babbage designed the Difference Engine No.2 as a simpler, more efficient version of his first calculating machine. Like the first engine, it was designed to automatically solve equations and print the results in the form of mathematical tables.  

To Babbage’s frustration, he was unable to secure funding for the development of Difference Engine No.2. It was transferred to the Science Museum in London in 1862.  

Difference Engine No.2 was never constructed in his lifetime. The engine was built by the Science Museum and was completed in June 1991 for the bicentennial year of Babbage’s birth. The printing mechanism was completed in 2000.  

Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, trial model 

Analytical engine constructed by the late Chas. Babbage, F.R.S., (this was not put together when received and there are still many pieces, moulds etc. received in 1878, on exhibition in the gallery).  Around 1834.

This analytical engine, the first fully-automatic calculating machine, was constructed by British computing pioneer Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who first conceived the idea of an advanced calculating machine to calculate and print mathematical tables in 1812. Conceived by him in 1834, this machine was designed to evaluate any mathematical formula and to have even higher powers of analysis than his original Difference engine of the 1820s. Only part of the machine as a trial piece was completed before Babbage’s death in 1871. Charles Babbage’s designs for his Analytical Engine were groundbreaking and cemented his status as an icon of computer engineering. 

 In comparison with his earlier mechanisms, this engine was a more sophisticated and elegant design. The Analytical Engine was designed to evaluate any mathematical formula and was fully programmable using a series of punched cards. Babbage only completed a part of the machine, a trial model, before his death in 1871.  

The Analytical Engine inspired many of his contemporaries. For example, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (better known as Ada Lovelace), was inspired to create a series of methods and programmed instructions for the machine to carry out in sequence. Her published work on Babbage’s engine is widely considered to be the first example of computer programming in the world. 

Watercolour, Ada Lovelace

Watercolour, Ada Lovelace, possibly by A E Chalon (1780-1860), [c1840]. 25 x 18.3 cm. Portrait, TQL to L. looking front, in evening dress with mantilla, holding fan. Around 1840. Science Museum Group No. 1995-796 

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (better known as Ada Lovelace),was a talented mathematician and thinker.  

Ada Lovelace is considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer. She published notes on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in which she created a series of theoretical operations for the machine. For example, she came up with a concept referred to as “looping”, a series of repeated automated actions that are still used in modern computer designs.  

She met Babbage in 1833 at the age of 17. Lovelace became his friend and collaborator. She translated articles written about the Analytical Engine from Italian and recognised the potential of Babbage’s machine to calculate any equation.  

A series of punched cards for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  

Punched cards for Analytical Engine. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Around 1870. Science Museum Group No. 1905-181.

The Science Museum Group holds a large number of models, moulds and equipment that once belonged to Charles Babbage.  

This includes a series of punched cards that were used to input calculations on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Over a century later, these innovations inspired the design of the first electronic computers.  

Each card held information (corresponding to the number of punched holes) that could be read by the Analytical Engine. Using these cards, the operator could, in theory, enter numbers or symbols to be calculated, define the mode of operation (e.g. addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) and also store information.  

The system was based on the Jacquard loom mechanism used in the textiles industry. Jacquard looms used a system of punched cards to control and automate the weaving of clothMill workers were able to produce any pattern desired with relative ease. 

Blueprint for bolt mechanism drawn by Charles Babbage.  

1870. Science Museum Group Collection.

More than the physical machines themselves, it was Charles Babbage’s designs and thinking that were truly groundbreaking 

Like the image pictured above, Charles Babbage made a huge number of drawings and sketches of intricate systems and mechanisms. These became the blueprints for his inventions. Although he never able to fully assemble his calculating machines, his family members and enthusiasts managed to create versions of his engines based on his careful designs.  

He numbered and archived all of his work, which is now a key part of the Science Museum Group’s historic collections. Every page and idea is available to view on the museum’s online catalogue.  

Henry Babbage’s Analytical Engine (incomplete)

Henry Babbage’s analytical engine (incomplete), with various spare parts and patterns for casting. Henry Prevost Babbage (1824-1918), the youngest son of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the English computer pioneer, built a hand-operated printing calculator, based on the plans for the mill of his father’s Analytical Engine. It was a four-function calulator designed for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Around 1910. Science Museum Group No. 1896-58.

It took a century or more for most people to understand the potential of Charles Babbage’s designs for the Analytical Engine.  

Following Babbage’s death, his youngest son Henry worked with engineers to construct a trial portion of the Analytical Engine. Henry was determined to demonstrate the cleverness of his father’s machine. The part shown in the image is the engine mill. The mill performed the calculations and works much like the processing unit in a modern day computer.  

This key object in the prehistory of computing is a highlight of the Science Museum Group collection. It will be on display at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester for the duration of the Atmospheric Memory installation.  

Paper folders and notebooks formerly belonging to Charles Babbage

Paper folders and notebooks formerly belonging to Charles Babbage containing cut-outs of gearwheels, cams, negatives, sketches etc. in thin card. SCM – Computing & Data Processing.

Around 1840. Science Museum Group No.  1971-266.

Charles Babbage spent much of his life amending and adjusting his designs for his calculating engines.  

The Difference and Analytical Engines were intricate steam powered mechanisms. Each gear and cog was precision engineered and had to work in conjunction with thousands of other small parts. These paper cut-outs are evidence of Babbage’s approach to tinkering. 

The images photographed above show a gearwheel that has “rejected” written on the back. Babbage was clearly unafraid to try and fail. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s atmospheric machines have been created in this spirit of experimentation and the testing of new (and old) ideas.  


Around 1835. Science Museum Group No. 1878-8/2/S

Like many of his contemporaries, Babbage was interested in the impact of new technologies ushered in during the Industrial Revolution.  

For instance, he was preoccupied with the impact of vibrating and noisy machines on the people’s health. Many industrial technologies created levels of sound and moved at speeds that had never been experienced before. Some engines, such as locomotives, vibrated so quickly that the motion was impossible to register at the level of human perception. This became a source of anxiety.   

In the 1830s, engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel asked Babbage to design a device to record the amount of vibration experienced by passengers in railway carriagesThe image pictured above is a drawing of Babbage’s invention. Like a seismograph, it recorded movement and vibration as the train moved along the tracks. It used a huge needle, ink and several miles of paper.  

This experiment predated cases of ‘railway shock’ in the mid-19th century, a nervous disorder that some doctors associated with the speed and insensible nature of vibrations experienced on the new steam railways. 

It was this interest in the intangible world around him that inspired Babbage’s speculations about atmospheric memory.