FROM NINTH BRIDGEWATER TREATISE: A FRAGMENT. (1837) By Charles Babbage, Esq.

BY CHARLES BABBAGE
1837 

CHAPTER IX. ON THE PERMANENT IMPRESSION OF OUR WORDS AND ACTIONS ON THE GLOBE WE INHABIT.  

1 The principle of the equality of action and reaction, when traced through all its consequences, opens views which will appear to many persons most unexpected.  

2 The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition. Each atom loses as much as it gives, and regains again from others, portions of those motions which they in turn give up.  

3 The waves of air thus raised, perambulate the earth and ocean’s surface, and in less than twenty hours every atom of its atmosphere takes up the altered movement due to that infinitesimal portion of the primitive motion which has been conveyed to it through countless channels, and which must continue to influence its path throughout its future existence.*  

But these aerial pulses, unseen by the keenest eye, unheard by the acutest ear, un- perceived by human senses, are yet demonstrated to exist by human reason; and, in some few and limited instances, by calling to our aid the most refined and comprehensive instrument of human thought, their courses are traced and their intensities are measured. If man enjoyed a larger command over mathematical analysis, his knowledge of these motions would be more extensive; but a being possessed of the unbounded knowledge of that science, would trace every the minutest consequences of that primary impulse. Such a being, however far exalted above our race, would yet be immeasurably below even our conception of infinite intelligence; yet by him, supposing the original conditions of each atom of the atmosphere, as well as all the extraneous causes  acting  upoit to be given and supposing the interference also of no new causes, such a being wodl be able clearly to trace its future and inevitable pathand he would distinctlhy foresee and might absolutely predict for any, even the remotest point of time1 

5 Let us imagine a being, invested with such knowledge, to examine at a distant epoch the coincidence of the facts with those which his profound analysis. Has enabled him to predict.  If any the slightest deviation exists, he will immediately read in its existence the action of a new cause; and, through the aid of the same analysis, tracing this discordance back to its source, he would become aware of the time of its commencement, and the point of space at which it originated.  

6 Thus considered, what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, fixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless sand base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or even whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will.  

7 But if the air we breathe is the never-failing historian of the sentiments we have uttered, earth, air, and ocean, are in like manner the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done. The same principle of the equality of action and reaction applies to them: whatever motion is communicated to any of their particles, is transmitted to all around it, the share of each being diminished by their number, and depending jointly on the number and position of those acted upon by the original source of disturbance. The waves of air, although in many instances sensible to the organs of hearing, are only rendered visible to the eye by peculiar contrivances; whilst those of water offer to the sense of sight the most beautiful illustration of the transmission of motion. Everyone who has thrown a pebble into the still waters of a sheltered pool, has seen the circles it has raised gradually expanding in size, and as uniformly diminishing in distinctness. He may have observed the reflection of those waves from the edges of the pool. He may also have noticed the perfect distinctness with which two, three, or more series of waves each pursues its own unimpeded course, when diverging from two, three, or more centres of disturbance. He may have observed, that in such cases the particles of water where the waves intersect each other, partake of the movements due to each series.  

8 No motion impressed by natural causes, or by human agency, is ever obliterated. The ripple on the ocean’s surface caused by a gentle breeze, or the still water which marks the more immediate track of a ponderous vessel gliding with scarcely expanded sails over its bosom, are equally indelible. The momentary waves raised by the passing breeze, apparently born but to die on the spot which saw their birth, leave behind them an endless progeny, which, reviving with diminished energy in other seas, and visiting a thousand shores, reflected from each and perhaps again partially concentrated, will pursue their ceaseless course till ocean be itself annihilated.  

9 The track of every canoe, of every vessel which has yet disturbed the surface of the ocean, whether impelled by manual force or elemental power, remains for ever registered in the future movement of all succeeding particles which may occupy its place. The furrow which it left is, indeed, instantly filled up by the closing waters; but they draw after them other and larger portions of the surrounding element, and these again once moved, communicate motion to others in endless succession.  

10 The solid substance of the globe itself, whether we regard the minutest movement of the soft clay which receives its impression from the foot of animals, or the concussion produced from falling mountains rent by earthquakes, equally retains and communicates, through all its countless atoms, their apportioned shares of the motions so impressed.  

11 Whilst the atmosphere we breathe is the ever- living witness of the sentiments we have uttered, the waters, and the more solid materials of the globe, bear equally enduring testimony of the acts we have committed.  

12 If the Almighty stamped on the brow of the earliest murderer,— the indelible and visible mark of his guilt,— he has also established laws by which every succeeding criminal is not less irrevocably chained to the testimony of his crime ; for every atom of his mortal frame, through whatever changes its severed particles may migrate, will still retain, adhering to it through every combination, some movement derived from that very muscular effort, by which the crime itself was perpetrated.  

13 The soul of the negro, whose fettered body surviving the living charnel-house of his infected prison, was thrown into the sea to lighten the ship, that his Christian master might escape the limited justice at length assigned by civilized man to crimes whose profit had long gilded their atrocity,—will need, at the last great day of human account, no living witness of his earthly agony.2 

14 When man and all his race shall have disappeared from the face of our planet, ask every particle chained together, with more humanity than his fellows, permitted some of them to come on deck, but still chained together for the benefit of the air; when they immediately commenced jumping overboard, hand in hand, and drowning in couples; and, continued the person (relating the circumstance), without any cause whatever. Now, these people were just brought from a situation between decks, and to which they knew they must return, where the scalding perspiration was running from one to the other, covered also with their own filth, and where it is no uncommon occurrence for women to be bringing forth children, and men dying at their side, with full in their view living and dead bodies chained together; and the living, in addition to all their other torments, labouring under the most famishing thirst (being in very few instances allowed more than a pint of water a day);—and, let it not be forgotten, that these unfortunate people had just been torn from their country, their families, their all! Men dragged from their wives, women from their husbands and children, girls from their mothers, and boys from their fathers; and yet in this man’s eye (for heart and soul he could have had none) there was no cause whatever for jumping overboard and drowning.  

15 This, in truth, is a rough picture; but it is not highly coloured. The men are chained in pairs; and, as a proof they are intended so to remain to the end of the voyage, their fetters are not locked, but rivetted by the blacksmith, and as deaths are frequently occurring lining men of air still floating over the unpeopled earth, and it will record the cruel mandate of the tyrant. Interrogate every wave which breaks unimpeded on ten thousand desolate shores, and it will give evidence of the last gurgle of the waters which closed over the head of his are often for a length of time confined to dead bodies; the living man cannot be released till the blacksmith has performed the operation of cutting the clench of the rivet with his chisel; and I have now an officer on board the Dryad, who, on examining one of these slave vessels, found not only living men chained to dead bodies, but the latter in a putrid state. And we have now a case reported here, which, if true, is too horrible and disgusting to be described.”—Parliamentary Paper, 1832, B, pp. 170, 171, as quoted in the Quarterly Review, Dec. 1835. 

 

16 When the ink was scarcely dry on the paper on which the remarks in the text, suggested by a former description of the atrocities of the slave trade, was written, the following paragraph caught my attention: “SLAVE TRADE.—His Majesty’s ship Thalia, 31, Captain R. Wauchope, has captured on the coast of Africa, two slave vessels—one the Félicité, 611 slaves; the other, the Adalia, with 409 slaves. It appears the latter vessel had been chased by the boats of one of our cruizers, and to avoid being come up with she threw overboard upwards of 150 of the poor wretches who were on board, besides almost all her heavy stores.”—Western Luminary, May 1837. 

17 dying victim: confront the murderer with every corporeal atom of his immolated slave, and in its still quivering movements he will read the prophet’s denunciation of the prophet king.3