I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former).
It was this kind of logic that drove Babbage to devise a number of early prototypes for the mechanism we’ve come to know as “the black box.” Babbage wanted every locomotive outfitted with chronometers, and a “peculiar pen” capable of recording velocity, vibration, and a number of other significant factors, reasoning that: “every train should have mechanical self-registering means of recording its own velocity at every instant during the whole course of its journey” (329). He expected these devices “would become the unerring record of facts, the incorruptible witnesses of the immediate antecedents of any catastrophe” (333). As diagnostic tools, they could be trusted above “[e]ven the best and most unbiased” accounts of human witnesses (329).
Most survivors found themselves incapable of giving accurate testimony of their experiences because, for the human recording apparatus, trauma tends to fracture narrative. No less a writer than Charles Dickens was reduced to silence by his own experience in the Staplehurst rail crash of June 9, 1865. Four days after the accident, Dickens would write to his friend Thomas Mitton; the personal letter ends abruptly, derailed by a manifestation of what might today be diagnosed as acute stress disorder: “in writing these scanty words of recollection I feel the shake and am obliged to stop” (Selected Letters 151). Machines are not susceptible to this failure; they calmly go on writing in situations that would be unthinkable for humans. Acute histories of force are preserved as legible narratives. In this way, the train’s motion is translated into a streamlined account: a perfect transcript that is directed, rather than disturbed, by physical agitation.
To what extent did “the accidental” name a kind of truth especially valued by the Victorians, and what sort of techniques were required to apprehend the collision and extract meaning from the debris? It’s within Babbage’s autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, that he outlines this argument for the necessity of allowing trains to “tell their own story.” Ironically, the autobiography—a mode of autonomous and deliberate self-inspection through writing—becomes an occasion to reflect upon the diagnostic value of automatic and “accidental” graphing of machinery.