Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

  1. Thanks for this, Gregory. Babbage’s thoughts on diagnostic tools that would tell the “story” of an accident that doesn’t rely on first-person testimony reminds me of some of the many concerns in the mid-century about self-acting railway signals. Under Dickens’s editorial control, Household Words frequently published shorter pieces on the problems of the old system of signalling that relied on an army of signalmen to manage the complexities of the railway network. Beginning in the 1850s, proponents of self-acting or automatic railway signal systems argued that there was too much potential for human error in older methods. Automatic systems coordinating the movements of trains on the tracks, many argued, were a far more effective alternative because they created an efficiency of operation that could be centralized and thus removed from the dangers of human control. Of course, they also created the conditions for incredibly violent and unprecedented accidents, such as the Staplehurst Accident in the 1860s (which Dickens experienced first-hand), which at times seemed to remove human error from the equation of disaster. Accidents, under self-acting railway systems, could become more than just technical (in terms of human technique or craft) — they were now substantial, operating under their own conditions and rules of existence. They became Things.

  2. I’d be interested to hear more on your distinction between technical and “substantial” accidents, Daniel. I’m thinking of the images that loom in our minds when we hear words such as “Titanic,” or “Exxon Valdez.” It’s the destruction, rather than the construction, of these mammoths that gives them their symbolic significance.

  3. I guess I’m just thinking along Virilio’s lines, to some extent, about the Aristotelian implications of accidental phenomena. We tend to assume still, like Aristotle, that there is a difference between accidental and substantial qualities of a thing (a steamship, a railway engine, an airliner). Accidental attributes do not in this sense change the essence of a thing, they are merely accidental to its very substance.

    But the Victorians started to realize that accidents increasingly became things in their own right. They could be documented, categorized into types, evaluated, and even anticipated. Once they became things, they took on a kind of ontology that was far more compelling, and dangerous, for the Victorians than concurrent views about the strictly technical side of accidental phenomena. Victorian insurance forms and manuals or legal judgments about compensation for injuries resulting from accidents, for example, tended to assume that accidents were always the result of human error. In this sense, they were technical because errors resulted from an individual’s lack of technique or judgment.

    Increasingly, the Victorians realized that automatized systems, such as self-acting railway signals, produced a far more dangerous reality, namely that accidents did not require human error — they seemed now to happen on their own, like a complete system failure. In this sense, they demonstrated their substantial essence as Things, thus transforming the way the Victorians thought about material realities.

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