The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Ellen Coolidge Meets Charles Babbage, 1839

In 1838, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, arrived in London for a visit that would last nearly a year and fill four notebooks with Ellen’s sharp and witty observations. Ellen and her husband, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., gained entry to some of the most coveted drawing rooms of the time, and Ellen candidly recorded her impressions of the illustrious people she met.

One such person was Charles Babbage, the mathematician, inventor, and author celebrated today as the father of computing for his design of mechanical computers that he called the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Babbage held Saturday-evening parties of London’s elite, which Coolidge attended twice. She writes on 18 February 1839 of the previous Saturday’s gathering,

Here was a gathering of the elect, a ‘re-union’ of literary & scientific men, artists, authors, celebrities of both sexes. Those who like myself had no claim of learning or letters for admittance into so choice an assembly, could only rejoice in the opportunity of seeing so many Lions in one cage. We had, Mr Babbage himself the inventor of the famous calculating machine. . .

But for all the rejoicing they might have caused, these gatherings also inspired some choice words on English manners. On 21 February 1839, Coolidge writes,

The persons . . . whom I meet in society have all, more or less, the same style of manners and of dress, and their ordinary conversation is pitched nearly in the same key. They vary because Nature has put it out of their power to conform in all things to a given standard, but they vary as little as they can. This, in general society, produces a certain amount of insipidity, a want of heartiness, or earnestness, of any sort of warmth or glow. At [Babbage’s] saturday evening parties, where so many political, literary, scientific & artistic characters assemble, I should say that the distinguishing mark was want of all character for good or evil. . . . [I]t seems a pity that Babbage, Hallam, Whewell, Wilkie &c &c should move about requiring . . . to have labels pinned to their backs, in order to tell one from another.

Do you see why earlier I described her observations as “sharp”?

Ellen Coolidge’s diary of the trip—edited by Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla and co-published by the MHS and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2011 as Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839—is being reprinted in paperback as we speak and will be released in April 2013, just in time for Thomas Jefferson’s 13 April birthday.

permalink | Published: Friday, 22 February, 2013, 8:00 AM


Feb 24, 2013, 8:14 am

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Feb 24, 2013, 9:44 am

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Feb 25, 2013, 11:39 am


Hi. The quotations from Ellen Coolidge's diary are all in the actual manuscript diary, which the MHS holds. You can also read those excerpts in the published volume that noted at the end of the blog post. The same volume includes lots of research information (well sourced) from Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa Francavilla, the volume editors.

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