When Babbage and Dickens Waged a War on Noise
How the father of the computer enlisted the greatest Victorian novelist in ridding the streets of sound.
By Maria Popova
“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” wrote George Prochnik about the cultural evolution of silence, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Indeed, the public-private negotiations of sound date much further back than iPod earbuds and boomboxes. From Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) — which gave us the counterintuitive story of the silent Big Bang — comes the fascinating tale of the first organized war on noise, championed by none other than computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who took it upon himself to purge London of its populous street musicians, known to use their noise as an extortion tactic by playing loudly outside fancy establishments until they were paid to leave. In 1864, Babbage published Chapter on Street Nuisances which, together with Street Music in the Metropolis released by Derby MP Michael Bass the same year, became a seminal manifesto for silence as a civic right.
Sound scholar Mike Goldsmith writes:
Babbage in particular did everything he could to oppose the noises of the streets, using his considerable resources of intelligence, political contacts, and obstinacy. History has on the whole not been kind to him. He is remembered with respect as the originator of the computer, but most of his other work has been either neglected or ridiculed. Certainly, Babbage was an eccentric in many ways, an dan obsessive man too.
Babbage attacked noise on many fronts, making numerous court appearances and, like any good naturalist, collecting data to support his case, including his detailed list of 165 interruptions that he suffered over 80 days and his estimate that noise had reduced his working output by a quarter.
Babbage’s efforts might have been more successful had he not insisted in characterizing the battle against noise as the battle of the ‘intellectual worker’ against ‘those whose minds are entirely unoccupied.’ He included in his pamphlet a list of ‘Encouragers of Street Music’:
tavern-keepers, public houses, gin-shops, beer-shops, coffee-shops, servants, children, visitors from the country, and, finally and occasionally, ladies of doubtful virtue…
And he also lists ‘Instruments of torture permitted by the government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London,’ comprising
organs, bass bands, fiddles, harps, harpsichord, hurdy-gurdies, flageolets, drums, bagpipes, accordions, halfpenny whistles, tom-toms trumpets, and, the human voice, shouting out objects for sale.
But his efforts fell on deaf ears — or, worse yet, inspired retaliation ranging from the petty to the staunchly spiteful:
Babbage’s confrontational tactics regarding local noise-makers and in particular his numerous letters to The Times met with equally devastating responses from his targets: his neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows, sometimes using damaged wind instruments to add to the annoyance. Another neighbor blew a tin whistle from the window facing Babbage’s house for half an hour every day for several months. A brass band played outside his house for five hours. And, when Babbage left his house,
the crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets. When I turn around and survey my illustrious tail it stops .. the instant I turn, the shouting and the abuse are resumed, and the mob again follow at a respectful distance … In one case there were certainly above a hundred persons, consisting o f men, women, and boys, with multitudes of young children who followed me through the streets before I could find a policeman.
Still, Babbage persevered, enlisting the help of notable writers and artists in testifying to his mission. He even got Charles Dickens to contribute to the book:
Dickens writes that he and his cosignatories ‘are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.’ Writing of ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments,’ he adds: ‘No sooner does it become known to the producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.’
Ultimately, Babbage had his way — sort of:
The publications of Babbage and Bass won the day. Later in the same year that they appeared, Bass’s Act passed into law. It was the beginning of the end for street musicians, though that end was slow in coming — so slow that, when Babbage was on his deathbed, an organ grinder played outside.
Published November 28, 2012