Engine Noise and Artificial Intelligence: Babbage's London

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Williams describes Charles Babbage as he neared the end of his life: living on Dorset Street in Marylebone alongside an old Difference Engine and an incomplete Analytical Machine, one working automated dancer (purchased from the remnants of Merlin’s Mechanical Exhibition, and restored), and – by Babbage’s own furious account – many hundreds of noisy and disruptive street performers. Williams posits a connection between what he calls “Babbage’s favored geriatric occupations”: continued work on the Difference Engine, and a campaign for increased legal restrictions on “foreign” street musicians. Drawing on early designs for the Difference Engine, which required its operator to count the pealing of multiple bells, but also upon Babbage’s pamphlet “On Street Nuisances” and his assertion that itinerant musicians had destroyed “one-fourth part of [his] working power,” Williams supplies a chapter in the history of listening that emphasizes the labor value of silent audition. The author examines governmental measures to regulate street music for the furtherance of an “industrious” political economy, and assesses the role of audile technique in the development of disciplinary notions of mental labor and artificial intelligence.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSound Knowledge
Subtitle of host publicationMusic and Science in London, 1789-1851
EditorsJames Q. Davies, Ellen Lockhart
PublisherUniversity of Chicago Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780226402109
ISBN (Print)9780226402079
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


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