Dionysius Lardner

All the dull monotony and numerical computation is turned over to the untiring action and unerring certainty of mechanical agency. 1834

Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859) was a brilliant lecturer and prolific popularizer of science who made a handsome living from his public lectures on scientific subjects. He was sometimes ridiculed for his colorful predictions many of them risibly wrong: he warned that high speed rail travel with steam locomotives was impossible because passengers would asphyxiate in tunnels, and that crossing the Atlantic by steamship was impossible because of water resistance. His private life was no less colorful and erratic. Lardner played a defining role in our historical perception of Babbage's motives in attempting to construct calculating engines.

Lardner developed a series of lectures on Babbage's first Difference Engine for a lecture tour of the industrial cities of England in 1834. But his lecture hosts viewed the subject as too difficult for the proposed audiences. So Lardner downplayed references to Babbage's mathematical aspirations for the engines. Instead he used errors in tables as a dramatic device arguing that tabular errors were a problem of national importance, and that the solution was Babbage's engines. The lectures were a sensational success and later that year Lardner published a long article, the most comprehensive contemporary account of Babbage's work, based on his lecture-hall treatment. Here Lardner again trumpeted the danger of tabular errors, and this at the expense of the mathematical potential of the machines. His focus on errors was a well-intentioned attempt to publicize the engines. But in overemphasizing errors he did Babbage's interests near-fatal damage as experts disagreed whether errors in tables were a serious problem at all.