Robert Peel (Prime Minister)

What shall we do to get rid of Mr. Babbage and his calculating machine? 1842

Robert Peel (1788-1850), career politician, and twice Prime Minister, intersected with Babbage's engines on two separate occasions, at the start and at the finish. In both instances he controlled the purse strings that determined the fate of the engines. As Home Secretary in 1822 he was lobbied by a supporter of Babbage to fund a full-sized calculating engine. Peel was skeptical. But following a favorable report by the Royal Society the Treasury approved funding and the construction of Difference Engine No. 1 went ahead. In 1842, when Prime Minister for the second time, Babbage appealed to Peel for a decision on whether government wished to complete the Engine, stalled since 1833, or scrap it. Peel axed the project following advice from George Biddell Airy, Babbage's energetic antagonist. John Herschel's elaborately supportive petition was to no avail. Babbage secured an interview with Peel in the hope of reversing the decision. The meeting was catastrophic. They argued and Babbage stormed out. The dismal outcome was at least partly a casualty of Babbage's impolitic behavior.

Peel was a formidable politician and responsible for major reforming legislation. He served as Whig Prime Minister from 1834-5 and as Conservative PM from 1841-6. In 1828, while Home Secretary, he established the Metropolitan Police Force and London policemen came to be nicknamed 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers', sobriquets used to this day.

The two decades of the engine saga starting in 1822 were times of political turmoil during which there were eight changes of government, four Tory, three Whig, one Coalition administration, and one Conservative. Negotiations between Babbage and government were not helped by the game of political musical chairs at Whitehall. Nor were they helped by the muddied clarity of Babbage's requests. Peel publicly supported scientific enterprise and was fairer to Babbage than Babbage gave him credit for. The outcome was dismal nonetheless.