Charles Babbage’s Observations on Street Nuisances (1864)

Many people know that the English polymath Charles Babbage, with the assistance of Ada Lovelace, invented the first mechanical computer. Fewer people know how much he hated street noise, especially the music made by musicians in London:

It robs the industrious man of his time; it annoys the musical man by its intolerable badness; it irritates the invalid; deprives the patient, who at great inconvenience has visited London for the best medical advice, of that repose which, under such circumstances, is essential for his recovery, and it destroys the time and the energies of all the intellectual classes of society by its continual interruptions of their pursuits.

In a chapter excerpted from his autobiographical work The Life of a Philosopher, Babbage rails at length against the “instruments of torture permitted by the Government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London” — including “the human voice in various forms”. 

What Babbage intends to be a call for legal reform sometimes reads more like a satirical text by Swift or Beckett:

The amount of interruption from street music, and from other occasional noises, varies with the nature and the habits of its victims. Those whose minds are entirely unoccupied receive it with satisfaction, as filling up the vacuum of time. Those whose thoughts are chiefly occupied with frivolous pursuits or with any other pursuits requiring but little attention from the reasoning or the reflective powers, readily attend to occasional street music. Those who possess an impaired bodily frame, and whose misery might be alleviated by good music at proper intervals, are absolutely driven to distraction by the vile and discordant music of the streets waking them, at all hours…

To illustrate the need for noise laws, Babbage tells a number of anecdotes. One involves an artist in the West End who, disturbed by the “continuous sound of music transmitted through the wall from his neighbour’s house”, orders his servant to hit the wall with a hammer repeatedly while he goes for an hour-long walk in the park. This retaliation leads to a temporary solution. The musical neighbor agrees to move his piano and drape it with blankets. However, his piano students don’t like playing on a “dumb piano” and abandon their professor, “who found it desirable to give up the house and retire to a more music-tolerating neighbourhood”.

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The Enraged Musician (1741) by William Hogarth —Source.

Other anecdotes Babbage tells — about fatal carriage accidents caused by horses who’ve been startled by brass bands, about the distress caused to housebound invalids — are less amusing. In fact, Babbage’s sensitivity to “noise pollution” may be as prescient as his invention of an early computer. “Among environmental hazards to human health”, George Prochnik writes in a New York Times op-ed, “only air pollution causes more damage”.

Babbage’s tone is often hilarious. He himself acknowledges that not everyone shares his solemn dislike of street music. “I was once asked by an astute and sarcastic magistrate whether I seriously believed that a man’s brain would be injured by listening to an organ.” His reply? “Certainly not, for the obvious reason that no man having brain ever listened to street musicians.”

In this judgement, Babbage shows himself to have a good deal in common with his misophonic contemporary Schopenhauer, who writes in The World as Will:

Actually, I have for a long time been of the opinion that the quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to their mental powers, and can therefore be regarded as a rough measure of them. When I therefore hear dogs barking hour upon hour unrestrained in the courtyard of a house, I know what to think of the mental powers of the inhabitants. Whoever habitually slams doors rather than closing them by hand, or allows this happen in their house, is not merely ill-mannered, but a crude and obtuse person.

If you've interest in seeing the grey matter that got so enraged by street noise (and that imagined the first mechanical computer) then check out our post on images of Charles Babbage's brain.