This fine book — essentially a history of British science during the first two-thirds of the 19th century — examines the interwoven lives of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), John Herschel (1792-1871), William Whewell (1794-1866) and Richard Jones (1790-1855). In their time, all were famous, but today only the first is still a name to conjure with. The cranky, irascible Babbage imagined, then built a small model of what he called a “Difference Engine,” and worked out plans for the even more sophisticated “Analytical Engine.” In short, as every reader of Victorian steampunk fiction knows, Babbage invented the computer.
His friends, moreover, were no slouches. Whewell coined the word “scientist,” suggested that geologist Charles Lyell name historical epochs “Eocene,” “Miocene” and “Pliocene” and gave Michael Faraday the terms “ion,” “cathode” and “anode.” Whewell became a professor of mineralogy, produced a book on scientific method that inspired a young man named Darwin, translated Homer’s “Iliad” into hexameters and spent the second half of his adult life as the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the most influential academic post in Britain. Richard Jones, the least notable of the four, made his mark as a critic of David Ricardo’s hardhearted economics and influenced the more socially aware thought of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. The only child of William Herschel, the emigrant German astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus, John Herschel eclipsed his father in the wide range of his scientific interests. First notable as a chemist and a mathematician, he later charted the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, produced a massive catalogue of nebulae and was instrumental in the development of photography, showing William Henry Fox Talbot how to fix an image so that it wouldn’t fade.