Obedient Numbers – Batchen

The student is Instructed to read Obedient Numbers, Soft Delight’ from Geoffrey Batchen.

Batchen posits the idea that the connection between Henry Fox Talbot and Charles Babbage is the first ever connection between photography and computing. Whilst Babbage displayed a selection of Talbot’s prints in his drawing room for soirees, these contact prints were for the education enlightenment and titillation of his guests. Certainly Fox Talbot’s contact prints of lace shown by Babbage demonstrated the like to like photographic representation of its subject, but to describe them as a binary print is a bit of a misnomer, the images produced were not purely red on white, as some small areas show less detail and colouring, which suggests the images were more “nibble” than byte as they a limited range of differentiation.

Batchen however is mistaken to write that Babbage calculated his algorithmic “feedback function” on his difference engine, as the difference engine was never completed, Babbage would have hand calculated these functions himself; Which creates the a fracture in Batchens linkage,  certainly Babbage was interested in the function and usages of Photography and the philosophical ideas of what made a photograph, but like many intellectuals of the time, Babbage juggled multiple concepts and ideas, drawing tenuous parallels between some.

The link between Fox Talbot and Babbage is lace however, the production of lace was being mechanised in France by Joseph Marie Jacquard as it was Jacquards mechanised loom which was directed in its lace production by a sequence of punched cards. The idea of punched cards directing a machine was key in Babbage’s design for his computing engines. Babbage imagined his engines receiving instructions via punched cards, which was indeed how Hollerith drove his tabulating machines. The punched card function made it into the first real digital computing systems of ENIAC and NORC, so it can be seen that Babbage’s idea made it into computing via the need to calculate mathematical functions. In truth the idea behind Babbage’s punched card idea of a programmable computer controlled by a man made sequence of punch cards which instructed the computer to run a “program” is that it was initially created by Ada Lovelace who had the idea and proposed it to Babbage.

Photography followed a similar path in the Victorian age as developments leap frogged each other and philosophies and ideas came and went. However, there was not real connection between the analog mathematics and the finite computing power required to process and replicate an 8 or 16 bit photograph. The paths of computing and digital photography only really meet with the first real digital camera which was a prototype created in 1975 by Kodak engineer Steven Sasson, even then computing was still at its room filling stage, It would be decades before the two ideas as we know it would collide in the early 1990s with the development of the digital SLR back and version 1.0 of Photoshop.

Batches is correct is saying that the Babbage was linked to the development of digital photography, but this link is the tenuous one of mathematics, mathematical tablature and Ada Lovelace’s contribution of the idea of a programmable computer.


BBC Bitesize. (n.d.). Bits and bytes – Introducing binary – GCSE Computer Science Revision. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zwsbwmn/revision/2#:~:text=Nibble%20%2D%204%20bits%20(half%20a [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020].

Computerhistory.org. (2019). Ada Lovelace |  Babbage Engine | Computer History Museum. [online] Available at: https://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/adalovelace/.

Estrin, J. (2015). Kodak’s First Digital Moment. [online] Lens Blog. Available at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/kodaks-first-digital-moment/.

Science and Industry Museum. (2019). Programming patterns: the story of the Jacquard loom | Science and Industry Museum. [online] Available at: https://www.scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/jacquard-loom.

www-03.ibm.com. (2012). IBM100 – The Punched Card Tabulator. [online] Available at: https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/tabulator/ [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020].

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