The Oxford Companion to British History

By John Cannon | Go to book overview


Babbage, Charles ( 1792-1871) Babbage made the first (clockwork) computers. He studied mathematics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1828 was elected to the Lucasian chair of mathematics, which * Newton had earlier held. Meanwhile Babbage had been one of a group including John *Herschel and William *Whewell who had brought the Cambridge syllabus up to date. He hoped to eliminate errors in mathematical tables by calculating and printing them mechanically, and in 1834 oversaw the construction of his difference engine. Before it was finished, he saw how much more powerful it would be as an analytical engine, but the government cut off finance: the principles were later realized electronically. He was an irascible man, writing on The Decline of Science in England ( 1830), and in 1837 a Bridgewater Treatise in which the world was a great computer programmed by God.


Babington plot, 1586. Anthony Babington ( 1561-86), a Derbyshire gentleman and a catholic page in Mary Stuart's service in England, was contacted by John Ballard, a catholic priest. The plan involved twelve men, six of whom were detailed to kill Elizabeth; the others, with Spanish and papal help, were to secure the freedom of Mary. Babington's failure was engineered by Sir Francis *Walsingham, who recruited a catholic, Gilbert Gifford, as an agent. Trusted by Babington and his fellow-conspirators, Gifford's job was to pass messages, hidden in a beer barrel, from Mary to the French ambassador: in fact the whole network was set up by Walsingham, who read the notes in transit. Babington was executed in September 1586. The plot sealed the fate of Mary by convincing Elizabeth that she was incorrigible.


Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Albans ( 1561-1626), Lawyer, philosopher, and essayist. The son of a prominent lawyer, Bacon went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and then to the Inns of Court. In constant need of money, in 1584 he became an MP. In the course of his public career, he prosecuted the earl of *Essex, his former patron: he became much disliked. On the accession of James I Bacon achieved rapid promotion, prosecuting *Ralegh, raised to the peerage, and ending up as lord chancellor. But in 1621 he was convicted of taking bribes, and though soon pardoned and released, he had to give up public life.

His witty and pithy Essays were first published in 1597, and are splendid examples of English prose; and in 1605 he brought out his Advancement of Learning. In this first exercise in writing about science, he was highly critical of the humanistic education he had received at Cambridge, and saw classical texts as flotsam carried down on the river of time. He believed that the Bible and the Book of Nature were, rightly understood, compatible; and that scientific knowledge properly applied would bring us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In 1620 he published his Novum organum, presenting his philosophy of science in the form of aphorisms, many of them striking and memorable. In retirement, he collected and published information of a rather miscellaneous kind, in what was to be the Great Instauration: his title-pages indicate that he saw himself as an intellectual Columbus, revealing the new world of science to his contemporaries, and bringing back ships freighted with useful knowledge. He died a martyr to science, from a chill caught trying to preserve a chicken by stuffing it with snow. After his death, the fragmentary New Atlantis was published in 1627: with its vision of an island governed by an Academy of Sciences, founded 'for the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible'. This is the most accessible and exciting of his writings on science.

Bacon is an important figure in the *scientific revolution; Robert *Boyle and other founders of the * Royal Society saw themselves as his disciples. His was a cautious experimental method, the mind being cleared of preconceptions or 'idols' and proceeding by induction and generalization to the discovery of causes or 'forms'. He was sceptical about mathematics, as Aristotle had been; and was similarly doubtful about the motion of the earth, and the atomic theory. He was scornful about his contemporary William *Gilbert, who had done careful studies of magnetism. Galileo praised Copernicus for defying common sense; Bacon's science was organized common sense; and his vision of utility was gripping.

Britain's industrial revolution did indeed depend upon this kind of thinking, but the systematic application of science was a feature only of the 19th cent., for example with Humphry *Davy. Britons in the 1790s saw Baconian science as safe; the French philosophes had been led into dangerous speculation, and had brought atheism and revolution upon their country. Baconian induction lay behind the public


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The Oxford Companion to British History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Ppreace vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Note to the Reader xii
  • A 1
  • B 71
  • C 149
  • D 273
  • E 318
  • F 363
  • G 399
  • H 445
  • I 503
  • J 523
  • K 541
  • L 553
  • M 602
  • N 666
  • O 701
  • P 717
  • Q 782
  • R 785
  • S 831
  • T 907
  • U 941
  • V 951
  • W 960
  • Y 1008
  • Z 1015
  • Subject Index 1034


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