Extracts from Reflections on the Decline of Science in England by Charles Babbage, (London, 1830)

In his book Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, Babbage made reference to what he saw as absurdities in the publication and distribution of the observations made at the Greenwich and Paramatta Observatories. The relevant sections are transcribed below. Click here to view the book as originally published. 




[from pp.24 & 25]

Who, for instance, could have advised the government to incur the expense of printing seven hundred and fifty copies of the Astronomical Observations made at Paramatta, to form a third part of the Philosophical Transactions for 1829, whilst of the Observations made at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, two hundred and fifty copies only are printed?

Of these seven hundred and fifty copies, seven hundred and ten will be distributed to members of the Royal Society, to six hundred of whom they will probably be wholly uninteresting or useless; and thus the country incurs a constantly recurring annual expense. Nor is it easy to see on what principle a similar destination could be refused for the observations made at the Cape of Good Hope.


On the conversion of the Greenwich Observations into Pasteboard. --Although the printing of these observations is not paid for out of the funds of the Royal Society, yet as the Council of that body are the visitors of the Royal Observatory, it may not be misplaced to introduce the subject here.

Some years since, a member of the Royal Society accidentally learned, that there was, at an old store-shop in Thames Street, a large quantity of the volumes of the Greenwich Observations on sale as waste paper. On making inquiry, he ascertained that there were two tons and a half to be disposed of, and that an equal quantity had already been sold, for the purpose of converting it into pasteboard. The vendor said he could get fourpence a pound for the whole, and that it made capital Bristol board. The fact was mentioned by a member of the Council of the Royal Society, and they thought it necessary to inquire into the circumstances.

Now, the Observations made at the Royal Observatory are printed with every regard to typographical luxury, with large margins, on thick paper, hotpressed, and with no sort of regard to economy. This magnificence is advocated by some who maintain, that the volumes ought to be worthy of a great nation; whilst others, seeing how little that nation spends on science, regret that the sums allotted to it should not be applied with the strictest economy. If the Astronomer Royal really has a right to these volumes, printed by the government at a large expense, it is, perhaps, the most extravagant mode which was ever yet invented of paying a public servant. When that right was given to him,--let us suppose somebody had suggested the impolicy of it, lest he should sell the costly volumes for waste paper,--who would have listened for one moment to such a supposition? He would have been told that it was impossible to suppose a person in that high and responsible situation, could be so indifferent to his own reputation.

A short time since, I applied to the President and Council of the Royal Society, for copies of the Greenwich Observations, which were necessary for an inquiry on which I was at that time engaged. Being naturally anxious to economize the small funds I can devote to science, the request appeared to me a reasonable one. It was, however, refused; and I was at the same time informed that the Observations could be purchased at the bookseller's. [[footnote] This was a mistake; Mr. Murray has not copies of the Greenwich Observations prior to 1823.] When I consider that practical astronomy has not occupied a very prominent place in my pursuits, I feel disposed, on that ground, to acquiesce in the propriety of the refusal. This excuse can, however, be of no avail for similar refusals to other gentlemen, who applied nearly at the same time with myself, and whose time had been successfully devoted to the cultivation of that science. [[footnote] M. Bessel, at the wish of the Royal Academy of Berlin, projected a plan for making a very extensive map of the heavens. Too vast for any individual to attempt, it was proposed that a portion should be executed by the astronomers of various countries, and invitations to this effect were widely circulated. One only of the divisions of this map was applied for by any English astronomer; and, after completing the portion of the map assigned to him, he undertook another, which had remained unprovided for. This gentleman, the Rev. Mr. Hussey, was one of the rejected applicants for the Greenwich Observations.]

There was, however, another ground on which I had weakly anticipated a different result;--but those who occupy official situations, rendered remarkable by the illustrious names of their predecessors, are placed in no enviable station; and, if their own acquirements are confessedly insufficient to keep up the high authority of their office, they must submit to the mortifications of their false position. I am sure, therefore, that the President and officers of the Royal Society must have sympathized most deeply with me, when they felt it their duty to propose that the Society over which Newton once presided, should refuse so trifling an assistance to the unworthy possessor of the chair he once filled.

In reply to my application to the President and Council, to be allowed a copy of the Greenwich Observations, I was informed that, "The number of copies placed by government at the disposal of the Royal Society, was insufficient to supply the demands made on them by various learned bodies in Europe; and, consequently, they were unable, however great their inclination, to satisfy the wishes of individual applicants." Now I have spent some time in searching the numerous proceedings in the council-books of the Royal Society, and I believe the following is the real state of the case:--

In 1785, Lord Sidney, one of His Majesty's principal Secretaries of State, wrote to the Council a letter, dated Whitehall, March 8, 1785, from which the following is extracted:--

"The King has been pleased to consent, that any copies of the Astronomical Observations, made at the Observatory of Greenwich, (and paid for by the Board of Ordnance, pursuant to His Majesty's command, of July 21, 1767,) which may at any time remain in the hands of the printer, shall, after you have reserved such copies as you may think proper as presents, be given to the said Nevil Maskelyne, in consideration of his trouble in the superintending the printing thereof. I am to signify His Majesty's pleasure, that you do, from time to time, give the necessary orders for that purpose, until His Majesty's further commands shall be communicated to you."

Soon after this letter, I find on the council-books:--

"Ordered, That sixty copies of the Greenwich Observations, last published, be retained as presents, and that the rest be delivered to the Astronomer Royal."

It is difficult to be sure of a negative fact, but in searching many volumes of the Proceedings of the Council, I have not discovered any revocation of this order, and I believe none exists. This is confirmed by the circumstance of the Council at the present day receiving precisely the same number of copies as their predecessors, and I believe that in fact they do not know the authority on which the right to those sixty rests.

Supposing this order unrevoked, it was clearly meant to be left to the discretion of the Council, to order such a number to be reserved, "from time to time," as the demands of science might require. When, therefore, they found that the number of sixty copies was insufficient, they ought to have directed the printer to send them a larger number; but when they found out the purpose to which the Astronomer Royal applied them, they ought immediately to have ordered nearly the whole impression, in order to prevent this destruction of public property. If, on the other hand, the above order is revoked, and we really have no right to more than sixty copies; then, on discovering the Observations in their progress towards pasteboard, it was the duty of the Council of the Royal Society, as visitors of the Royal Observatory, immediately to have represented to Government the evil of the arrangement, and to have suggested, that if the Astronomer Royal have the right, it would be expedient to commute it for a liberal compensation.

Whichever be the true view of the case, they have taken no steps on the subject; and I cannot help expressing my belief, that the President and Council were induced to be thus negligent of the interests of science, from the fear of interfering with the perquisites of the Astronomer Royal.

It is, however, but justice to observe, that the injury already done to science, by the conversion of these Observations into pasteboard, is not so great as the public might have feared. Mr. Pond, than whom no one can be supposed better acquainted with their value, and whose right to judge no man can question, has shown his own opinion to be, that his reputation will be best consulted by diminishing the extent of their circulation.

Before I quit the subject of the Royal Observatory, on which much might be said, I will just refer to the report by a Committee of the Royal Society that was made relative to it, some years since, and which, it is imagined, is a subject by no means grateful to the memory of any of the parties concerned in it. My object is to ascertain, whether any amendments have taken place in consequence. To one fact of considerable importance, I was myself a witness, when I was present officially at a visitation. At that time, no original observations made at the transit instrument were ever preserved. Had I not been an eye witness of the process of an observation, I should not have credited the fact.