Charles Babbage was one of the fathers of computing, but in addition to his fascination with mathematics and engineering, he had a curiosity with the occult. Starting from an early age, Babbage wondered if the existence of God and paranormal phenomena could be proven scientifically — and he started by trying to summon the Devil.
While researching famous scientists who believed in the supernatural, I came across the Ghost Club, a society of paranormal researchers that boasted Charles Babbage as a one-time member. Was Babbage, I wondered, a true believer in the occult, as many people at the time were? Or did he simply enjoy the academic exercise of investigating the paranormal?
Well, it turns out that Babbage was intrigued by the question of whether God and other unseen phenomena could be proved through scientific experimentation from the time he was quite young. While he was still a schoolboy in Alphington, Devon, Babbage made his first attempt to prove the existence of the supernatural by trying to call upon the Devil. As Anthony Hyman points out in Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer, this was an ordinary enough endeavor for a schoolboy, but the methodical way in which Babbage approached his diabolical experiment was quite apropos for the future inventor.
Babbage wrote in his own words:
I gathered all the information I could on the subject from the other boys, and was soon informed that there was a peculiar process by which the devil might be raised and become personally visible. I carefully collected from the traditions of different boys the visible forms in which the Prince of Darkness had been recorded to have appeared. Amongst them were —-
A black cat (very frequently)
A man with a cloven foot (also frequent)
After long thinking over the subject (although checked by a belief that the inquiry was wicked), my curiosity at length over-balanced my fears, and I resolved to attempt to raise the devil. Naughty people, I was told, had made written compacts with the devil, and had signed them with their names written in their own blood. These had become very rich and great men during their life, a fact which might be well known. But, after death, they were described as having suffered and continuing to suffer physical torments throughout eternity, another fact which, to my uninstructed mind, it seemed difficult to prove.
As I only desired an interview with the gentleman in black simply to convince my senses of his existence, I declined adopting the legal forms of a bond, and preferred one more resembling that of leaving a visiting card, when, if not at home, I might expect the satisfaction of a return of the visit by the devil in person.
Accordingly, having selected a promising locality, I went one evening towards dusk up into a deserted garret. Having closed the door, and I believe opened the window, I proceeded to cut my finger and draw a circle on the floor with the blood which flowed from the incision.
I then placed myself in the centre of the circle, and either said or read the Lord's Prayer backwards. This I accomplished at first with some trepidation and in great fear towards the close of the scene. I then stood still in the centre of that magic and superstitious circle, looking with intense anxiety in all directions, especially at the window and at the chimney. Fortunately for myself, and for the reader also, if he is interested in this narrative, no owl or black cat or unlucky raven came into the room.
In either case my then weakened frame might have expiated this foolish experiment by its own extinction, or by the alienation of that too curious spirit which controlled its feeble powers.
After waiting some time for my expected but dreaded visitor, I, in some degree, recovered my self-possession, and leaving the circle of my incantation, I gradually opened the door and gently closing it, descended the stairs, at first slowly, and by degrees much more quickly. I then rejoined my companions, but said nothing whatever of my recent attempt.
This failure to conjure up the Prince of Darkness did plant a seed of doubt in young Babbage's mind about religion, but he did not stop putting the question of God to little tests. Babbage believed that if there truly was a God, then He would not block a sincere inquirer from learning the truth, and so challenged him thus: Babbage would go to a certain room in the house on a certain day. If he found the door open, it would mean the Scriptures were true; if the door was closed, it would mean the Scriptures were false. Oddly, Babbage later wrote:
I remember well that the observation was made, but I have no recollection as to the state of the door. I presume it was found open from the circumstance that, for many years after, I was no longer troubled by doubts, and indeed went through the usual religious forms with very little thought about their origin.
While Babbage was at Cambridge's Trinity College, he developed a tight-knit circle of friends, who, like Babbage, were interested in the subject of ghosts. So they formed a Ghost Club to investigate paranormal phenomena from an academic perspective. They corresponded extensively on the subjects of spirits and psychics and how science might verify or refute their existence. But just how serious was the crew was about the idea of ghosts? Well, it's a bit suspect that they also formed what they called the "Extractors Club." That club was devoted to liberating any member from a mental hospital should he be committed to one.
That Cambridge Ghost Club, however, was a forerunner to a later Ghost Club, revived in 1882. Its membership roster included many true luminaries of the spiritualist movement, including physicists Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge, psychologist Nandor Fodor, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Image: Engraving of Babbage from the Illustrated London News. Metal sign photo by Pascal (CC BY 2.0). Doctored by Lauren Davis.