Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Babbage the unfortunate
  1. C R Keeler
  1. Correspondence to: C R Keeler Royal College of Ophthalmologists, London, UK;

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

But for the addition of a 4 or 5 dioptre concave lens in his instrument for looking into the eye, Babbage would probably be renowned today as the harbinger of the modern era of ophthalmology

In 1850, Hermann von Helmholtz revolutionised ophthalmology by the invention of an eye speculum or ophthalmoscope. Yet, 3 years earlier, an Englishman, Charles Babbage came so near to claiming this great prize.

Charles Babbage was born in 1791 into a wealthy London banking family. A delicate child, ill health was to dog his long life. He showed an early aptitude for mathematics and became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a chair held previously by Sir Isaac Newton; he held it for 10 years without giving a lecture.

He married Georgiana Whitmore against his father’s wishes, but inherited a fortune from him, freeing him to indulge in his passion for mathematics and mechanics.

Why should Babbage attempt to construct an instrument for looking into the eye? He was alleged to have had bilateral monocular diplopia—did this create an inquisitiveness to explore his own eyes? Or was there some other reason?

An article on Babbage in 19401 provides a clue about his defective eyesight. He had made two excursions into ophthalmology—the ophthalmoscope and colour vision. Alfred Smee, ophthalmic surgeon to the Bank of England, suggested in 18472 that the great William Mackenzie had asserted that Babbage had “irregular vision.”

Alfred Smee, co-founder of the Central London Ophthalmic Hospital, was an ophthalmologist polymath, and a pioneer of artificial intelligence. Smee was the son of the chief accountant of the Bank of England and Babbage was once called in to advise him on how to combat forgery of bank notes.

There are several editions of William Mackenzie’s Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Eye between …

View Full Text