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BABBAGE, Charles.

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes.

London: printed for B. Fellowes, & J. Booth, 1830 Stock Code: 131351
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Presentation copy inscribed by the author to Joseph Nicolas Nicollet

First octavo edition, in the original boards, of the author's scathing and sensational critique of the English scientific establishment; presentation copy to a Continental colleague, inscribed by Babbage on the front free endpaper "To M. Nicollet from the Author". Joseph Nicolas Nicollet is a fitting recipient, as a member of the Bureau des longitudes, the English equivalent of which is much maligned by Babbage in this work.

Babbage met Nicollet (1786-1843), a respected French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician, during his and Herschel's European tour of 1824. The year before Nicollet had joined the French version of the Board of Longitude. In the Decline, written shortly after the abolishment of the English Board in 1828, Babbage condemns the Board for its nepotistic appointments and the Royal Society's monopoly over committee decisions. The Sotheby's sale catalogue of Babbage's library records that he owned several of Nicollet's works, including a copy of the Lettre sur les assurances qui ont pour base les probabilités de la durée de la vie humaine, seconde édition (Sotheby's 1872, catalogue no. 586) and a few other papers.

In 1830 Babbage was profoundly dissatisfied with the government's failure to sufficiently support the sciences and irritated by what he perceived as the myriad shortcomings of those existing societies, most particularly the Royal Society. In the Decline, by far the most polemical of his works, Babbage portrayed English science as moribund, English scientists as amateur and corrupt, and English scientific culture and reform as lamentably inferior to those of other countries. "To the observer with advantage of hindsight, the charge that science was in decline seems ridiculous: Lyell's Principles of Geology had begun to appear, Darwin was setting off on the Beagle, and Faraday was beginning his revolutionary researches in electricity and magnetism. But the Decline, with its attacks on the Royal Society and the English universities, and its demand for more honours and sinecures for scientists, caused a sensation" (Knight, p. 144). Though many found the vehemence of Babbage's views objectionable, his sentiments were widely shared, and this "broadside of outrage and insult gave a decisive boost to the movement to reform organized science" (ODNB). The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded the next year, a number of reforms within the Royal Society also followed suit, and a university curriculum including both theoretical and applied science was established.

The Decline was published simultaneously in an octavo edition of 228 pages (as here) and a quarto edition of 120 pages. According to a note tipped into the Honeyman copy of the quarto edition, only "a few copies were printed in quarto, for the use of those gentlemen who may wish to bind up the work with the Philosophical Transactions for the year 1830", a nicely satirical touch in a work that was primarily a diatribe against the Royal Society.

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Octavo. Original boards, expertly rebacked, paper spine label, edges untrimmed.


With numerous tables to text.


4 pp. publisher's advertisements at rear. Ownership signature of I. H. Alexander to title page. Boards a little soiled and worn at extremities, inner hinges discreetly strengthened with Japanese tissue, tiny perforation underneath inscription, top right corners of leaves P5-6 torn (not affecting text), barring the very occasional ink mark or spot the contents remarkably crisp and clean. Overall in very good condition.


Hook & Norman 90; Origins of Cyberspace 38; Van Sinderen 1980, no. 39. David M. Knight, Natural Science Books in English 1600-1900, 1972.


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