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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Machinic Excitement and Anxiety in the Nineteenth Century

Wednesday 21 October 2020, 15:00–17:00 BST

jonesCo-facilitator: Prof. Matthew L. Jones (Columbia University)

Assigned texts

  • Babbage, Charles. 'Chapter 20: On the Division of Labour'. In On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 1832.
  • ———. 'Chapter Two'. In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, 2nd ed. London, 1838.
  • Babbage, J. (pseudonym). 'The New Patent Novel Writer'. Punch, 1844.
  • Carlyle, Thomas. 'Signs of the Times', 1829.
  • Mahon 3rd Earl Stanhope, Charles. 'Unpublished Manuscript on a Machined for Doing Logic', c 1800. U1590/C85/8. Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone, Kent.
  • Padua, Sydney. 'Babbage and Lovelace Vs The Client'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, 5 July 2009.
  • ———. 'Lovelace and Babbage Vs The Economy'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, 24 April 2009.
  • Turing, Alan. 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence'. Mind 59, no. 236 (October 1950): 433–60.
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. 'Vindication of the Rights of Women', 1792.
  • Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mary. 'Chapters Five, Twenty and Twenty Four'. In Frankenstein, 1823.

Recommended texts

  • Ashworth, W. J. 'Memory, Efficiency, and Symbolic Analysis – Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and the Industrial Mind.' Isis 87, no. 4 (December 1996): 629–53.
  • Cook, Simon. 'Minds, Machines and Economic Agents: Cambridge Receptions of Boole and Babbage.' Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 36, no. 2 (2005): 331–50.
  • Daston, Lorraine. 'Enlightenment Calculations.' Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 182–202.
  • Fuegi, J., and J. Francis. 'Lovelace & Babbage and the Creation of the 1843 "Notes."' IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 25, no. 4 (October 2003): 16–26.
  • Jones, Matthew L. Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Schaffer, Simon. 'Babbage's Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System.' Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 203–27.
  • Swade, Doron. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. 1st American Edition. New York: Viking, 2001.


Our readings this month give you a taste of the cultural world around the attempts by Charles Babbage to build his Difference and Analytical Engines, the first intended to produce mathematical tables, and the second, never realized, capable of being programmed to do a much wider variety of mathematical calculations. Despite never coming into general use, the machines spurred reflection and reaction, in his own time, and then in the wake of the creation of electronic digital computers around World War II. Babbage and his collaborator Ada Lovelace were recovered as progenitors for computing after World War II and given diverse cultural functions.

Rather than prioritize the technical aspects of these devices, the readings, a series of excerpts, focus on meanings and implications of the Babbage machines and then machines more generally in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.

Event summary

Having spent five Reading Group meetings and Methods and Critical Issues Training sessions looking at the four central themes we had identified to guide our approach to histories of AI, this reading group focused more directly on analysing historical sources themselves.

Prof. Jones provided the participants with a cluster of documents to make a genealogy of AI which combines various interdisciplinary interests. Demonstrating that there are many genealogies of AI – including those of calculating machines, models of reason, and the machine as other to the organic/human – he invited participants to use a set of tools using historical evidence to think about this, drawing out a lively interactive conversation. The central questions to consider in the course of this historical analysis were as follows:

  1. How do current concerns about AI enable us to read these documents?
  2. How do these documents allow us to think through current concerns about AI differently?

The session made manifest the importance of doing historical work to contextualise and destabilise 19th century and contemporary assumptions, excitements, and anxieties surrounding machines.

Works cited (in the chat)

Obscuring Violence

  • Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2013.

Machine Minds in Fiction

  • Padua, Sydney. 'The Marvellous Analytical Engine – How It Works'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, 31 May 2015.
  • Winterson, Jeanette, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankissstein: A Love Story. London: Jonathan Cape, imprint of Vintage, 2019.

Materiality of Minds

Machine Metaphors and Society

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