In On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, what is Charles Babbage referring to when talking about the College of Laputa in the following extract:

...Nor has the wild imagination of the satirist been quite unrivaled by the realities of after years: as if in mockery of the College of Laputa, light almost solar has been extracted from the refuse of fish; fire has been sifted by the lamp of Davy; ...

Link to the original is here.

  • 2
    Looks straightforward: synonym to 'blind leading the blind', possibly more apt for English SE?
    – gktscrk
    May 16, 2020 at 12:47
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    Possibly a reference to Swift's "Voyage to Laputa" - the flying island of Laputa is "a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but unable to use these for practical ends".
    – Steve Bird
    May 16, 2020 at 13:02
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    @SteveBird: When i was little, a popular restaurant about 20 minutes drive away called "Gulliver's Pancake House" had large murals of Gulliver in the lands of the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and Laputians. A great place for a small child to learn both classic English literature and politics. Sadly it closed many years ago, without preserving those wonderful murals. May 16, 2020 at 13:42
  • 5
    Also, for the record, the "lamp of (Sir Humphry) Davy" was a lamp designed for coal-miners, which was enclosed in a fine wire mesh to prevent any flame from passing through and igniting coal-damp vapors in the mine. The mesh permitted air to pass through while quite literally "sifting" out the fire! I'm not sure about "the refuse of fish," but it might be a reference to whale oil. May 17, 2020 at 19:43

2 Answers 2


It is clearly a reference to Gulliver's recollections of the island of Laputa as relayed to us by Swift.

Their heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe. I observed, here and there, many in the habit of servants, with a blown bladder, fastened like a flail to the end of a stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried peas, or little pebbles, as I was afterwards informed. With these bladders, they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning. ... And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of justling others, or being justled himself into the kennel.


Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined for the intellects of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes. And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music. They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case. Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language, by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences.

  • Odd fact about Laputa : their astronomers maintained that Mars had two moons, with very short orbital periods ( 10 and 21.5 hours). Does anybody know if Jonathan Swift had friends among the astronomer community with unconfirmed amateur observations, that he planted as an in-joke? (1726)? (They were formally discovered in 1877, orbital periods were off by about 30%) May 18, 2020 at 18:25
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    @BrianDrummond: The facts (such as they are on such speculation by Swift. Note that his good friend John Arbuthnot was indeed a fellow of the Royal Society and a physicist; but all evidence is that Swift was merely extrapolating from Kepler's laws, and that no large moons were known for mars but many expected some because Jupiter had 4 already known at the time. May 18, 2020 at 22:41
  • Furthermore, by 1726 it should be clear that if Mars had moons, they would be small, since otherwise they would have been already discovered.
    – Pere
    Mar 30, 2023 at 9:20

Gulliver's Travels. In particular, the reference is to one man there:

He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me "to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers."

  • 4
    Fish faeces contain phosphorus, which can be extracted to make a very bright flame: "light almost solar", indeed.
    – TonyK
    May 17, 2020 at 20:34

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