About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

7 May 2014

Digital Humanities and the Quest for Academic Respectability

Intervention at Higher Education Academy Summit 'Towards a Pedagogy for the Digital Humanities', Lewes, 7 May 2014

Andrew Sanders, in his Short Oxford History of English Literature (2000), has outlined the ideological and social influences which shaped the emergence of the study of English as an academic subject in the nineteenth century. Sanders describes how ‘the ancient English universities, once they got round to establishing chairs and then courses of study, felt obliged to make English acceptable by rendering it dry, demanding and difficult’. English had to establish its social respectability by comparison with subjects such as Classics. Sanders notes how English was considered ‘a parvenu subject largely suited to social and intellectual upstarts (a category which it assumed included women). In order to appear “respectable” in the company of gentlemanly disciplines such as Classics and History, it had to require hard labour of its students’. This was achieved partly by an emphasis on the study of Old and Middle English literature which remained fundamental to the Oxford syllabus until quite recently, provoking the celebrated protests of Kingsley Amis and Phillip Larkin, denouncing Beowulf as ‘ape’s bum fodder’. Amis found a note by Larkin in a copy of Faerie Queene which read: ‘First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Fairie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it’.

At Cambridge, of course, a more modern approach to English Literature was pioneered in the 1930s by I. A. Richards and F. R Leavis, but again a concern to affirm academic respectability is evident, through for example Richards’s emphasis on the technique of ‘close reading’ or Leavis’s stress on literature as a force for moral improvement. All academic disciplines share this need to affirm their respectability and to demonstrate their intellectual virility. The dominance of medieval history in British historical studies up to the 1950s likewise reflects an anxiety to show that historical research required hard labour. The forbidding theoretical constructs that have come to surround cultural and media studies convey the message that these disciplines deal in austere abstract ideas and not the fripperies claimed by their detractors. The use of quantification can convey similar messages in many social sciences. These tensions are particularly evident in computer science, which has had to escape from the charge that it was no more than technological tinkering, and where it has been necessary to develop a highly focussed approach to avoid the taint of being considered a support or ancillary activity. These agendas of intellectual respectability can also be developed by integrating dispersed but cognate activities, as for example in Systems Biology, where various quantitative and modelling techniques have been drawn together.

Digital Humanities is not immune from this need to demonstrate moral and intellectual respectability. Indeed, it is rather disappointing that Digital Humanities mirrors so strongly the processes we see in the Victorian development of the study of English. In what we might call Digital Humanities 1.0, we again see an enormous stress on work with canonical materials. The overwhelming majority of digital humanities projects are concerned with big names, often from the pre-modern period: Beowulf, the Exeter Book, Chaucer, Langland, Shakespeare, William Blake, Jane Austen, Rossetti, and so on. The dominance of the Classics in digital humanities projects suggests that all too often digital technologies have been used to provide an up-to-date and trendy makeover for ailing disciplines. The digital humanities is rarely used to open up access to non-canonical or obscure materials - the culture of the digital humanities has hitherto been dominated by the dead white European male. Moreover, what Digital Humanities 1.0 does to these canonical materials has frequently been very conservative. It is used as a means of continuing academic activities which print technology had rendered uneconomic or unviable. Many of the digital editions so far produced only over limited gains in functionality over conventional print editions - they allow searching and may incorporate images, but otherwise that’s about it. In historical studies, printing costs had caused the great Victorian series of calendars to peter out; digital technologies have allowed them to be revived, but eerily these digital calendars recreate editorial methods designed for print - rather as if a railway locomotive was run on a turnpike road.

Digital humanities has affirmed its respectability by frequently allying itself with extremely conservative scholarly methods. It has also affirmed its moral character by insisting that its fundamental concern is with research. Digital humanities has had to make its way by seeking soft funding. It has turned this misfortune to its advantage by trying to suggest that it is exclusively concerned with research. Digital humanities centres claim to be something like scientific research institutes, only concerned with advanced research (the term advanced is invariably invoked in discussion of digital humanities methods, even though most of the techniques are fairly standard and quite old hat). Digital humanities is seen as the preserve of a priestly caste concerned only with advanced techniques who do not sully themselves with anything lower than a postgraduate student. The terms ‘e-research’ and ‘e-science’ have been invoked to add to this aura. In the 1990s, those involved with the early days of humanities computing thought it would transform teaching and pedagogy as much as research. Among the pioneering programmes in humanities computing during the 1990s was the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), and the development of new teaching methods was seen as just as important as research. Yet, in the pursuit of research funding, we came to feel that research was the most respectable path and pedagogy seem to have dropped out of the mainstream of academic digital humanities. This is illustrated by the lack of contact between digital humanities organisations and e-learning organisations such as the Association of Learning Technologists.

I’m glad to say there are signs that this is changing. I would especially single out the work of HASTAC under Cathy Davidson as bringing pedagogy back more centre stage for the digital humanities. Part of the future for the digital humanities has to be a greater involvement with pedagogy. But there are dangers as well as opportunities here. The current DH mania in the United States is closely related to the politically-inspired attacks on humanities funding in the US. There is a clear danger that ‘digital humanities’ is used in the United States as a term to try and persuade tea-party voters that there is a technological and economic value in the humanities. The trouble is that just rebranding the humanities as digital betrays the wider possibilities of the digital humanities. Just browsing through the job adverts from the States where literature posts have been justified but claiming that they will also encompass digital humanities shows that this is a real danger.

We don’t want a form of ‘digital studies’ which simply treats the web as yet another form of media for analysis. Digital methods offer us the possibility of engaging with and understanding the cultural materials that are the focus of the humanities in new ways. Through a site like the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, we can explore the life of poor people in eighteenth-century London in astonishing detail.In a resource like The Electronic Beowulf we can see letters concealed under conservation work that have remained hidden for 150 years. From the British Library’s digital presentation of the biblical manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, we can see the words ‘son of God’ being inserted in one of the earliest copies of the Gospel of St Mark. These are truly exciting possibilities, which can help generate a more exciting and creative form of pedagogy than will ever be feasible through any form of MOOC. A new alliance between the digital humanity and pedagogy can achieve this.          

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22 March 2014

A Modern Memento Mori

It's that time and that moment when a laptop gives the greatest pleasure. It's late in the evening. You've cleared a lot of e-mails (although a terrifying number still remain), so you can indulge in some web surfing. There's a good track on Spotify and a glass of wine seems in order. Then, your hand catches the glass, and suddenly there's liquid where it shouldn't be, on the keyboard. You immediately switch off and unplug to reduce the risk of short circuits, and anxiously dry the keyboard.

I left the keyboard overnight in the hope that, left to dry with minimum risk of damage to the circuits, the laptop would survive. But the secret of the amazing battery life of the Mac Book Air appears to lie partly in its integrated circuitry, and when, full of hope for a resurrection, I went to switch on the laptop the next morning, it was dead. A visit to the Genius Bar (which always feels like dealing with a sinister cult) confirmed damage to the logic board, requiring very expensive repair, and left me contemplating whether it was more financially prudent to have the repair done or buy a new model.

The death of your computer is a modern memento mori. One moment you rejoice in the joy and pleasure of unlimited internet access; the next your computer is an inert mass of silicon, metal and plastic, and all those plans you had for the following day somehow look hopeless and irrelevant. In the midst of drinking wine and watching You Tube, there is death. Such a moment is a particularly forceful reminder of mortality because we frequently describe our digital connectivity in terms which present it is a kind of irresistible life force in some way disconnected from day-to-day materiality. Yet, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has so brilliantly discussed in Mechanisms, that flow of digits is directed and stored by a funny whirring disc which is in a constant state of decay from the moment that we first state the computer. The death of each hard disc is as inevitable as our own deaths. The computer is not a means of transcending mortality, but a constant reminder of it, and that inevitable moment of disc failure prefigures the larger scale failure which will eventually overtake us all.   

And of course you can back up computers; I don't currently have any means of backing up my mortality. Luckily, on this occasion, I'd been regularly backing up my computer, partly because Mac's 'Time Machine' makes the process of backing up simple. However, to restore from Time Machine, I need another Mac. Whether I go for repair or replacement, it still leaves over a week without a machine which I can use to restore the data. So, temporarily, I'm in almost as bad a situation as if I hadn't backed up the data, although I do have the comfort of knowing that rescue and redemption is not far away.

It is partly my fault for eschewing a desktop machine. I don't often work with multiple screens and when I undertake image or video work, I use machines in labs or libraries. I haven't had a desktop for a number of years and have relied on laptops. It means that when the laptop dies, I'm in trouble. Why is that desktop computers are so unmemorable? It is now 25 years since I got my first desktop machine. British Library issue at that time was a Dell, which made a noise like a coffee percolator, but otherwise had little to commend it. The British Library subsequently switched to Fujitsu desktops, which felt like they were rejects from the set of a Gerry Anderson puppet show. I gave up using desktops while I was at the University of Sheffield and when I went back to a purely desktop environment in Lampeter (no Wifi and a very locked down network), it felt like using a hammer and chisel. What I tend to remember with affection from my desktop days are odd bits of software (DBase III, Ventura, early web browsers) rather than the hardware.

On the other hand, I remember all the laptops I have had very affectionately, and the demise of each one was almost like the death of a favourite pet. My first laptop was a rumbustious Dell, and it became a firm and long lived companion. I only needed to change it when it was necessary to have something more high-powered to demonstrate the Electronic Beowulf CD, and the Toshiba laptop I had from 1999 is probably the single computer I have most enjoyed possessing and using. Both these early laptops went into retirement and died of gentle old age. The saddest loss was probably a new Toshiba Satellite Pro which was stolen within a few days of my taking delivery of it. Its successor confirmed my enthusiasm for Toshiba. My attachment for that machine was such that I even attempted surgery on it myself, replacing the keyboard. I worried afterwards that this repair may have contributed to the hard disc failure a few months later.

One advantage of my accident with the wine is that lack of other backup has forced me to get more to grips with a recently acquired iPad. I can see possibilities with the iPad which had eluded me before and can finally see that it is much more than a consumer object of desire. The iPad is starting to insinuate itself at the centre of my life. Indeed, part of the purpose of this blog post is to test a wireless keyboard and see how far an iPad can be useful backup when a laptop fails. My enthusiasm for Ubuntu has also been reinforced by its ability to resurrect one of my aged Toshibas, which is now valiantly trying to provide help but whose aged and arthritic hard disc is limiting its effectiveness. It's fun playing with these alternatives, but really life is on hold until the replacement MacBook Air arrives. Let's hope its life is a long and virtuous one and that, when the time comes for it to die, it goes gently into the cyber-night.

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2 February 2014

Dennis the Paywall Menace Stalks the Archives

A story that hit the news this week was a report that the Prime Minister David Cameron is distantly related to the comedian Al Murray, and that they both had ancestors who worked for the East India Company. This news item was part of the publicity for the release online of 2.5 million genealogical records which are part of the India Office Records in the British Library. The digitisation of this huge historical archive is at first sight exciting news, but there’s a catch. The digitisation was undertaken by the family history company findmypast and you can only access these records via a subscription. A full World subscription to findmypast costs over £150, more than a television licence or a premium subscription to Spotify, although admittedly Pay As You Go credits are also available. Fortunately, many public and other libraries offer access to family history services such as findmypast, but this doesn’t fully address the profound issues of ethics, access and public ownership of archives posed by the activities of findmypast and other similar firms.

Among other new records recently made available by findmypast are the Rate Books for Westminster and Southwark. I am currently undertaking some research relating to houses in Westminster, so I immediately went to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to use their findmypast subscription to check the new records. Rate books are one of the fundamental sources for the study of all aspects of the history of localities in England, and are not just of use for genealogy. One of the annoying things about packages like findmypast is the way in which they assume I’m only interested in my relatives (a matter of surpassing little interest to me), so that accessing other information in the documents available via these packages can be very awkward. As I’m working on some streets in Westminster, what I ideally would like to do is browse images of the relevant sections of the rate books. Although the presentation in findmypast is dreadful for this kind of wider research, I nevertheless found the images are there and that I could browse the sections I want. Except that the NLW library subscription provided by findmypast does not offer access to images or transcripts. The NLW subscription to findmypast, in a kind of digital dance of the seven veils, gave me lists of the names of people who owned property in the streets I was interested in, but when I went to check the images, said I would need to give money to findmypast to learn more. All I was presented with at the National Library of Wales was an extended advert which inevitably resulted in the request that I take out a subscription.

The subscription structure of findmypast is quite obscure, offering basic levels of subscription, then requiring the purchase of additional credits to undertake such everyday research tasks as viewing an image of the document.  I'm not sure at the moment whether the library subscriptions offered by libraries such as The National Archives at Kew or The British Library in London offer users free access to the images, but the description of the 'findmypast.co.uk Community Edition(TM)' on the corporate website doesn't encourage optimism.

Findmypast is a subsidiary of the Dundee-based firm D. C. Thomson, which I had hitherto thought of merely as the benign publisher of children’s comics such as the Dandy and the Beano and home of comic creations such as Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan (although the founder of the firm, David Coupar Thomson, was notorious for his refusal to employ trade unionists or Roman Catholics). Findmypast is part of Brightsolid, the IT division of Thomson. Thomson has great hopes that its family history activities will offset the steep decline in profits from its newspaper and other conventional publications, and has recently reorganised Brightsolid, establishing D. C. Thomson Family History, in order to build its presence in this sector. This seems a reasonable business strategy – a report by Global Industry Analysts states that ‘genealogical enthusiasts are spending between US$1000 to US$18000 a year to discover his or her roots. The growth of the genealogy research market is being spurred by the spending of over 84 million genealogists’. (I would have linked to the original report but it costs $1450). It is estimated that the family history sector overall as a business is worth $84 billion dollars. According to Business Week, ‘genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online’. Family history is big business, and the new CEO of D. C. Thomson Family History, Annelies van den Belt, a former TV executive, has declared her intention of ensuring that D. C. Thomson becomes a ‘truly global digital family history business’.

I suppose I would wish D. C. Thomson well in moving on from Dennis the Menace to history, if it wasn’t for the fact that it involves the theft of public cultural property. D. C. Thomson see partnerships with organisations like the Imperial War Museum, The National Archives, the British Library and The Scottish National Archives as their strong suit in the battle with American behemoths such as Ancestry.com. That means that it is our access to our archives that is being traded to help shore up Thompson’s profits. The argument in favour of a commercial approach to the digitisation of the India Office Records is that bodies like the National Archives and the British Library can’t afford to undertake digitisation on this scale themelves. But if digitisation is locked up behind high paywalls, then it is not a very useful activity. Instead of increasing access, subscription services limit access to those social categories (white, retired, middle class) who can afford comparatively expensive leisure activities. The justification offered by the British Library Press Office that the site can be accessed freely in the British Library Reading Rooms seems to miss a lot of the point of digitisation. To make matters worse, the determination of companies like D.C. Thomson to milk the genealogical market for all it is worth restricts the research use that can be made of the online records by locking them into the narrow types of search required by family historians.

The problem is not simply paying for access to this material, but also the enormous damage that is being done to public and scholarly understanding of history and culture by the resulting digital divides. In Britain, university access to digital resources depends on licensing deals secured by the excellent work of JISC Collections which allow university libraries to acquire packages like Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online and the Burney Newspaper Collections at very reasonable levels which ensure that most universities can afford them. As a result, an accepted canon of scholarly electronic resources has developed, supplemented by major resources available as open access, such the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. However, online publishers specialising in family history, being in a highly competitive and profitable market, are apparently unwilling to strike such deals. A subscription to Ancestry is for most university libraries prohibitively expensive. As a result, university-based researchers give priority to the JISC-licensed resources over the records available via family history firms. The bizarre results that this can cause are apparent from the current situation with British nineteenth-century newspapers. While one tranche of nineteenth-century newspapers in the British Library is available via JISC Collections, the bulk of the historic newspapers have been digitised by Brightsolid and are only available via a subscription service. This means that scholars will inevitably (and for no good scholarly reason) privilege the material to which they have free access, thereby creating profound and unnecessary distortions and biases. In this way, paywalls are shaping and distorting scholarship by creating hierarchies in the availability of material and imposing new and unlooked for canonicities.

The British Library recently (and rightly) got a great deal of praise for making available as open access on Flickr one million images from its nineteenth-century books. But one has to question how seriously an institution is committed to open access when, just a month later, it releases such an important part of the national heritage as the registration records associated with British rule in India on a subscription-only basis, and in a form that is really only useful for genealogical research. It is difficult to overstate the devastating implications for future scholarship of the depredations of firms such as D. C. Thomson. Archival records such as rate books are the backbone of the study of English local history, but in the form in which they are presented online, it is very difficult to use them other than for the study of individual family members. It would be wonderful to see the Westminster rate books linked to the London Lives resource, to help further the potential of linked data to trace the lives of everyday eighteenth-century Londoners, but I fear that is unlikely to happen. (Some of the later Westminster Rate Books are linked to London Lives, but the coverage is less comprehensive than findmypast, illustrating once again the confusing and fragmented landscape that is being created by these commercial partnerships). A horrible vision of the future is the Scotland's People resource, which is run by D. C. Thomson Family History in partnership with the National Archives of Scotland. This offers free surname search of over 90 million records from such key series as births, marriage and death registers, wills and probate records, and valuation records (containing details of properties), but access to images of the record themselves is largely pay-as-you-go. The business model is presumably one here that was ultimately determined by the National Archives of Scotland (and thus the Scottish Government). Presumably the justification is that it would have been impossible to undertake such large-scale digitisation otherwise, but is digitisation in this way worthwhile? What is the point of digitising and then being able to undertake only the most basic research because of the cost? It seems as if archivists have been gripped by a mania to digitise as quickly as possibly, regardless of the implications for future scholarship of how this is done.    

It is this kind of development that makes me worry as to whether digital technologies will turn out to be a boon or disaster for scholarship. If we end up with the bulk of our archival records only available via the expensive and cumbersome route offered by firms like findmypast, digitisation might prove to be the greatest disaster for scholarship of recent times. Melissa Terras in an excellent post has recently protested against the insistence by publishers on extracting processing charges for publishing books and articles on an open access basis. However, since we as scholars are the producers of those books and articles, the power to remedy this situation lies in our own hands. The decisions about the use of rapacious family history firms to digitise archives are more difficult for us to influence. Bodies like the British Library are funded separately from universities and are subject to different policy pressures. In the face of the enormous comercial possibilities of family history, the requirements of university researchers look puny. Yet surely we must protest against this enclosure of our cultural commons. We should also congratulate cultural institutions when they do make digital resources available on an Open Access basis. Although I couldn’t get very far with findmypast at the National Library of Wales, NLW has been a staunch standardbearer for the cause of Open Access. The excellent Welsh Journals and Welsh Newspapers projects are fully open access. Because of the NLW’s enlightened approach, Scottish students in Glasgow now study Welsh wills (freely available) rather than Scottish wills (locked behind a brightsolid paywell) – a lesson for the Scottish government to ponder there, surely.

In the meantime, I’m nevertheless pondering whether I need a subscription to findyourpast. Except of course that since I work in London, there is an alternative – I can just go to the very pleasant searchroom of Westminster Archives and consult the original Rate Books (or more likely microfilms) there. And, as the depredations of companies like D. C. Thomson continue, I think this is an alternative that many of us might be taking more and more in the future.

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22 January 2014

Charles Babbage and King's College London

King's College London has the unfortunate distinction of having given away Charles Babbage's Difference Engine. The scientific instrument collections formed by George III and kept at Kew were presented to King's College in 1841 and displayed in the George III Museum in the Strand building, opened by Prince Albert in 1843. The displays also included the Difference Engine built by Babbage with government support in order to calculate the mathematical table required for navigation and other purposes. Sadly, King's decided it no longer wanted Babbage's machine twenty years later, which is why it is now on display in the Science Museum in South Kensington. The story is told by Babbage as follows:

Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, ed. Martin Campbell-Kelly (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1994)
p. 73n: 'The part of the Difference Engine already constructed, together with all the Drawings relating to the whole machine, were, in January 1843 (by the direction of the Government), deposited in the Museum of King's College London.
p. 111: Circumstances Connected with the exhibition of the Difference Engine No. 1 in the International Exhibition of 1862
When the construction of Difference Engine No. 1 was abandoned by the Government in 1842, I was consulted respecting the place in which it should be deposited. Well aware of the unrivalled perfection of its workmanship, and conscious that it formed the first great step towards reducing the whole science of number to the absolute conrrol of mechanism, I wished it to be placed whereer the greatest number of persons could see it daily.
With this view, I advised that it should be placed in one of the much-frequented rooms of the British Museum. Another locality was, however, assigned to it, and it was confided by the Government to the care of King's College, Somerset House. It remained in safe custody within its glass case in the museum of that body for twenty years. It is remarkable that during that long period no person should have studied its structure, and, by explaining its nature and use, have acquired an amount of celebrity which the singularity of knowledge would undoubtedly have produced.  
The college authorities did justice to their charge. They put it in the place of honour, in the centre of their museum, and would, no doubt, have given facilities to any of their members or to otyer persons who might have wished to study it.
But the system quietly pursued by the Government of ignoring the existence of the Difference Engine and its inventor doubtlessly exercised its deadening influence on those who were inclined, by taste or acquirements, to take such a course.
pp. 113-4: The appearance of the finished portion of the unfinished Difference Engine No. 1 at the Exhibition of 1862 is entirely due to Mr [William] Gravatt [a civil engineer who worked with Brunel]. That gentleman had a few years before paid great attention to the Swedish calculating engine of M. Scheutz, and was the main cause of its success in this country.
Being satisfied that it was possible to calculate and print all tables by machinery, Mr Gravatt became convinced that the time must arrive when no tables would ever be calculated or printed except by machines. He felt it was of great importance to accelerate the arrival of that period, more especially as numerical tables, which are at present the most expensive kind of printing, would then become the cheapest.
In furtherance of this idea, Mr Gravatt wrote to Dr [Richard William] Jelf, the Principal of King's College, Somerset House, to suggest that the Difference Engine of Mr Babbage, which had for so many years occupied a prominent place in the museum, should be exhibited in the International Exhibition of 1862. He at the same time offered his assistance in the removal and reinstatement of that instrument.
The authorities of the college readily acceded to this plan. On further enquiry, it appeared that the Difference Engine belonged to the Government, and was only deposited with the college. It was then found necessary to make an application to the Treasury for permission to exhibit it, which was accordingly done by the proper authorities.
p. 115 On Mr Gravatt applying to the commissioners [of the Exhibition] for space, it s stated that the engine must be placed amongst the philosophical instruments, Class XIII.
The only place offered for its reception was a small hole, 4 feet 4 inches in front by 5 feet deep. On one side of this was the only passage to the office of the superintendent of the class. The opposite side was occupied by a glass case in which placed specimens of the separate parts of the unfinished engine ... The public at first flocked to see it; but it was so placed that only three persons could conveniently see it at the same time. When Mr Gravatt kindly explained and set it in motion, he was continually interrupted by the necessity of moving sway in ordr to allow access to the very numerous persons whose business called them to the superintendent's office.
p. 125: After the close of the exhibition, Mr Gravatt and myself attended to prepare the Difference Engine for its return to the museum of King's College. To our great astonishment, we found that it had already been removed to the museum at South Kensington. Not only the Difference Engine itself, but also the illustrations and all the unfinished portions of exquisite workmanship which I had lent to the Exhibition for irs explanation, were gone.
On Mr Gravatt applying to the Board of Works, it was stated that the Difference Engine itself had been placed in the Kensington Museum because the authorities of King's College had declined receiving it, and immediate instructions were of course given for the restoration of my own property.       

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