Charles Babbage in Torino, 1840: the secret police reports (translated into English)

Sunday 11th February, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

Charles Babbage in Turin: the secret police reports

as published in Memorie e Lettere, Istituto Lombardo, Vol XXX, p83-166, in 1968. Translated by F. Oliveira-Pinto in his article “On a Visit by Charles Babbage to Turin in 1840”, in the Revista da Universidade de Coimbra, Vol XXXVI, pages 479-486, 1991.

From: The Royal Command of the City and Province of Turin, Police Department No. 6549

To: the First Secretary of State of the Home Office, Turin.

Turin, 21st September, 1840

Dear Sir:

The known Fortunato Prandi of Camerana, arrived here from Lyon during the 10th day of the present month in the company of a certain Mr. Babbage, an English mechanician, and he lodged in the Penzione Svizzera.

The following day, he rented two furnished rooms in the Arcade of the River Po, on the second floor of No. 22, a house of the Hospital for the Poor, and he moved in with the above-mentioned Englishman, to whom he is the interpreter. The Englishman has the intention of presenting shortly to the Scientific Congress an engine of his invention, which facilitates mathematical calculations. I enclose a printed picture of this machine.

What follows is the result of a close watch on the named Prandi from the day of his arrival until now.


On the 16th, he went for a stroll in the arcades, and on the bridge over the Po, with the above mentioned Englishman, Babbage. After lunch, they did the same on the side of Valentino and of Porta Nuova, and, then, they went to the Carignano Theatre.


On the morning of the 18th, at around 10 a.m., he went to the printing works of Mr. Giuseppe Pomba, taking home with him several books. On arrival home, at about 2 p.m., he had a visit from 14 to 15 scientists, including Prof. S. Martin, Director of the Royal Botanic Establishment of San Salvario, who came with the others expressly to see the engine of the Englishman, Babbage.


At 1 p.m. he went with Babbage to the Valentino Ferry and crossed the Po, but the detective being unable to board the same boat at the same time, he lost sight of them on the opposite bank.


As soon as he is back a vigilance will be kept on his movements and be sure I will let you know the outcome. Meanwhile, in reference to the memorandum you have confidentially forwarded, I send you the present report. With the greatest regard and esteem.

Sincerely yours, D. PLANARGIA, The Commander in Chief



From: the Royal Command of the City and Province of Turin, No. 6916

To: First Secretary of State for the Home Office, Turin.

Turin, 5th October, 1840

Dear Sir,

Following my memorandum no. 6459, on the 21st September last, and according to the proviso included in it, I submit to you the subsequent results obtained from the constant watch over the subject, Prandi.


At 5 p.m., Prandi, with his brother, the Englishman Babbage, and the priest mentioned above, boarded a coach and went to lunch with Count Balbo, in his estate beyond Rubatto facing Valentino, returning home about 9 p.m.

Here I cannot remain silent: it has often been stressed that the Count Benevello is connected with persons politically suspect.

There were 18 people present at Count Balbo’s luncheon and one might point out that almost all spoke English, which was intended perhaps to prevent the servants understanding the conversation.


In the morning of the 27th, about 9 a.m., Prandi and his travelling companion Babbage, who are lodging together, received a visit from the Superintendant Cavaliere Dionisio and his brother, the lawyer (who are both Secretaries of State in the Great Chancellery) as well as of the lawyer Vacchetta.


On the 28th, he left for Rivoli in a phaeton with the Englishman Babbage, and a certain Mr. Gianolio, who trades in sea-side commodities, in order to discuss some commercial business. He returned home at sunset.

We found out that Prandi has neither taken part in the Scientific Congress, nor in any other public meeting.

This morning he finally left at 2 p.m. on the coach to Genoa in the company of Babbage.

I have the honor to send you my most respectful regards.

D. PLANARGIA, Commander in Chief



From: The Royal Command of the City and Province of Turin, No. 7020

To: The First Secretary of State of the Home Office, Turin

Turin, 9th October, 1840

Dear Sir.

Going back to the case of Fortunato Prandi, who has been the subject of several other reports from this Command, in particular that of the 5th of the present month, no. 6916 (…)

Before the departure, Prandi told the notorious Pietro Tealdi, that he would be back in Turin in ten days’ time.

On account of this, I take the liberty of drawing your attention to the list of people with whom Prandi had contact, which, as a result of our intensive observation, discloses that the majority of them do profess and foster ideas against the present system of Government.

Moreover, since Prandi, as it was believed, was extremely impecunious, it does not look feasible that he could have afforded such long trips, or such a long stay in this town (with so much enjoyment of meals and social parties) had he not received some manner of support, possibly provided by the inimical faction of the Revolutionary Propaganda.


Yours faithfully, D. PLANARGIA, the Commander in Chief