I sat in the back of the steam-car, hissing and thrumming its way along the snow-banked road at the very considerable speed of twenty-two miles per hour, and thought about the most strange and infuriatingly incomplete conversation I had just had, the encounter I had just left. My mind was in a whirl of inconsistent and half-formed opinions. I was quite unsure what to do.
The man I had just met might be a madman, or a scoundrel, or a charlatan; he should be denounced and perhaps arrested at the earliest opportunity. On the other hand, if his mathematical science and his engineering skills were genuine, then membership of the Royal Society and the promotion of his works would be my duty to recommend to my peers.
At the moment, I could not tell where the truth lay.
The air in the workshop was stiflingly hot despite the best efforts of the ventilator fans and the freezing January air outside. The servant who had wordlessly escorted me from the entrance nodded politely and shut the double doors as he left, leaving me to look around with considerable interest and a certain amount of awe. It was indeed an impressive sight.
I stood at one end of a vast cavernous space, fully three stories high at the eaves, with the roof supported with massive black iron pillars at regular intervals. The hall itself was filled with calculating engines of a curious design, built as individual units each as large as a miner's cottage, and every one packed with brass cogs and polished levers and shining steel springs, all in constant motion. The computers were at once similar in design yet worryingly different one from another in ways that nagged at the senses and disturbed one's natural sense of order.
The array of machines did not seem to be connected one to another, except for belt-driven feeds from a common drive shaft which appeared in one end wall of the long room and ran the full length of the hall. No doubt the shaft was driven by powerful boilers elsewhere in the building. Each engine was separately fed by a long articulated strip of calculator-style punch cards, seemingly identical and moving in lock-step. The noise was astonishing, a seemingly solid wall of sound, a hubbub which affronted the ears and was felt rather than heard through the feet.
There was a long gallery at first floor level along one wall, supported on smaller yet still substantial pillars and edged with wrought iron and brass banisters. A dark figure appeared on the platform almost above my head, cupped his hands to his mouth and called out.
I nodded, unwilling to risk my voice.
"Come up!" he shouted again, indicating back the way I had just come.
I turned. I could see that access to the gallery was possible by a flight of wide stone stairs set into the end wall just by the door I had used a few moments earlier. My host indicated a double set of doors, each lined with green baize and I hurried through. Within, the noise diminished to the point where it was merely noticeable rather than the impassable barrier to conversation it had been in the hall.
I found myself in a spacious and well-appointed study set with several overstuffed chairs and a large and cluttered desk indicative of a man with many and varied intellectual interests. What appeared to be a very impressive private library of leather-bound books filled the walls of three sides of the room, and a fireplace with a well-tended fire was set into the fourth.
"Thank you for accepting my invitation, Professor," my host said, shaking my hand firmly and indicating a chair by the fire, "I am James Callaghan."
I knew Callaghan only by repute. In the flesh, he was a slender man of medium height, with very dark hair just beginning to form into a widow's peak and a well-trimmed beard of the same colour. His unlined skin was set off by the most piercing - even hypnotic - blue eyes I had ever seen. He was unfashionably yet expensively dressed in a well-cut tweed suit in sepia shades. He gave every impression of being what he claimed: a well-heeled gentleman of leisure whose fancy had turned to clockwork analytical engines.
Callaghan had been a guest speaker at one or two sessions at the Royal Academy. I had not been present, but I had been told that his arguments had merited serious consideration as well as engendering a certain amount of spirited debate amongst the Fellows. Now he had applied, though the proper channels, to become a Fellow himself and I, as a senior member of the Membership Committee, had asked to sound him out and to form an independent view of his merits and character.
"Can I offer you a snifter to keep out the chill?" my host enquired politely, his hand already poised over the array of decanters.
"Brandy and soda," I demurred, as I was already feeling the effects of rapidly alternating heat and cold.
Callaghan poured my drink and handed it to me, made another for himself and settled in the other chair by the fire.