Iolanthe Dechantagne sat in her parlor and sipped her tea. Across the table her guest mirrored her activity. He was a tall sandy-haired man with deep-set, intelligent, blue eyes. His pin-striped suit was carefully tailored and his paper collar was tight around his neck. As he sipped his tea, he nodded appreciatively.
“Very nice. An Enclepian blend, if I’m not mistaken.”
“You are quite right, Professor Calliere,” said Iolanthe, her aquamarine eyes sparkling. “Not many people can pick it out so easily.”
“Well, I’ve made more than a few trips to Nutooka. Collecting specimens for the university, you know.”
“How is your work going?” Iolanthe didn’t need to feign interest. She found all knowledge interesting and it usually proved valuable as well.
“Oh, zoology is nothing but a hobby of mine.” Professor Calliere set down his teacup and leaned forward. “Not that I haven’t made a few interesting discoveries. But no, my real work is in the mechanical engineering lab. I just filed a patent on a very important invention and I expect to be able to live quite comfortably off the proceeds for the rest of my life.”
“You won’t stop your work?” asked Iolanthe with one arched brow.
“Of course not, but this will allow me to concentrate on my next project without having to worry about day to day finances. Money is so… bourgeois.”
“Careful now Mr. Calliere. People will think you are a socialist.”
He chuckled. “Of course not. I just prefer to have somebody else deal with the tiresomeness of money.”
“So what was this very important invention?”
“Brakes. Brakes for trains.”
“Don’t trains already have brakes?” wondered Iolanthe. “It seems that all the trains I’ve ridden on did eventually stop.”
“Yes, but the old brakes must be worked manually. My brakes are pneumatic, which is to say, they work on air power. They will be much safer and will allow trains to operate with a single brakeman instead of several. Best of all, engineers won’t have to start stopping so soon, so travel speeds will actually increase.”
“Professor Calliere, you amaze me. Brakes that actually make a train travel faster?” Iolanthe set down her own teacup and reached for a tiny cress sandwich. “Try one of these.”
“My next project is far more advanced,” Calliere paused to bite into the sandwich. “Mechanically speaking, I mean. I already have my assistant Mr. Murty doing the groundwork.”
“Oh? And just what is it?”
“It’s a calculating machine. It’s actually an expansion of a device I built several years ago. This one will be far more complex.”
“What exactly do you mean, ‘a calculating machine’?” asked Iolanthe.
“Just that. It will be a machine, steam powered of course, which adds and subtracts, multiplies and divides large numbers, both large in the sense of being very big numbers and large in the sense of there being a great many of them. It will calculate and it will do it hundreds of times faster than a human being. It will be a marvelous test of mechanics.”
“It will be more than a mechanical test,” said Iolanthe. “I can imagine that there will be quite a few applications for such a device.”’
“Really? Like what?”
“Well for one thing, you could calculate artillery trajectories, taking into account force and angle and such.”
“My dear Miss Dechantagne, I had no idea you were so well versed in the art of artillery.”
“My brother is an artillery officer.”
“Indeed. And may I say how attractive it is to see a woman who has such a keen intellect beyond the usual fields of art, music, and literature.”
“You may,” said Iolanthe.
Calliere looked toward the ceiling and stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Yes. Charts. Tables. Artillery. Latitude and longitude. Train schedules. Surveying. Yes, this bears thinking about. I need someone to create a mechanical language. I may know just the person…”
“This machine will be quite expensive, will it not?”
“I will need a bit of capital for the work. I was going to go to the University for the funds.”
“No need.” Iolanthe smiled and poured more tea into the man’s cup. “I will finance it for you.”