Fans of science fiction are fond of recalling a remark by novelist Arthur C. Clarke, to the effect that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I am currently typing these sentences onto a laptop, where I am also currently watching a grainy YouTube video of the legendary magician Harry Houdini, performing one of his legendary escapes — from a straitjacket, in this case. Houdini is probably the most famous stage magician of the twentieth century, as witnessed by the fact that his name is familiar to my generation although he died almost a century ago. If Houdini were to suddenly reappear in front of me right now — in the flesh, I mean, and not merely on YouTube — how would I explain to him that the way in which all of this is taking place? To someone who has been dead for a century, the notion of the standard laptop computer and wireless internet connection in 2011 would surely seem like magic. Yet it is possible to explain every technological development that has made watching a video on YouTube possible today in terms of nineteenth century and twentieth century technological developments, which have permitted this remarkable convergence of media to take place. The MacBook I have weighs precisely 4.7 pounds, while the Gutenberg Bible weighed over 50 (Lester 122). But this MacBook is in itself a publishing house like Gutenberg’s (which is typesetting the text of this paper at this very moment); it is able to depict moving visual images on YouTube; it is able to intercept communication invisibly through the air via wireless internet. But what is most astonishing about the MacBook is to realize that all of its constituent elements were, in principle, understood in the nineteenth century, despite the fact that if it were demonstrated to anyone in 1874 (the year Harry Houdini was born) it would seem like a form of magic that would mystify even Houdini himself. I would like to trace the developments that made the sudden explosion and convergence of electronic media in the present day possible, by going back to the nineteenth century. I will focus on three areas: the ability to transmit printed information through long distances (telegraphy), the ability to transmit electronic signals through the air for purposes of messaging or broadcasting (radio), and the ability to process information mechanically (computing). I will conclude by considering how these technologies on a national level developed at different rates in the United States and the United Kingdom in that time period, in order to explain how the U.S. Army project known as ARPAnet from the Cold War could now be extended worldwide as the web.
To understand our starting point in the mid-nineteenth century we must acknowledge the long origins of the revolution in electronic media, which go back to the last paradigm shift in communication occasioned by the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 (Lester 122). The introduction of moveable type to the West made the production of books simple, and their dissemination carried with it knowledge and ideas. Without the book, the Scientific Revolution would have been impossible. As printing developed the eighteenth century would see the emergence of print journalism and ephemera, as political culture developed out of pamphleteering and the circulation of ideas. The Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century finally introduced mechanization to commerce, and also saw the birth of steamships and railroads. So by the time of the mid-nineteenth century the next big question was going to be speed of communication. The first experimental locomotive, the Tom Thumb, was designed by Peter Cooper for the predecessor of what would become the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830. Cooper developed a fuelling system that burned anthracite coal (White 86). But 1830 was essentially the experimental debut of the technology, and railroads would not come into more common usage until the 1850s. The speed of rail travel was therefore the fastest speed that human communication could attain, but the question remained of whether some means could be devised whereby the largely experimental science of electricity could be employed as a form of rapid transfer of information.
But it was essentially with the model of the railroad in mind that the first telegraph was developed by Samuel F.B. Morse in this period. Morse was a Yale alumnus, and Iles notes that “in New Haven, he often visited the laboratory of Professor Silliman, which had recently acquired from Dr. Hare, of Philadelphia, a galvanic calorimotor and his deflagrator for the combustion of metals. But it was not in producing high temperatures that Morse was to use electricity” (Iles 133). Instead, Morse harnessed the cheapest and most efficient possible use of the rapid transmission of electric current through metals like copper: copper was relatively expensive in this period. White notes that copper (important for both the telegraph and the locomotive) cost 30 cents a pound in 1851(White 30). Yet there was not much copper required for the simple principle of Morse’s telegraph: copper cables would be laid from place to place, on the model of railway stations as then being designed. Theoretically, however, these copper cables could be extended to wherever one wanted to send the actual message from: Morse’s famous 1844 demonstration, sending the message “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT,” took the cable inside to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he tapped out the message from the rotunda. The electrical principles of all this were understood in Ben Franklin’s day, though; what made Morse’s invention different was that he had developed a workable conceptual means whereby such electrical transmission could also be used to transmit energy, in the development of what is still known as “Morse Code.” Morse’s innovation was, in the words of his collaborator Alfred Vail, to invent “a new plan of the alphabet” — letters were distinguished between short and long electrical pulses which were input directly by the telegraph operator, and on the receiving end these would be marked down and the code translated back alphabetically (Silverman 167). There were no numerals or punctuation marks available. But Morse was able to demonstrate that the transmission of information through such means was possible, and telegraphy soon outstripped the initial paradigm of the railroad and became ubiquitous. By the mid-1860s the repeated attempts to lay a telegraph cable across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean were finally successful, and starting in 1866 it was now possible to transmit information more or less instantaneously from continent to continent.
The next stage in development, though, would be wireless telegraphy. The repeated and costly failure of the attempts to lay the Atlantic cable demonstrated that the chief limitation of the new technology was that it still physically needed to connect from one location to the other. The price of copper in this period has been noted earlier, but the cost of the first attempt to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 came to roughly 465,000 British pounds and only worked for about a month (Silverman 417). But the necessity for the wire to be present in sending and receiving the communication made the telegraph impossible to use in the one place where urgent instantaneous messages would be most needed, which was on ships. Although steam power in ocean travel in the mid-nineteenth century had sped up the speed of transport across the Atlantic Ocean, so that a journey from New York City to Southhampton in England took only little more than a week, if a ship in 1860 struck an iceberg, it could do no more to signal distress than to light flares. If somehow the instantaneous messaging of the telegraph could also be moved around without the need for the physical connection provided by copper wiring, this would certainly be useful. Indeed the efforts to discover a means of doing this were active within Morse’s day, and Morse participated in them: to some degree, the electrical phenomenon of lightning (or the domestic phenomenon of static) had already shown that electricity could be transmitted across space.
Ultimately what was required for wireless telegraphy to proceed was a scientific breakthrough unconnected to the specific development of technological apparatus. This was provided by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who was merely intending to prove the hypothesis of the earlier English physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who had predicted the existence of invisible electromagnetic waves transmitted through the atmosphere but imperceptible to the human senses. Hertz had to design and build his own equipment to see if it would be possible to achieve some technological means of detecting this hypothetical physical phenomenon (Bryant 55). By the late 1880s Hertz would prove the existence of various electromagnetic phenomena, including radio waves. Yet Hertz did not live long enough to realize the importance of his discoveries, dying suddenly of an infection at the age of 36. At this point, the results of Hertz’s research were taken up for evaluation by a British physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, at the University of Birmingham. Lodge did more to introduce the forefront of theoretical electromagnetic research not just to the broader scientific community, but to the engineering community as well. Lodge’s biographer W.P. Jolly says, with some irony, that “Lodge was of the light cavalry of Physics, scouting ahead and reporting back, rather than the infantry of Engineering, who take and consolidate the ground for permanent useful occupation” (Jolly 113). This is a tactful way of pointing out that Lodge technically invented the radio, but missed out on receiving credit, or indeed a Nobel Prize. Lodge was not incompetent in engineering: indeed he would hold patents for the first versions of the modern automotive spark-plug, and his electromagnetic research began with a practical problem (the construction of a better lightning rod). Lodge’s experiments with lightning lead to his confirmation of Maxwell’s hypotheses about electromagnetism at roughly the same time as Hertz would, and indeed Lodge’s 1888 paper on the subject was quickly rewritten to contain an endnote explaining that he had not read Hertz while performing his experiments. After Hertz’s death Lodge would experiment with the “coherer,” a device invented by Branly in which iron filings were placed inside a glass vacuum tube (Lodge 1897, 90). The transmission of electrical current could cause those filings to line up and complete a circuit. Following on the suggestions made by Hertz, Lodge managed to transmit an electromagnetic pulse from one end of his laboratory in Birmingham, so that the waves caused the Branly coherer to register at a distance of approximately twenty feet (Jolly 220). This was the first radio broadcast ever made, technically speaking. In demonstrating the results of the experiment with the Branly coherer Lodge, repeating the experiment for the Royal Society in a lecture entitled “The Work of Hertz” in June of 1894, assessed that radio could probably be broadcast at a distance of about a half a mile at most (Jolly 226).
What happened next is, of course, part of the history of applied physics rather than theoretical physics. Lodge himself would concede in 1908 that, at the time of his initial 1894 demonstrations of the radio waves and their reception, “stupidly enough no attempt was made to apply any but the feeblest power so as to test how far the disturbance could really be detected” (Lodge 1908, 84). There was, as Lodge’s biographer notes, a scientific reason for this blindspot: the theoretical assumption that had been made by both James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz was that these waves would travel only in a straight line. Lodge assumed this to be true from the designs of his experiments, and it is here that he judges himself as “stupid” for having failed to experiment. Lodge’s publications were being read avidly, however, by the young heir to Dublin’s Jameson whiskey distillery (Weightman 5). When Annie Jameson, the young heiress, married her music-teacher and became Annie Jameson Marconi, she purchased a massive estate outside Rome, Italy, where her son Guglielmo was born in 1874. In the 1890s Marconi followed the flurry of interest in Hertz’s work after his untimely death, as well as reading all the papers that Lodge published in the period. Marconi was fascinated instead with the engineering problem of wireless telegraphy, and suspected that the “range of wireless waves as not limited as Lodge claimed.” Marconi tested on his family estate the range, and once he had established that he could receive a broadcast at a distance over five miles, he realized Lodge had been in error. Marconi demonstrated his apparatus for the Royal Mail, which at that time was in the forefront of funding such technological schemes, although Marconi’s decision to break with the British government and establish his own corporation would lead to litigation over the patent for wireless telegraphy, claiming that it was indeed Lodge’s. In any case, the new technology was at first used to transmit messages in Morse code, purely as a telegraph. The broadcasting of sound would be a later twentieth century development of the radio.
If the transmission of text and radio signals was already possible by the late nineteenth century, then all that remained was the actual computer. In the twentieth century, the development of the computer has proceeded with a swiftness almost unrivalled in any other field of technological innovation, and continues to the present day. In 1965, Gordon Moore (a noteworthy inventor in the field of integrated circuits for computer processors, and later the CEO of Intel) would propose “Moore’s Law,” based on his observation of an exponential rate of growth in computing speed and capacity: Moore would note in his original 1965 paper the mere fact that the number of transistors that could be placed on an individual integrated circuit doubled every year, and this almost perfectly exponential growth rate in technological advancement has held true for almost a half century (Kurzweil 2005, 56-7). Clearly the computer as a human invention has provided an opportunity for vast amounts of technological and engineering ingenuity to enable these improvements, which occur just as rapidly now as they did when prompting Moore’s original 1965 observation. As beneficiaries of this remarkable efflorescence of improvements upon the original invention, though, it would be useful to remember where the invention itself came from, since it derives like all these other technologies from the nineteenth century as well. Obviously any major technological invention will have earlier analogues in earlier solutions to those problems that technology is attempting to solve: the invention of the automobile is a complicated affair, but obviously the use of wheels for transportation predates it substantially. In terms of actual devices which assisted in the making of complicated calculations without writing them out (i.e., “computing” the solution) have existed since the introduction of the abacus: indeed the specific binary storage system employed electronically by a present-day computer can be mimicked representationally (although not to any good cost-efficient purpose) with a binary abacus. If we understand the computer, then, as basically a device to assist humans in mathematical computation, then we can understand not only the pre-history involved with other computational devices — from the earliest abacus to Napier’s bones or even the slide-rule — then we can also understand how Charles Babbage became involved in the question. Babbage was, by academic training, a mathematician: he would occupy the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University. (To contextualize this somewhat, we should observe that the second occupant of the Lucasian chair was Sir Isaac Newton, and its present occupant is physicist Stephen Hawking: Babbage’s contemporaries considered in to be an eminence in mathematics comparable to the other names, perhaps better known to us.) Babbage would also oversee the laborious, but at that historical moment necessary, production of arithmetic tables which allowed early 19th century mathematicians and engineers to save time (and paper). As a result, it is worth noting that “computers” in Babbage’s own vocabulary were human beings who did computation. In the Preface to his own published logarithmic tables, he strived for both “correctness, and the facility with which they can be used by computers” (Babbage 1841, v). For Babbage, the “computer” is a human being — his own inventions would be termed “engines.” Babbage clearly had in mind other broad-scale technological advances of the early Victorian period, such as the vast mechanical looms utilized in the textile industry of the north of England, which had provoked the original “Luddite” movement which decried the replacement of human laborers with automated devices.
Ironically Babbage’s own theoretical device — which could have performed all the mathematical functions of a modern computer, in theory — would have filled such a vast space as the cloth looms of his own time: this is based, of course, on the fact that in Babbage’s day mathematical engineering could be quite exact (even if the ability to produce precision implements was still unbelievably costly) but electrical engineering was still in its infancy. Babbage was able to build a device which he called a “difference engine” — which performed the equivalent function of a present-day pocket calculator — with no need for electrical engineering at all, and Babbage was presented with a gold medal in recognition of the engineering feat entailed. Babbage called it the “Difference” engine because it sidestepped the much larger apparatus that would be required to perform multiplication and division by compressing the functions mathematically into an expression of finite difference relationships. But to be able to perform multiplication and division as pure mathematics — which was of course something that Babbage believed was theoretically possible — would require a much larger structure, and this was the “Analytical Engine” which Babbage designed and worked on, but never actually completed. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the role here played by Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, whose mother had hoped to suppress any temptation to follow in her father’s dissolute poetic footsteps by educating her child with a purely mathematical and scientific curriculum. In entering the scientific correspondence over Babbage’s proposed design for the Analytical Engine, Lovelace would characterize it in terms which anticipate those that apply to the present-day computer:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. (quoted in Wooley, 265.)
But in the same article, Lovelace would also outline (as a means of quieting skeptics) the way by which the abstract “mind” of the engine could be instructed to perform a complicated mathematical function, an exercise which has earned her the honorific title of being the “first computer programmer.”
In any case, it was clear that the construction of anything like Babbage’s Analytical Engine was too expensive to be worth attempting for any purposes to which it could be put. To some extent, the birth of the modern computer would thus remain along Babbage’s model but would lie dormant until such a device was required for military purposes. Thus, the 1947 invention of ENIAC by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly was initially prompted by the U.S. Army’s need for precision calculations for use in the testing of ordnance at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland — hence ENIAC’s relative proximity to that military facility by being located in Philadelphia. Eckert and Mauchly would, of course, build an electrical engineering device — so its basic means of operation were different from Babbage’s actual design — although they had been made possible by a later Cambridge mathematician, Alan Turing, who had already used Babbage-inspired devices on behalf of the British military to break the Nazi Enigma code). Turing’s device had been specifically designed, though, to sort through possible encoding combinations on the Enigma device: it had not been a general purpose machine, although Turing was involved with the theoretical implications of such devices. Eckert and Mauchly would implement the basic tactics of Babbage’s machine alongside Turing’s own advancements to produce ENIAC as the first general-purpose computer. Yet its size was, ironically enough, not much smaller than Babbage’s proposal of a century earlier: Ray Kurzweil has pointed out that, in 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine would predict the advancement upon ENIAC as follows: “Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vaccum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons” (Kurzweil 2005, 56). But it would all still hinge upon Babbage’s original 1826 conception of a “method of expressing by signs the action of machinery,” in other words, the invention of the very concept of input and output which conceive of the device as a kind of generalized and abstract mind (Babbage 1826, 1). Therefore, I think Babbage deserves the title of inventor: Mauchly and Eckert were mere implementors.
All that would remain was the ability to link these devices in a wired network, in the same way that telegraph cables had once criss-crossed the globe and spanned oceans. Like ENIAC, the origins of the Internet would be in a U.S. Army project, in this case what is known as “packet switching” (Abbate 41). This derives from Cold War-era paranoid defense strategy — the fear that a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union would incapacitate the ability of the United States to respond had led to the question of whether or not such things could be computer controlled, and whether it could be done so remotely. From this, the notion of a computer network in which the system will remain up even if one of its constituent parts is eliminated is a short step. In part it also reflected the new size and scale of the imperial military bureaucracy in the Cold War period, since initially the idea was also justified, as Abbate notes, as a way that “scattered computersâ€¦linked together” ensured that “hardware, software and data could be efficiently pooledâ€¦rather than wastefully duplicated” (Abbate 44). From this initial informational concept, the notion of shared computer spaces developed through those research facilities — generally with military application in mind, although most located as part of American universitie — gradually was built up into a series of nodes on the Internet, and by the 1990s this was extended more generally to the public. This would be the final step in making the effects of a modern day lap-top seem like magic: now the world’s libraries are instantly accessible in a way that was unimaginable just twenty years ago.
In the diffusion of all of these various technologies from the nineteenth century to the present day, and their current convergence in the electronic media that are now available through the Internet, it is illustrative to compare the two countries which have been most often mentioned in this account, the United States and the United Kingdom. In both cases, it is evident that government plays an increasingly large role in guiding and indeed paying for these projects over time. However, even in the nineteenth century the role of governmental institutions such as the military and the post office were the guiding force behind the development of most of these technologies in both countries in one form or another. What is more salient, however, is the way in which technological innovation seems to be the burden of empire — in the nineteenth century, when the Victorian British empire was at its zenith, it was the British government and military that funded or supported most of these technological innovations, but in the twentieth century, and especially after World War Two, it was increasingly the American military. We can see that in almost all of the salient inventions that have been discussed in this account. Babbage’s difference and analytical engines had their origins in the cryptography work he had done for the British army when much younger. Although Lodge would operate as a university researcher at first, both he and Marconi would be forced to deal with the British post office as the primary funding body and the one organization capable of implementing a new form of wireless telegraph. To a certain degree, this indicates a proprietary interest on the part of imperial governments in these new technologies, but it is worth noting that to a certain extent the technologies were intended to solve problems that were governmental in nature. In the nineteenth century the United States would expand from the thirteen original colonies along the Atlantic coast into the continental “manifest destiny” hegemony, and Britain (a small island in the northern Atlantic) would rule vast territories which spanned the time zones and produced an empire on which, proverbially, the sun never set. But although the British post office sounds like an altogether pleasant sort of administrative body, it is worth noting that the truth is not so wholesome. It was indeed the British government that first set up a post office in the first place — but they chose to do so not in England, but in the recently-annexed Ireland. In the wake of the American and French revolutions, the Irish, led by Wolfe Tone, would rebel against English rule in 1798 — after a brutal suppression, Ireland was annexed to the United Kingdom by Parliamentary Act of Union, and the British immediately placed a large military presence on the neighboring island, and began a series of “ordnance surveys” and maps, in order to practice upon Ireland the organizational and bureaucratic mechanics which the British empire would impose elsewhere in Australia, India, and Africa. In other words, even so harmless-sounding a government initiative as a post office was originally intended as a sort of military experiment, to see if such governance (at that time safeguarded by an armed military presence) would be possible in a territorial possession where the hostility of the natives toward their English colonial masters could be assumed.
By the twentieth century, though, the empire building and the funding for extension of new communications technology becomes more obviously militaristic in nature. Radio broadcasting would be developed for naval use initially, but it would soon have military applications on land during World War One. This military use predates the widespread dissemination of audio broadcasting in the early 1920s for commercial purposes. Although we can see the same crossover between abstract science in the development of the computer — where Alan Turing played a Babbage-like role in both cryptography and in the practical development of new equipment — it is World War Two which is most crucial in crystallizing the various strands of technology and centralizing the focus. Turing’s success in cracking the Enigma code increased government interest in the military possibilities of computing, and it is worth recalling that Eckert and Mauchly’s ENIAC begins as a U.S. Army project, interested solely in mathematical analysis of ballistics information. By 1969 the establishment of the U.S. military project ARPAnet would initially be extended to state law enforcement agencies, as a way of speeding up the transmission from vital stats of prisoners and arrest records, and to search for prior convictions of offenders in different jurisdictions: from this relatively unpromising governmental use, the Internet was somehow born as the technology was adapted away from the government’s specific use and seen for a more flexible communication tool. To a remarkable degree, the history of electronic communication is a history of the government’s deliberate investment in the production of new technologies — the rationalte given for ENIAC was, in many ways, a bit of a pretext. The real goal was to see if a device of such scale could be built.
Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. Boston: MIT Press, 1999. Print.
Babbage, Charles. Table of the Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108000 by Charles Babbage, Esq., M.A. London: Clowes and Sons, 1841. Print.
Babbage, Charles. “On a method of expressing by signs the action of machinery.” Address to the Royal Society, 1826. Web.
Bryant, John H. “Heinrich Hertz’s Experiments and Experimental Apparatus: His Discovery of Radio Waves and His Delineation of Their Properties.” In Baird, Davis; Hughes, R.I.G.; and Nordman, Alfred. Heinrich Hertz: Classical Physicist, Modern Philosopher. Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998. Print.
Iles, George. Leading American Inventors. New York: Holt, 1912. Print.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Lester, Paul Martin. Visual Communication: Images With Messages. Fourth Edition. London: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Lodge, Oliver; “The History of the Coherer Principle.” The Electrician 40.1 (1897): 86-91. Print.
Lodge, Oliver; Signalling through Space Without Wires, Being a Description of the Work of Hertz and His Successors. Third Edition. London: John Lane, 1908. Print.
Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.
White, John H. A history of the American Locomotive and Its Development: 1830-1880. New York: Dover Press, 1968. Print.
Woolley, Benjamin. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.
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