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"If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it, because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colourful imitation of it." - Norbert Wiener, founder of Cybernetics, MIT. 1960
"The story is told of a man in NY who negotiated the purchase of a company in England, before the days of the Transatlantic telephone. His agent cabled the offering price of $14,000,000. This was more than he was prepared to pay, so he cabled back the message: NO, PRICE TOO HIGH. In the course of the transmission, the comma was omitted, so the agent dutifully closed the deal." - G. M. Weinberg1
§ 1. An Engine of Analysis

The early 1800s were a difficult time for Europe, Britain and France in particular having a difficult time of it, as the major powers went about the coinciding strategies of managing expanding military interests, securing resources, and negotiating an uneasy deténte, all while struggling to cope with rapid developments in production, transportation and communications.2 One specific example of this increased sense of urgency and speed of control could be seen over the course of a decade across the rural countryside of France, as curious wooden towers, appearing somewhat like miniaturised windmills, began to appear on hillsides and along main trade roads, extending at that time as far as the state border in the north-east. By the late 1790s, the increased logistical 'pressure' of military management and threat assessment had motivated the new French administration, resolutely centralised in Paris after the Revolution, to develop (with the assistance of Claude Chappe) a web-like network of 'optical telegraphs' (essentially semaphore flag towers) which were positioned within line of sight some 5-15 km apart (contingent on the terrain), stretching in long strands across the French country side away from the epicentre of Paris. Two men would be typically stationed in each tower, one to operate the signalling mechanism, usually a long coloured lever with various positions, while the other was to watch through a telescope as the signal was received and verified.3 In this manner, after a certain period of practice along each line, signals could be relayed to Paris from distances over 200km away in a matters of minutes (as opposed to hours, or even days in bad weather), all of which clearly afforded the fledgling government, just newly installed great advantage in tactical concerns and no doubt pleased Napoleon immensely when he seized control of the state in 1799.

The semaphore telegraph was so successful in fact, as a command and control mechanism, that it was almost immediately co-opted by British colonial headquarters, first in Ireland c. 1797 (spanning from Dublin to their naval port on the coast ) and not long after that in India and America (a line-of-sight telegraph between Boston and Martha's Vineyard, est. 1800) to help the safe navigation of shipping vessels into port. This came, in actuality, not a moment too soon. As the world quite literally 'gathered steam', as industrialization expanded and accelerated the demand for both goods and resources, the necessity of careful logistics and focused planning on a massive scale emerged. There developed a sense of a finer margin of acceptable error as the increased speed, size and sheer number of boats4 made careful calculation and control of movement a minute-by-minute operating imperative (particularly as the cost of insuring the larger and more elaborate mechanised ships rose for corporate concerns, or more lives were lost overseas in colonial military ventures). As one author markedly mentions:
the field of practical navigation was absolutely fundamental...when the Pope, for example, picked a line of longitude out in the did not matter much that nobody had any idea where that line actually lay. On the other hand, when the publishers of the American Almanac for Navigation in 1800 mistook the year as a leap year in computations, sailors along the Atlantic Coast were thrown off 30 miles, leading to shipwreck and loss of life.5
In other words, a rapid succession of innovations unfolded at the very outset of the 19th century which coincided with the expanding commercial and geo-political interests of the nations already struggling with the process of industrialisation and increased democratization. In transport alone we see this clearly: the steamboat in 1809, the regular run of the trans-Atlantic 'packet ship' in 18106, the first coal locomotive by 1832, the streamlined Clipper ship in 1833 and regular Atlantic steamship service in 1838. All of these transportation mechanisms then, or more appropriately the companies and officials which controlled them, collectively began to harken to both faster means of communicating and a more mechanised approach to the dispersal and manipulation of the swelling sea of economic, logistical and industrial data. Actually, more to the point, fast movement was calling for an even faster medium, just as James Carey points out, the telegraph's promise was to finally sever "the link between transportation and communication...allowing symbols to move independent of geography and faster than transport."7 Various international inventors, scientists and military men (like Chappe in France) had already begun investigating the potential for transmission of information, via any number of media, realising the urgent demand and need.8 In 1846, just as single indicator, there were over 25, 000 homing pigeons in the city of Antwerp alone, specifically cultivated for the fast dispersal of news, financial information or personal communication, just a year before the commercial telegraph was finally established.9

The coming of the electric telegraph, however, despite the semaphore towers of the Napoleonic Regime, actually had in roots in the 18th century experimentation (of Benjamin Franklin and Watson) with 'natural' electricity, electric current and magnetism, which were still underway among scientists and tinkerers around the world in the early 1800s. At this point, it must be said, many of the distinctions between these distinct principles were still unclear, and were in fact being jumbled amongst mesmerism, hypnotism and 'etheric projection' in the popular mind. This might seem an odd conflation of ideas, but only inasmuch as our early 21st century sensibility has largely ceased to register the ghostly and invisible reality of disembodied voices and messages surrounding us at all times.10 To the Victorian mind, this was all rather jarring, for as John Peters points out,
both mesmerism and telegraphy draw on a common cultural product: electrical connection between distant individuals. The telegraph both stimulated and drew on older discourses about immaterial action at a many, the electrified telegraph seemed the latest in a long tradition of angels and divinities spiriting intelligence across vast distance. It only needed the ministry of a telegraphist to interpret and transcribe the code.11
As Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, any technology sufficiently advanced (from the observer's vantage point) will be indistinguishable from magic, as so the scientists of the time, working as they did with unseen properties and signals, must have in many ways seemed like alchemists in many ways - but their work continued furiously regardless of the miscomprehension swirling about them. First, in the 1790s, Galvani & Volta discovered 'galvanism', i.e. electricity could be produced though the chemical action of acid on metal. By the 1820s, and quite independently, Øersted in Denmark and Ampere in France had uncovered the fundamentals of electro-magnetism, leading to an all-out race through the 1820s &30s by Morse12 (US), Ampere (France), Schilling (Russia), Steinheil (Germany) and Cooke & Wheatstone (UK) to develop a viable electric telegraphic device. Sommering, in Munich, by 1809, had already experimented with a device he called the 'chemical telegraph', which was actually a fairly elaborate apparatus (and somewhat dangerous) in that it passed open electrical current into separate beakers of water by copper wire, each vat labelled with a letter. Each wire & container was to represent a letter, and when bubbles appeared in the waters of different vats, in sequence, words could be 'discerned from a distance'. These mechanisms grew even more elaborate as the stakes in discovery were seen to rise: in 1816, Sir Francis Ronald of Hammersmith in London gutted his family home and strew its rooms, halls and staircases with eight miles of electric wire as he experimented with the use of current to produce movement in small corks at the end of the circuits, which could be used to indicate letters.13 Baron Schelling, an attaché of Czarist Russia stationed in Munich, tried to adopt Sommering's method to magnets, using a binary 'yes/no' signalling system. Then in 1833, Carl Gauss and W.E. Weber, working at the University of Göttengen in Germany managed to rig a similar electric device, but it was not, in the end, until 1836 before the first practical electrical telegraph emerged, concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic, as the trials of W. F. Cooke & Charles Wheatstone (UK) and Samuel Morse (US) finally bore fruit.14

However, before proceeding with the considerable drama of telegraphy and the rapid deployment of its networks across the colonies and oceans of the world, we must turn our attention to important developments simultaneous occurring not in the communication of information, but rather in its computation. In 1837, Charles Babbage published his pivotal Ninth Bridgwater Treatise, the title being actually a satirical take on a work published earlier by a religious philosopher of the time who deplored the rising influence of the mathematical and natural sciences on the morals and ethos of Christian England. Babbage himself, though most frequently remembered now as an inventor and scientist, thought of himself first and foremost as a philosopher, and in reading the burning condemnation of science's spirit of discovery, felt immediately compelled to defend it. His life's work at this point was tied directly to the discovery of mathematical laws, but he was also convinced many of the laborious but requisite calculations of this process could be done by machines, thus freeing the mind to more abstract and lofty efforts.15 His retort in his treatise was that God's laws are essentially embedded in Nature to be discovered, they are immutable, and should not be viewed as scientific 'restraints' placed upon the Divine. Rather the laws of nature uncovered by science represent humanity's gradual discovery that "the minutest changes, as well as those transitions apparently the most abrupt, have throughout all times been the necessary, the inevitable consequence of some more comprehensible law impressed on matter at the dawn of existence."16

Babbage was driven from as early as 1823 (by then he'd already designed and constructed the first prototype of his Difference Engine) by this confidence: for he reasoned what is immutable and discoverable information is also stable and soundly quantifiable. From that first principle, he saw machines around him, in factories and workshops, capable of manipulating matter by processes built into their metal works and gears; these were industrial engines. His startling insight was seeing that information too might be worked or processed just as a piece of wood or strings of yarn, if the proper internal mechanism could be constructed. Having succeeded, after intense scepticism and wrangling in securing government support of his idea, Babbage commissioned the finest machinists and draftsmen in England to help him convert the abstract manipulation of numbers into a physical, clockwork process, and thus "abstraction itself came to mean predominantly the subsumption of information in manipulable symbols."17

Babbage's Difference Engine has an obvious limitation, from an information-processing standpoint, one that he was all too acutely aware of, in that it could only handle straightforward equations, but not all manner of algorithms involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division or finding roots. The first device then was a self-driven adding machine in essence, unable to move beyond linear calculation into a higher realm of mathematical processing. The first mill and gears would only work with eight digits, for example, and only straight sums worked through, as there was no mechanism for either storing the output for re-calculation (carrying over, or 'feeding the snake its tail' as he called it) or breaking mathmatical processes into discrete sub-routines within the machine, to be activated only under certain conditions.

These limitations were to be addressed with Babagge's next generation hardware, the Analytical Engine, and by 1837 he had even laid the groundwork for design, documentation and publicity (to some extent, his Ninth Bridgwater Treatise can be read as just that, saving the necessary face in public to continue with an already expensive line of research). As the preliminary technical drawings of his new machine show, the calculating apparatus within the engine was to be comprised of two parts : the store, in which the raw data or numbers to be operated upon were kept, and the mill, made of various interlocking mechanical cartridges and barrels, where actual mathematical operations were to be performed. The operations themselves would be entered into the mill via punched Jacquard cards18 and the output of the calculations (foreseen possibilites included addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and extraction of roots to order) would either be comprised of newly punched cards, or in the case of useful tables, the engine would produce a permanent pressed copper plate.

By 1840, as the wonders of telegraphy continued to make headlines (as mentioned earlier, newspapers had just gone into mass marketing & mass production in 1833, and the public interest in these new matters was considerable) Babbage, one could speculate, may have conceivably been under considerable pressure to 'make good' with his information machine. Historically, technological research was not an avenue of funding the British government had been (nor would be in the future) overly keen to enter, preferring to allow private enterprise (in the spirit of Adam Smith, c. 1776 ) take its 'invisible hand' to guiding invention. Additionally, there were suddenly other innovations (such as photography in 1838) on the public stage. So in 1840, Charles Babbage (along with his mathematically-minded companion & supporter Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace19) set out to bring his new developed design ideas to Europe (the University of Turin in Italy being their first engagement). With the opportunity of stimulating more interest and funding, Babbage even went so far as to commission the respected Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea to write a technical overview of the Analytical Engine.20 Lovelace herself, an acute lady of numbers and letters in her own right, translated this document with her own specifications for publishing back home. But all for naught, and by 1842 the British government felt compelled to shift its funding to other matters, namely the transportation and communications infrastructure, to which we must now return our attention. Babbage continued through the rest of his life to re-tool and realise a working Analytical Engine, but at last that dream, of a truly adaptable information machine, would have to wait.21

Note 1 : G. M. Weinberg, Introduction to General Systems Thinking (NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), 251.

Note 2 :The British government, to single out just one indicator of the social turmoil underway brought on by industrialisation, in 1812 was moved to mobilise 24,000 troops against the Luddite protests which swept England's factory-towns. By contrast, a much smaller force had been dispatched to do battle with the armies of Napoleon, which gives some indication of where the true concern to security was seen to lie. Source: Iain A. Boal. "A Flow of Monsters : Luddism & Virtual Technologies." from Resisting the Virtual Life: the Culture and Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), 4.

Note 3 :This could, technically, be a one-man operation, but Europe at this time had already endured a succession of revolutionary activity, Napoleonic France was not an altogether happy place for all citizens, and so the civil administration, no doubt by sound reasoning, was somewhat concerned that these installations might fall to foreign or domestic subversion and then be used to spread all manner of sedition.

Note 4 :In the late 1790s, in must be said this was still the fastest form of transport, and therefore communication, as the steam engine itself had just been worked out by Watt in 1788 and would not be well-tuned to locomotive use until the 1820s - yet at the same time, in order to notice the speed of change at this time, by the 1830s, in the space of ten years, 3000 miles of track had been laid in the US alone. See James R. Benniger, The Control Revolution : Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Harvard : Cambridge, 1986)

Note 5 :James Bailey, After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence (NY: Basic, 1996), 87.

Note 6 :A breathtakingly fast 3-6 week turn around time here for London-to-New York mail, which people were just getting used to when, in 1818, the 10-day trans-Atlantic steamship seemed to close the divide completely, even though regular crossings were not in place until 1838.

Note 7 :James Carey, "Time, Space and the Telegraph" in Communication in History : Technology, Culture & Society (NY : Longman, 1995), 154.

Note 8 : In fact many companies & organisations were already getting in serious trouble at this point : "...companies had actually held back the development of planned new lines because of safety problems, a situation that was magnified by a series of spectacular accidents caused by poor communication and co-ordination. Commerce was being transported so swiftly that firms had difficulty keeping track of inventory and the 1820s scientists in France, Russia, Germany and England worked feverishly to respond to the needs for more efficient long-distance communication." -Ronald J. Deibert. Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia : Communication in World Order Transformation (NY: Columbia, 1997), 116.

Note 9 :These birds were in essence the communications backbone of the competing international news agencies (of which there were several) which were already struggling to scoop one another as falling print and paper prices & the increased capacity of steam powered printing, c. 1822, in tandem with increased public education & literacy, fuelled the appetite for political and economic news from Europe and abroad. A well-trained carrier pigeon was consider an excellent medium : cheap, reliable and able to ferry news from the morning papers in Brussels to Paris by noon and on to London for tea-time the same day. See Graham Storey's Reuters : The Story of a Century of News Gathering (NY : 1951), 9-11.

Note 10 :Morse, when he finally was granted a patent in the United States for the development of the electric telegraph, sought funds from Congress at the time to develop his prototype for use on the Washington to Baltimore rail-line. The distinguished Representatives at the time seeming expressed difficulty in seeing how alleged 'spiritualism' was going to help the trains run on time. One Congressman even mockingly pushed for a rider to the funding legislation which stated 'half of all funds must be put to mesmeric experiments'. Despite this, which either speaks to their open-mindedness or economic disinterest, Congress granted him $30,000 to construct the first telegraph line in the Americas. See Daniel Caitron's "Lightning Lines" in Communication in History : Technology, Culture & Society (NY : Longman, 1995), 149-153.

Note 11 :John Durham Peters, Speaking Into The Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 94.

Note 12 :Morse was, strangely enough (though perhaps not given the Gilded Age tendency to produce scientists of every manner, obsession and interest) at this time not a budding technologist or entrepreneur, but a painting instructor at NYU. He hoped his ideas for a telegraph transmitter (hardware) and specialized code system (software) might afford him the income & time to fully devote himself to the painting of landscape and portraiture, his true passions.

Note 13 :Seven years later Ronald published a slim pamphlet on the subject, imploring his experiments be given consideration by the British Admiralty. Alas, he was not as fortunate as Morse would be with Congress, and the British authorities responded tersely that the semaphore towers between Portsmith and London were operating at perfect levels of adequacy. Arthur C. Clarke, in his How the World was One : Beyond the Global Village (NY : Bantam, 1992) also relates two other anecdotes in unfurling this story : 1. the Secretary of the Admiralty who responded to Sir Ronald not soon after wrote the main entry article on the subject of telegraphy for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and 2. the next occupant of Ronald's 'wired' Hammersmith mansion was William Morris, the prolific printer, designer and Pre-Raphealite medievalist, who no doubt had to do a lot of work on the house.

Note 14 :This period, from idea/conception to working device, is actually remarkably short in comparison to other inventions- as the electro-mechanical telegraph moved from conception (1816) to industrial use in the space of 20 years. Contrast this against the helicopter (37 years from initial idea to operation), photography (56 years from concept to realisation) or the television (conceived 1884, finally produced 63 years later). Source: Wallechinshy, Wallace and Wallace. The Book of Lists (NY : Bantam, 1978), 260.

Note 15 :This was not, in itself, an entirely new idea, as G.W. Leibniz, German philosopher and mathematician of the 17th century, had managed through his commercial connections (his family owned a successful cookie enterprise) to commission the construction of a hand-crank adding machine, tooled from his design. It should also be noted that Spinoza is largely credited for introducing the concept of a 'binary' number system to the West, though there are thought to have been some earlier Indo-Arabic mathematics along this line much earlier.

Note 16 :Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgwater Treatise (London: Murray, 1837), 48.

Note 17 :In 1823, Babbage secured a grant of £1,500 from the Committee of the Royal Society. In the next several years, in the course of developing the Difference Engine, £7,000 of his own capital would need to be invested. Babbage was fairly wealthy at the beginning of his carreer through an inheritance from his father, but by 1833 the machinist and other costs had escalated, requiring another £17,000, which was clearly a vast expenditure at the time, roughly a third of his total dowery. The second Difference Engine prototype is on display and in working order in the Science Museum, London, UK - Source : F. Gareth Ashurst, Pioneers of Computing (London: Muller, 1983), 71.

Note 18 :The Jacquard cards were the original Steam Age machine-human data interface, first used in France c. 1810, and comprised of 4" by 6" wooden slats with holes in various places which enabled a steam-powered textile loom to read and then produce various patterns in linens. This I/O system would be resurrected later in the punch-card readers of early computers from the first Hollerith tabulating machine unto the early ENIAC and UNIVAC matinframes.

Note 19 :The only legitimate daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron.

Note 20 :Babbage, then, its interesting to see, may conceivably be one of the first information technologists to find the research aspect of the endeavour needed to be shelved in order to deal with the preoccupations of securing either venture capital from private interests or government sources. Financial woe becomes a familiar theme fairly early on however, the first shareholder uprising of a newly formed telco follows not long after, in 1866, when the wire laid by Atlantic Telegraph and Cable Company snaps and the line goes dead. After the British government withdrew its funding, Babbage wrote in his memoir, Passages from the life of a Philosopher (1864): "If, unwarned by my example, any man shall succeed in constructing an engine embodying in itself the whole of the executive department of analysis, I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone will be able fully to appreciate the nature of my efforts, and the value of their results, but half a century will probably elapse before anyone will attempt so unpromising a task." It may be utterly counter-factual to state, but still significant to note, that had the British government continued to support Babbage's endeavours, mechanical computing may have promulgated the field of information technology much sooner and radically shifted the polarities of US influence which exist in the industry today. Given that a) Howard Aiken was working in consort with IBM and Harvard when he developed the UNIVAC system, b) the machines' goal was specifically to generate firing tables for the US Navy during WWII, and c) this was much the same application Babbage intended for his machine (except in his case it was navigational tables for the British Navy) - it stands to reason that had support for his researches continued and been extended into the early electrical era, then electric computational machines may have emerged in Britain just after the streets switched from gaslight. Such a shift in technological emergence would obviously have had serious ramifications for the British Empire in the years to come, and has been the object of considerable 'speculative history', most notably the novel The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, which outlines the drama of a world where the computer age arrives nearly a century ahead of schedule.

Note 21 :Not for another fifty years would the information processing power available in a properly tooled machine be tapped, this time by a file-clerk named Herman Hollerith, as the US Government struggled to understand the unruly mass of its own census data.

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