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Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“It is likely that libraries will carry on and survive, as long as we persist in lending words to the world that surrounds us, and storing them for future readers”*…




Many visions of the future lie buried in the past. One such future was outlined by the American librarian Charles Ammi Cutter in his essay “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983”, written a century before in 1883.

Cutter’s fantasy, at times dry and descriptive, is also wonderfully precise:

The [library], when complete, was to consist of two parts, the first a central store, 150 feet square, a compact mass of shelves and passageways, lighted from the ends, but neither from sides nor top; the second an outer rim of rooms 20 feet wide, lighted from the four streets. In front and rear the rim was to contain special libraries, reading-rooms, and work-rooms; on the sides, the art-galleries. The central portion was a gridiron of stacks, running from front to rear, each stack 2 feet wide, and separated from its neighbor by a passage of 3 feet. Horizontally, the stack was divided by floors into 8 stories, each 8 feet high, giving a little over 7 feet of shelf-room, the highest shelf being so low that no book was beyond the reach of the hand. Each reading-room, 16 feet high, corresponded to two stories of the stack, from which it was separated in winter by glass doors.

The imagined structure allows for a vast accumulation of books:

We have now room for over 500,000 volumes in connection with each of the four reading-rooms, or 4,000,000 for the whole building when completed.

If his vision for Buffalo Public Library might be considered fairly modest from a technological point of view, when casting his net a little wider to consider a future National Library, one which “can afford any luxury”, things get a little more inventive.

[T]hey have an arrangement that brings your book from the shelf to your desk. You have only to touch the keys that correspond to the letters of the book-mark, adding the number of your desk, and the book is taken off the shelf by a pair of nippers and laid in a little car, which immediately finds its way to you. The whole thing is automatic and very ingenious…

But for Buffalo book delivery is a cheaper, simpler, and perhaps less noisy, affair.

…for my part I much prefer our pages with their smart uniforms and noiseless steps. They wear slippers, the passages are all covered with a noiseless and dustless covering, they go the length of the hall in a passage-way screened off from the desk-room so that they are seen only when they leave the stack to cross the hall towards any desk. As that is only 20 feet wide, the interruption to study is nothing.

Cutter’s fantasy might appear fairly mundane, born out of the fairly (stereo)typical neuroses of a librarian: in the prevention of all noise (through the wearing of slippers), the halting of the spread of illness (through good ventilation), and the disorder of the collection (through technological innovations)…

Far from a wild utopian dream, today Cutter’s library of the future appears basic: there will be books and there will be clean air and there will be good lighting. One wonders what Cutter might make of the library today, in which the most basic dream remains perhaps the most radical: for them to remain in our lives, free and open, clean and bright.

More at the original, in Public Domain Review: “The Library of the Future: A Vision of 1983 from 1883.”  Read Cutter’s essay in its original at the Internet Archive.

Pair with “Libraries of the future are going to change in some unexpected ways,” in which IFTF Research Director (and Boing Boing co-founder) David Pescovitz describes a very different future from Cutter’s, and from which the image above was sourced.

* Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night


As we browse in bliss, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the most famous early computer– the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer)– was dedicated.  The first general-purpose computer (Turing-complete, digital, and capable of being programmed and re-programmed to solve different problems), ENIAC was begun in 1943, as part of the U.S’s war effort (as a classified military project known as “Project PX”); it was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, where it was built.  The finished machine, composed of 17,468 electronic vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints, weighed more than 27 tons and occupied a 30 x 50 foot room– in its time the largest single electronic apparatus in the world.  ENIAC’s basic clock speed was 100,000 cycles per second. Today’s home computers have clock speeds of 1,000,000,000 cycles per second.



Written by LW

February 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We will meet; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously”*…


How did a group of crows become a murder? Or a group of starlings a murmuration? The truth is lost to history, but one theory is that many of the English language’s elaborate nouns of assemblage were concocted by a prioress for a 1486 gentleman’s guide called the Book of St. Albans, and mostly meant to show the user’s erudition and wit. Which is still what they do…

Everything that one could want to know about “Nouns of Assemblage.”

* Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (Bottom, Act 1, Scene 2)


As we come together, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that Dr Lee De Forest, the American inventor of the vacuum tube, conducted the first public demonstration of radio as we know it, broadcasting a live performance of Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera– a broadcast audible only by the small number of electronics hobbyists who had radio receivers. (He’d tried a “quiet experiment,” broadcasting part of Tosca the prior night.)  De Forest started regular nightly concerts in 1915, increasing interest in radio receivers, which at the time depended on the vacuum tubes manufactured by De Forest’s company.

While DeForest pioneered the commercialization of radio, Italian electrical engineer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi is traditionally recognized as its creator for his 1896 invention, which transmitted signals over more than a mile. By 1905, ships often used radios to communicate with stations on shore.  Marconi’s work earned him a share of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics; DeForest got rich… It prefigured, in a metaphorical way the relationship between Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff in the development of television.

Indeed, appropriately enough, it was on this same date 18 years later, in 1928, that the first experimental television sets– with 1.5 square inch screens– were installed in three homes in Schenectady, NY.

Lee DeForest


Written by LW

January 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”*…



You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West,’ would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century…

Philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian Akhandadhi Das. a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, explains how “Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta.”

* Jimi Hendrix


As we muse on metaphor, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Donald Knuth; he was born on this date in 1938. A computer scientist, mathematician, and professor emeritus at Stanford, he made numerous substantive contributions to computer science, both practically and theoretically.  But he is probably best known as the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, which he began in 1962, began to publish in 1968… and has (via multiple revisions/additions) still not finished.  Called by the New York Times “the profession’s defining treatise,” it won Knuth the Turing Award in 1974.

That said, it’s surely worth noting Knuth’s other major contribution to our modern zeitgeist: his “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” published in Issue 33 of Mad Magazine when he was 19 years old.

192px-knuthatopencontentalliance source


Written by LW

January 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“‘Now I understand,’ said the last man”*…



All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

Childhood’s End was Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece, published in 1953, chronicling the arrival of benevolent Overlords who bring many of the same conveniences now delivered by the Keepers of the Internet to Earth. It does not end well…

George Dyson explains that nations, alliances of nations, and national institutions are in decline, while a state perhaps best described as “Oligarchia” is on the ascent: the Edge New Year’s Essay, “Childhood’s End.”

(For Nick Bilton’s thoughts on the piece, see here; and for a different perspective on the same dynamics, see, e.g., Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable.)

* Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End


As we ponder the possibilities of posterity, we might spare a thought for Serbian-American electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla; he died on this date in 1943.  Tesla is probably best remembered for his rivalry with Thomas Edison:  Tesla invented and patented the first AC motor and generator (c.f.: Niagara Falls); Edison promoted DC power… and went to great lengths to discredit Tesla and his approach.  In the end, of course, Tesla was right.

Tesla patented over 300 inventions worldwide, though he kept many of his creations out of the patent system to protect their confidentiality.  His work ranged widely, from technology critical to the development of radio to the first remote control.  At the turn of the century, Tesla designed and began planning a “worldwide wireless communications system” that was backed by J.P. Morgan…  until Morgan lost confidence and pulled out.  “Cyberspace,” as described by the likes of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, is largely prefigured in Tesla’s plan.  On Tesla’s 75th birthday in 1931, Time put him on its cover, captioned “All the world’s his power house.”  He received congratulatory letters from Albert Einstein and more than 70 other pioneers in science and engineering.  But Tesla’s talent ran far, far ahead of his luck.  He died penniless n Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel.



Written by LW

January 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary numerals, and those who don’t”*…


Guide to Computing

From a collection of vintage photos of computing equipment by “design and tech obsessive” James Ball…

Guide to Computing

More at Docubyte

[TotH to Kottke]

* vernacular joke, as invoked by Ian Stewart in Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities


As we rewind, we might spare a thought for Christian Goldbach; he died on this date in 1764.  A mathematician, lawyer, and historian who studied infinite sums, the theory of curves and the theory of equations, he is best remembered for his correspondence with Leibniz, Euler, and Bernoulli, especially his 1742 letter to Euler containing what is now known as “Goldbach’s conjecture.”

In that letter he outlined his famous proposition:

Every even natural number greater than 2 is equal to the sum of two prime numbers.

It has been checked by computer for vast numbers– up to at least 4 x 1014– but remains unproved.

(Goldbach made another conjecture that every odd number is the sum of three primes; it has been checked by computer for vast numbers, but also remains unproved.)

Goldbach’s letter to Euler (source, and larger view)

(Roughly) Daily is headed into a Thanksgiving hiatus; regular service will resume when the tryptophan haze clears…  probably around Monday, November 26.  Thanks for reading– and have Happy Holidays!

Written by LW

November 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”*…


Romaine Fielding

Romaine Fielding got famous making a bunch of films in nothing flat—something like 100 films in just four years, from 1912 to 1915. Some of the films were probably awful. Others were showered with critical praise. Film was a fledgling medium still trying to find its voice, still battling to evolve from novelty to art. But Romaine rose above the melodramatic din of the silent film era. He was, by some accounts, America’s first movie star and, by even more accounts, among the medium’s first true visionaries…

Romaine had already lived a lot of life when he began making films in 1912. There were only a dozen film companies in Hollywood. The magazine that would launch our nation’s rabidity for celebrity culture, Photoplay, had just published its first issue. Romaine was 43 and on his fourth name by then: baby William Grant Blandin became Royal A. Blandin became Romanzo A. Blandin who made the leap finally to Romaine Fielding at the dawn of the 20th century.

There are lots of reasons for adopting pseudonyms and these include shame or aspiration or fear of legal recourse or extralegal recourse or confusion about identity or certainty about identity or general restlessness and for some it is all of this plus the usual feeling of fraudulence and an overdeveloped flair for the dramatic. In 1867 Romaine was born out of wedlock in an Iowa that wouldn’t stand for it and so his first name change was the projection of others’ shame. For the rest of his life he layered on identities, ever grander, though never entirely disingenuous…

After the success of The Toll of Fear (one of the first great psychological thrillers, made in 1913) Romaine made the cover of Motion Picture Magazine. He was voted America’s Most Popular Player by the magazine’s readers, snagging over 1.3 million of the 7 million votes cast by film buffs.

This award was a remarkable accomplishment in the pre-Oscars era. He beat out Mary Pickford, an early cinema powerhouse and eventual cofounder of the famed United Artists studio. He beat out Bronco Billy, who had starred in The Great Train Robbery (1903), arguably the first ever Western film…

The genuinely remarkable tale of an American original: “The Lost Apocalypse of Romaine Fielding.”

* “Norma Desmond” (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard


As we see stars, we might spare a thought for Herbert Eugene Ives; he died on this date in 1953.  A scientist and engineer who headed the development of facsimile and television systems at AT&T in the first half of the twentieth century, he is best known for the 1938 Ives–Stilwell experiment, which provided direct confirmation of special relativity’s time dilation (though Ives himself did not accept special relativity, and argued instead for an alternative interpretation of the experimental results).

But relevantly to this post, Ives also led AT&T’s development of video and television. His 1927 transmission–  of images of then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, from Washington, DC to New York– was the first successful long distance demonstration of television. Two years later, he achieved the first successful long-distance transmission of color images.

220px-Ives_3819812229_f084c217d1_o source


Written by LW

November 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Printing…is the preservative of all arts”*…



Frontispiece of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra


In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape [around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang] when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff.

Among the hundreds of caves was a chamber that served as a storeroom for books. The Library Cave held more than 50,000 texts: religious tracts, business reports, calendars, dictionaries, government documents, shopping lists, and the oldest dated printed book in the world. A colophon at the end of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra scroll dates it to 868, nearly six centuries before the first Gutenberg Bible…

Learn more at: “The Oldest Printed Book in the World.”  Then page through the British Libraries digitization of its restoration.

* Isaiah Thomas (the 19th century publisher and author, not the basketball player)


As we treasure tomes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1990 that  Tim Berners-Lee published a formal proposal for aa “Hypertext project” that he called the World Wide Web (though at the time he rendered it in one word: “WorldWideWeb”)… laying the foundation for a network that has become central to the information age– a network that, with its connected technologies, is believed by many to have sparked a revolution as fundamental and impactful as the revolution ignited by Gutenberg and moveable type.

Sir_Tim_Berners-Lee_(cropped) source


Written by LW

November 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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