Since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by stories of human ingenuity. From tales of the first astronomers, craning their necks at the skies from their ziggurats, to the more prosaic history of the humble zipper.
Since then I have studied the history of human creativity in science and technology much more seriously. But given the limited employment opportunities in that field, I have found work instead as an engineer. Such work is rewarding in a material sense, yet it has left something unsatisfied in me.
So I return to the stories. They are stories about people, and stories about things, but, of greatest interest to me, they are stories about ideas. Technologies are as much “creatures of thought” as material things. They are products of human imagination.1
Humans are ceaseless borrowers and copiers. Perhaps, contra Ecclesiastes, there is an occasional new thing under the sun, but certainly humans think no new thoughts ex nihilo.2 And yet we are also ceaseless inventors. We combine existing ideas in new ways or place them in new surroundings, and suddenly the old becomes new, in a wonderful alchemy of the mind.
At least, that is how I feel. To convey the same feeling of wonder to my readers – this what I hope to do in the humble offerings I put before you.
I will begin with the story of the switch, and how this simple machine became the basis of our entire digital world. The search for a means to communicate by electricity created an entirely new industry, that of telecommunications. This industry would, in turn, throw off a number of developments crucial to the history of computing. Including this:
Let’s go and see how it all got started.
- The phrase comes from the great historian of technology Lewis Mumford. See the About page. ↩
- Sometimes it seems to me that there is virtually nothing to be said that wasn’t already better expressed by an ancient Greek somewhere about the Aegean or Adriatic coasts between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. ↩