The Switch: Introduction

The history of nearly any technology, when examined closely, is a complex braid. What might appear on the surface to be a single ‘invention’ is revealed to be a series of often unrelated ideas and motivations, recombinations and repurposings, that coalesce at last, after decades, into something that we dub the sewing machine, or the telephone.

To take just one strand of one story, consider the airplane: the Wright Flyer only became possible because of new, powerful and compact engines built for the emerging automotive industry. And these engines themselves originated in a desire to make small-scale industrial power sources for craftsmen, for whom a large, expensive, and tempermental steam engine was not a practical option.

Perhaps no technological domain better exemplifies this fact than computing. A myriad of reasons drove many different people over several centuries to try their hand at automatic computation: to construct mathematical and astronomical tables, to solve complex systems of differential equations for engineering projects, to calculate the course of an artillery shell, to count and categorize populations, to understand the essence of logical thought, etc. The devices they brought to bear on the problem were equally diverse: systems of intermeshed gears of a complexity that boggles the eye, pins dropping into wells of mercury, spinning disks, clacking electromagnetic relays, even tubes and tanks and pistons filled with water.

Most of those approaches, however, have long since fallen by the wayside. It would be the electronic switch that proved the most successful general-purpose solution to the problem of computing, the solution which lies at the heart of all modern computers. And the development of that switch came almost exclusively from people who were not looking to compute at all, but rather were looking to communicate.  

Consider London, in the middle of the nineteenth century. At 1 Dorset Street was a large house that served as both home and workshop for Charles Babbage, mathematician, economist, and inventor. For decades he tinkered with computing machines based on mechanical parts: gears, driveshafts, cams, and so forth. Frustrated at his lack of progress and the increasing distraction from street noise as his neighborhood turned from quiet backwater to developed urban center, he began investing much of his energy into a campaign against the growing plague of street musicians. When he died, the few fragments of his great dream, the analytical engine, lay gathering dust in his workshop: a curiosity to many, an absurdity to some. An impossibility, perhaps.

Meanwhile, just a mile to the west, the first commercial system for communication by electricity had opened, carrying information along the Great Western Railway between Paddington Station and West Drayton (near today’s Heathrow Airport). It was the start of a new sector of industry and technology known as telecommunications. That sector, in its turn, gave rise to to multiple waves of computing technology, based on electricity rather than mechanism. It would nurture and sustain Babbage’s successors for a century.

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2 thoughts on “The Switch: Introduction”

  1. I am following this series with near self-abnegating fascination.

    The series does seem to call for a footnote to acknowledge that long-distance real-time communication had a supremely practical embodyment, centuries earlier, in the West African drum network. That system relied on the accident of West African languages’ bi-tonal pronunciation, such that phrases could be approximated on a pair of drums, so that anyone could decode an incoming signal anywhere within miles of a transmitter. The networks carried messages routinely across hundreds of miles. (The constant chatter must have been as distracting as our phones are today.) European slavery raiding destroyed the societies that maintained the network.


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