B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data – Stephen Robertson

From an information technology perspective my career has seen some remarkable developments. I started out using 80-column cards at university in 1967 and then 10,000 hole optical coincidence cards at the start of my career in 1970. But did you know that the size of an 80-column card was the same size as US bank notes at the time that Hollerith invented his tabulator? This was because he had access to high-quality paper of his chosen format. Just one of the many fascinating insights into the world ‘before computers’ in an immensely readable book by Stephen Robertson of Okapi/BM25 fame. Not only has Stephen written the book he also produced the typescript!

Entitled BC Before Computers the strap line is On Information Technology from Writing to the Digital Age and is published by Open Book Publishers. I always have a pile of books waiting to be read but having started to read the first paragraph I was totally hooked and spent the rest of the afternoon reading through 150 pages of history, insight and quite a lot of quiet humour.

As just a sample of the chapter titles I will highlight Sending Messages (by post and electricity), More About the Alphabet, Picture and Sound, on Physics and Physiology, Data Processing and Ciphers.

Let me allow Stephen to present his book in a lightly edited extract from the Introduction

“I think it is undeniable that the period I have lived through has seen revolutionary changes in the domain of information technology. But the word revolution suggests a complete break, a hiatus, a rupture with the past. It invites us to define when it happened, and to treat this point in time as a discontinuity. But like all real revolutions, both the start and the origins of this period of huge change are hard to pin down.

My contention is that we had to make many other inventions, to devise or learn many ways of thinking about things or of doing things, before the sea change I have lived through could come about. What follows is an attempt to pull together into a single story all these necessary precursor technologies, beginning with writing. This story is not a linear, chronological history. The collection of ideas, of theories, of ways of thinking and ways of doing that have come together under the umbrella of information technology did not start together, either in time or (more importantly) in context. Each strand has its own inception and development; sometimes different strands come together, or one strand splits apart, to follow different historical courses. As a result, I will be jumping about in time, following one strand up to the twentieth century, and putting it aside to go back to the source of another.”

Although the technology of information handling is at the centre of this book it is also about the people who devised and developed the technology and the historical context of when they were inventing the future.  You need no knowledge of information technology to benefit from Stephen’s analysis and wisdom, and for this reason it should be essential reading not just for students on IT courses but for anyone who just for a moment wonders how we got to where we are today. Other authors who have attempted to do this include Ann Blair, Alex Wright    and James Gleick. These authors may go into more detail on some aspects of BC but none have the balance and style of Stephen Robertson, who exudes a kind of quiet authority as he tells the story of BC. In the end it is his skill as a storyteller as well as a deep appreciation of information technologies (I use the plural deliberately) that makes this book a treasure to read and learn from. Without doubt it gets my award for My Book Of The Year. You don’t even need a budget to read it – the PDF is free to download.

About Martin White
Martin White

Martin is an information scientist and the author of Making Search Work and Enterprise Search. He has been involved with optimising search applications since the mid-1970s and has worked on search projects in both Europe and North America. Since 2002 he has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield and is currently working on developing new approaches to search evaluation.

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