This is a somewhat random selection of articles I have written over the years, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on those that draw parallels between modern technologies and their historical precursors. This is what I have become known for, and is the common thread that runs through much of my writing.
I have been collecting examples of such historical parallels for several years. Originally, my plan for my first book, The Victorian Internet, was to write an anthology, looking at a different historical analogy in each chapter, of which telegraphy would have been just one. But I soon realised that I had enough material to do a short book about the Victorian Internet on its own. So the anthology idea was shelved; and my second and third books, which are about planet hunting and a mechanical chess-player respectively, are both derived from ideas for other chapters of the anthology.
I deviated from this model somewhat with my fourth book, on drinks, because I wanted to try something new. In that case, the idea was that the ancient technologies, the drinks themselves, are relics of particular historical periods that survive in the modern world. I took a similar approach with my fifth book, on food. These two books don’t involve parallels between an ancient and a modern thing; instead, they offer a more direct way to see the past in the present, and the present in the past. And that is ultimately what I am interested in. Very often we can more easily understand things that are going on today with a dose of historical perspective; and we can better understand history by relating it to our experience of things today.
There’s another common thread that links my books, and much of my other writing, which is a particular interest in the social impact of new technologies. The Victorian Internet is a parable about how the new network technology changed society in the 19th century, highlighting the parallels with the adoption of the internet in the late 20th century. As a journalist I’ve written a lot about the social impact of mobile phones and video games, as well as the internet. And my books on food and drink essentially treat new foods and drinks (the potato, rum, coffee) as new technologies that have unexpected social knock-on effects and historical consequences. In each case I’m interested in the interplay between the new things that a novel technology makes possible, and the way it actually ends up being adopted by society. (Engineers have a terrible habit of failing to consider, or completely getting wrong, the social factors that determine how and whether their inventions are adopted. Text messaging and videotelephony are classic examples from the telecoms industry; the first was an accidental success that took the operators by surprise, whereas the second was a flop, despite much hype from the industry about its potential.)
Many of these links are to Economist articles that are only available to subscribers. I realise that this is deeply annoying if you are not a subscriber, but I live in hope that the entire archive will eventually be opened up, at which point the links will start working again. (Update: after becoming editor-in-chief of Economist.com in 2010 I changed our paywall policy to grant non-subscribers access to a limited number of articles each week. This is to increase our traffic from search engines, not simply to allow access to my old articles from this blog!)
How the potato got hot (Los Angeles Times, July 7th 2009)
An Op-Ed that examines the historical parallels between scepticism towards potatoes in the 17th and 18th centuries, and genetically modified crops today. People were scared of potatoes, but when food shortages forced people to try them, potatoes turned out not to be so terrible after all. Will the same happen with GM crops?
Etiquette and telecoms (The Economist, December 13th 2007)
New communications technologies have been prompting questions about etiquette ever since the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century. The pattern is always the same: a new technology emerges on the scene, and nobody can be quite sure how it will be employed, or the appropriate etiquette for its use. So users have to make up the rules as they go along. This article gave me the opportunity to tell the story of what is arguably the first example of spam, from 1864. (I only found out about it after the publication of The Victorian Internet, so it doesn’t appear in the book.)
Fear of flying (The Economist, September 7th 2006)
Like many people, I find in-flight safety announcements very irritating. What would a totally honest one sound like? Not a historical parallel, but a very popular article that generated a lot of comment and continues to be quoted around the internet today.
The culture war (Wired 14.04, April 2006)
An article I wrote for Wired about historical precursors to video-game hysteria. Here is the full, unedited version (with more quotes). The short version: new forms of media wind people up, and always have.
No Morse (Los Angeles Times, February 8th 2006)
An Op-Ed piece marking the official demise of the telegram in the United States, after Western Union discontinued the service in January 2006. To be honest, I was surprised that it was still going.
The real spirit of 1776 (Los Angeles Times, July 4th 2005)
An Op-Ed arguing that rum, rather than tea, is the drink that should be associated with American independence. Long before the Boston Tea Party of 1775 there was the Molasses Act of 1733.
Tuning in to technology’s past (Technology Review, January 2005)
Marconi’s original radio transmitters have a lot in common with modern “ultrawideband” technology. It’s just one example of how technologies from the 19th century are now being dusted off and updated for use in the 21st.
The internet in a cup (The Economist, December 18th 2003)
This piece looks at the internet-like role played by coffee-houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. They acted as information exchanges for scientists, politicians and businessmen, and were particularly popular in London. In the days before regular postal deliveries, coffee-houses were also used as mailing addresses. Regulars would pop in a couple of times a day to check for new mail and hear the latest news and gossip. Sounds like the internet to me; there is also a lesson for Wi-Fi hotspot operators here about pricing.
Beyond the telecoms bubble (The Economist, October 9th 2003)
My survey of the trillion-dollar telecoms industry, which is in something of a mess following the bursting of the technology bubble, inevitably starts with a telegraph reference: to the first ever “network to network” (ie, internet) connection, in 1801.
No text please, we’re America (The Economist, April 3rd 2003)
This brief article, which explains why text-messaging is much less popular in America than elsewhere, contains a brief telegraphic reference that shows how Morse code persists even on today’s Nokia mobile phones.
Ethics and archaeology (The Economist, March 28th 2002)
This piece draws analogies between historical, contemporary and future ethical problems in archaeology, with particular reference to a proto-archaeologist and tomb raider called Giovanni Belzoni, the prototype for Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and other torch-carrying, “kick down the door first and ask questions later” archaeologists. I may yet decide to do a book on this.
The internet’s new borders (The Economist, August 9th 2001)
Has the Internet killed geography? Can you really run a dotcom from the top of a mountain? Will the Internet prevent national governments from enforcing local laws? Er, no. It turns out that the Internet is more constrained by geography than you might think. Its cables piggyback on previous infrastructure, such as railways, sewers and (as I can’t resist pointing out) the pneumatic tubes that once carried telegrams. Honestly, I’m like a cracked record sometimes.
Weather forecasting, then and now (Wired 7.02, February 1999)
One of my favourite historical parallels concerns weather forecasting. Today, the weather is forecast using huge computers, which divide the world up into a grid and assign a different processor chip to each square. The chips then all talk to each other to work out how the weather patterns will evolve from their initial (observed) state. This idea was pioneered in the early 20th century by Lewis Fry Richardson, an English mathematician. Since there were no digital computers at the time, he imagined a concert-hall full of mathematicians, each assigned to a grid square, and passing slips of paper from desk to desk. This piece is mainly about Piers Corbyn, a maverick weather forecaster, and it was very heavily edited by Wired, so that the narrator (supposedly me) appears to be American at one point. But I got Richardson in there, anyway. This is yet another idea from my original anthology, which I may yet turn into a book in its own right.
A question of longitude (FEED, 1999)
The Greenwich Meridian, the line of zero longitude, has moved. Why has nobody noticed?
A mechanical Moore’s Law? (FEED, 1998)
It is often said that Charles Babbage failed to build his mechanical computer because Victorian machine tools were not precise enough, but that had he succeeded, he might have kick-started the computer age a century earlier than it actually happened. In this article I look at these two claims in the light of the modern reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Science Museum in London, and conclude that they are both wrong. For the record, Nathan Myhrvold (who helped fund the reconstruction) wrote to me after a version of this article appeared in The Economist to say he was not as sceptical as I am. He and David Deutsch, a quantum-computing pioneer at Oxford, point out that electro-mechanical switches were available to Edison and Tesla in the late 19th century, so the technology could have moved out of the purely mechanical domain fairly quickly, had it been shown to work.
The Analog Bill Gates (FEED, 1998)
An article comparing Thomas Edison with Bill Gates. While Edison was a great inventor and inventor, he was also surprisingly ruthless, a side of his character that is often overlooked. As such, I think he makes a more interesting comparison with Gates than John D. Rockefeller does. A lot of people complained when I wrote this article that it was unfair to compare an all-American hero like Edison with Bill Gates, who is widely regarded as the devil incarnate. I was even accused of having been bribed by Microsoft to write the article. Anyone who actually reads the piece, however, will see that I am actually warning of the danger that Gates could end up being seen as every bit as much of a hero as Edison. I think this would be wrong, at least as far as Gates’ achievements in computing are concerned. Since I wrote this piece, however, he has become the world’s greatest philanthropist, and he is putting his money into healthcare, not computers, in the developing world. Never mind the rhetoric about the digital divide; water, sanitation and healthcare are more pressing concerns that an IP connection. Right on, Bill.
The hypertext of Leonardo (Wired UK, 1997)
A review of the Corbis CD-ROM of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester, and it argues that Leonardo was a hypertext pioneer. He was not the first, of course; the nested commentaries added to the Talmud and the Koran are hypertexts too. But it seems fitting, given the way he prefigured so many other modern technologies (if not the bicycle).