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B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data - cover image


Stephen Robertson

Published On





  • English

Print Length

171 pages (x+161)


Paperback156 x 12 x 234 mm(6.14" x 0.47" x 9.21")
Hardback156 x 16 x 234 mm(6.14" x 0.63" x 9.21")


Paperback737g (26.00oz)
Hardback1118g (39.44oz)



OCLC Number





  • U
  • GPF
  • JNV
  • B
  • UB


  • COM059000
  • COM032000
  • COM031000


  • T58.5
  • R63


  • history of computer developments
  • digital age
  • computer
  • information technology revolution
  • data processing
  • cryptography
  • visual art
  • music
  • postal system

B C, Before Computers

On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data

  • Stephen Robertson (author)
The idea that the digital age has revolutionized our day-to-day experience of the world is nothing new, and has been amply recognized by cultural historians. In contrast, Stephen Robertson’s 'BC: Before Computers' is a work which questions the idea that the mid-twentieth century saw a single moment of rupture. It is about all the things that we had to learn, invent, and understand – all the ways we had to evolve our thinking – before we could enter the information technology revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. Its focus ranges from the beginnings of data processing, right back to such originary forms of human technology as the development of writing systems, gathering a whole history of revolutionary moments in the development of information technologies into a single, although not linear narrative.

Treading the line between philosophy and technical history, Robertson draws on his extensive technical knowledge to produce a text which is both thought-provoking and accessible to a wide range of readers. The book is wide in scope, exploring the development of technologies in such diverse areas as cryptography, visual art and music, and the postal system. Through all this, it does not simply aim to tell the story of computer developments but to show that those developments rely on a long history of humans creating technologies for increasingly sophisticated methods of manipulating information.

Through a clear structure and engaging style, it brings together a wealth of informative and conceptual explorations into the history of human technologies, and avoids assumptions about any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. As such, it has the potential to be of interest to the expert and the general reader alike.


I found it a delight to read. The author is not trying to write yet another book on the history of computer developments but rather to show that those developments rely on a long history of humans creating solutions to problems that arose as they became more and more sophisticated in their treatment of concepts of information and its manipulation. In many ways it resembles a work of philosophy more than a technical history, but relies on explaining that technical history to make his points.

Michael R. Williams

Department of Computer Sciences, University of Calgary


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.

Martin White, University of Sheffield

"B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data – Stephen Robertson". Informer, vol. Winter 2021, 2021.

Full Review


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7 Picture and sound

(pp. 75–88)
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10 Calculation

(pp. 115–122)
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11 Data processing

(pp. 123–130)
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12 Ciphers

(pp. 131–142)
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(pp. 143–144)
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(pp. 1–2)
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Stephen Robertson

Visiting Professor at University College London
Professor Emeritus at City University of London
Life Fellow of Girton College at University of Cambridge