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

B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data	Stephen Robertson
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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, Informer (IRSG). Available online.

This reviewer found the book an absorbing read… should … appeal to general readers interested in the modern information environment.

R. Bharath, emeritus, Northern Michigan University, CHOICE connect, May 2021 Vol. 58 No. 9.

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 the expert and the general reader alike will find it of interest.

B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data
Stephen Robertson | October 2020
170 pp. | 19 colour illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781800640290
ISBN Hardback: 9781800640306
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800640313
ISBN Digital (epub): 9781800641044
ISBN Digital (mobi): 9781800641051
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781800641068
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0225
Subject codes: BIC: U (Computing and information technology),GPF (Information theory), JNV (Educational equipment and technology, computer-aided learning (CAL)), B (Technology: general issues), UB (Information technology: general issues); BISAC: COM059000 (COMPUTERS / Computer Industry see BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Industries / Computers & Information Technology), COM032000 (COMPUTERS / Information Technology), COM031000 (COMPUTERS / Information Theory); OCLC Number: 1202297871.



Prologue Download
Stephen Robertson

1 In the beginning… Download
Stephen Robertson

2 Sending messages: the post Download
Stephen Robertson

3 Sending messages: electricity Download
Stephen Robertson

4 Spreading the word Download
Stephen Robertson

5 More about the alphabet Download
Stephen Robertson

6 Organising information Download
Stephen Robertson

7 Picture and sound Download
Stephen Robertson

8 On physics and physiology Download
Stephen Robertson

9 On perspective—and music Download
Stephen Robertson

10 Calculation Download
Stephen Robertson

11 Data processing Download
Stephen Robertson

12 Ciphers Download
Stephen Robertson

Epilogue Download
Stephen Robertson


List of illustrations

Index of topics

Index of names

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Stephen Robertson is a visiting Professor at University College London (Department of Computer Science), Professor Emeritus at City University London, and a Life Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. He has spent most of his working life was as an academic (at University College London and City University London), with a period as a researcher at the Microsoft Research Laboratory in Cambridge. He has published widely in academic journals and presented at many conferences.
1. In the Beginning...

This chapter discusses what is meant by both technology and information, and goes on to discuss briefly the origins of language and of writing. The meat of the chapter is about the development of the alphabet as a system of writing, and the build-up to this development, indicating why it is such a special and important, though not obvious, invention. Then, the author moves on to the Arabic numbers, which is a roughly equivalent system of writing numbers, equally unobvious and equally important.

2. Sending Messages: The Post

This chapter is devoted to the development of postal systems. The author starts in the classical world, with several different systems, but particularly the Roman, and moves on to the European systems of the Renaissance on, to the big nationalised systems of the nineteenth century, and the heyday and subsequent decline of traditional postal services in the late twentieth century. On the way, the author discusses the medium used for letter-writing, infrastructure such as the roads, the postage stamp, and the organisation of multiple interconnecting postal services.

3. Sending Messages: Electricity

The new medium of electricity gives us new opportunities: the telegraph, the printing telegraph, the telephone, then radio, and later email and text messaging, bringing us into the modern age. But the first of these steps would not have been taken without the alphabet, and the consequent possibility of codes like the Morse code.

4. Spreading the Word

The previous two chapters were about point-to-point or person-to-person messages. The author now talks about messages for broadcasting to a group of people or to the world. The first great invention for broadcasting is the library – the origins of this idea are discussed, as well as its development up to the medieval period. Next comes printing and publishing. Then cinema, radio and television, and the Web.

5. More about the Alphabet

The author discusses the idea of coding in more detail, bringing the discussion up to the present (we may think of digital data as being written in a two-character alphabet). He also tells the story of the development of the QWERTY keyboard, and examines why it has become ubiquitous. Attention is then turned to languages other than English, and finally to the idea of a "character" as this has evolved.

6. Organising Information

Once again, the author goes back in time, to a number of different fields of human activity which required systematic organisation of information: astronomy, calculating the date of Easter, tax collecting, census taking, history itself, libraries again. He then goes on to discuss the filling in of forms, as a way to introduce the idea of a database.

7. Picture and Sound

Starting from mosaics, pointillism and weaving, the author goes on to discuss the sequence of development through photography and sound recording, to today's digitised images and sound. The discussion includes moving images, colour, halftone, facsimile transmission, and television.

8. On Physics and Physiology

Recording and representing the real world, to our eyes and ears, involves a combination of ideas from these two domains. On the physics side, we are concerned with real world three-dimensionality and the optical spectrum; as far as our eyes and ears are concerned, we think about how we perceive colour and space. Representation of images and sound makes use of both aspects.

9. On Perspective – and Music

In this chapter, the author goes back again in time, to discuss architectural plans, maps (of the curved surface of the earth), and the idea of perspective in Western art. This leads on to cameras and their lenses. A further consideration of the relation between text and language, and our changing view of this, leads to a discussion on similar issues in images and in music, and the resulting different ways to represent these as digitised data.

10. Calculation

Here, the author discusses the development of ideas around mechanical calculation, from the abacus on. The chapter ends with a discussion of the different ways numbers may be represented and calculated with in a computer.

11. Data Processing

The idea of data processing machines arose quite independently of ideas about calculation, in the analysis and tabulation of the US census data. An entire industry developed from this in the first half of the twentieth century, which then morphed into the computer industry. This leads to a further discussion on the notion of data.

12. Ciphers

Another prime mover in the development of computers was cryptography – and in particular the breaking of German military codes during the second world war. It was this activity which really led to the modern computer era.