Don Thurston Blog

From Guttenberg to Bytes, Let Me Count the Ways

Guttenberg’s printing press inaugurated an era of dynamic changes in communications.  Up until this game altering brainchild, providing information via the written word was limited by labor, transportation and reading ability. Monks copied documents by hand, transmission was personal delivery, the citizenry largely without reading skills. Guttenberg’s creative passion erased these constraints.

Disrupting the status quo was met with vengeance by those with a great deal  to lose. In particular politicians took an active stance in suppressing the sudden availability of information that diminished their hold on the voters. Religious institutions were equal in their opposition to this technological interloper. Anti-printing press zealots were encouraged, resulting in a considerable amount of violence.

Time, non secular education institutes and readily available reading material greatly increased literacy rates…… no longer was reading ability limited to the few people of privilege. Within a relatively short period of time the written word was being widely consumed. An unintended consequence; censorship, and an enduring controversy.

A side bar—Guttenberg was cheated out of his patent ownership such that he did not benefit financially and suffered mightily emotionally.

Electrical impulses to transmit information through wires became the next great accomplishment. Samuel Morse receives much credit, in particular accolades for his contribution of the Morse code.  Volumes of information now moved through wires at the rate of an electric impulse.  Thousands of kilometers of surface and underwater cable united the world as never before. As telegraph poles marched across the North American landscapes, Indigenous peoples climbed to the top, anticipating over hearing the messages.  Pace of implementation was astounding. An example; a cable network connecting Indonesia to Europe was completed just in time to transmit news of the devastating Krakatoa volcano. Such real time information available to an uninformed population, caused great consternation, imagining a worldwide volcanic epidemic.

The telephone soon followed when Alexander Graham Bell upstaged the dot dash world with voice transmission. Once again adaption took on a world of its own. Suddenly everyone was talking to everyone else throughout the world.

What next?  Marconi’s ingenuity produced equipment to send sound waves, transmitted without wires. All the ships at sea could now be joined with the simple medium of dots and dashes.   Debate continues to this day as to the principal inventor. Suffice to say that both Marconi and Tesla were involved. Marconi remained a major player.

The wireless coded messages soon gave way to voice.  Many inventors contributed to what became the radio.  The results are evident today as wireless analog and digital communication maintains a substantial place in our daily listening and transmitting worlds. Outwardly little has changed; inside it is a whole new ball game. How many tubes have you replaced lately?

Soon real time video images swooped across the globe. Thomson’s cathode ray tube was the precursor for television; TV dinners became ubiquitous.

Two developments combined to initiate changes that dwarfed all previous communications systems.  One was the digital revolution as Brattain, Shockey and Bardeen came up with the transistor.  Secondly fiber optics replaced copper wire, multiplying many times transmission capacity. In part thank Karny and Hopkins for this. Vast amounts of   information now moves along glass cables at the speed of light. All of the devises, now so common, stem from converting an analog signal to digital and the capacity to move to move this stuff everywhere all the time. Think computers, smart phones, and so on and so on.

Over the centuries the absorption rate of new connecting technologies has been truly amazing. Seemingly we have no limit to exchanging information with everyone all the time. Why else would texters risk life and limb in cross walks and distracted driving laws are in place.

Throughout these few centuries one can imagine parental  discussions lamenting that all the younger generations seem to do is read,  expanding knowledge via crystal sets, enjoying  clandestine boy-girl phone calls, watch the Nature Channel and expanding relations with family and friends by texting.

Accolades for Guttenberg, Morse, Bell, Marconi, Thomson, Brattain, Shockey Bardeen and Karny, Jobe ; all contributed immensely to how peoples across the world can be in touch all the time.

Unintended consequences…. some information is offensive, some is deleterious, some is disruptive and some used for really rotten purposes.  Such outcomes are unsavory and harmful. Restricting messaging remains an issue, repeating earlier movements as far back as the Guttenberg era. Lest we forget, demigods of all stripes want and need to manage information for purposes of control and power.

Counsel from our inventors….. freedom to access information is a single force in growing democratic and civil societies.