Glimmers of the Data Age

I went to see the new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, the “Age of Information”. On my way to it, I went through an old favourite, the history of computing. As I was thinking about the information age, I was drawn to two pieces from the history of computing that seemed to point toward the Data Age that is at the heart of Sea of Dreams.

analytical engine
Babbage Analytical Engine- London Science Museum

The first was, of course, Babbage’s analytical engine. Although never fully built, the version at the museum is a small part of the diagram Charles Babbage left, it points in the direction of the future computer. Perhaps more importantly for the Data Age, it marks the beginnings of the general need for accurate and large scale data in order to do the things that we want. The astronomical and mathematical tables that the analytical engine, and its predecessor the difference engine, were designed to create were becoming more important for the commerce and industry that was taking off in the early to mid 1800s.

puch card systme
Hollirith punch card system- London Science Museum

The second object, while not as well known as the analytical engine, is, perhaps, a more important artefact on the road to the Data Age. It is the first working punch card system, devised by Dr Herman Hollerith as part of the US census of 1890. As a result of this system, the 1890 census marked the point whereby technology, not people were central to large-scale data collection and analysis project.

While the punch card eventually went the way of other technologies, such as the telegraph, its importance to the development of paradigm of data and analysis in all sectors of life cannot be underestimated. In fact, in 1917, with the development of the first punch cards to manage letters, as well as numbers, one strand of the data age was already starting to take shape.

Samuel Morse’ first telegraph- Science Museum

Another strand is at the heart of the new Information Age exhibit, the networks that allow data and communications to go around the world faster than a human could physically carry them. Starting with laying of the first telegraph cables in the 1800s and extending to the advent of the world wide web, there have been a number of technology networks that have joined up the globe and allowed nearly instantaneous communications. The networks ‘virtualised’ communications, taking them from unique, physical channels, such as paper or word of mouth and made them electronic or digital.

Telstar- first live TV satellite (1962) London Science Museum

These networks, the trend toward data as the basis of truth and the technologies to capture and manipulate large, complex data sets are the beginnings of the Data Age that the characters in Sea of Dreams operate. The data miners owe their existence to Babbage and Hollerith, to Morse and Claude Shannon, the father of information theory.

We are still in the infancy of this age. I would expect that if the world of Sea of Dreams were to come true, they would look upon as as we do upon the early industrialists in the US and UK. Even our most sophisticated data gathering and analysis would seem as crude as a Model T factory to them.


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