January 25, 1839
William Henry Fox Talbot displays his five-year old pictures at the Royal Society, 18 days after the Daguerreotype process was presented before the French Academy. In 1844, Talbot published the first book with photographic illustrations, The Pencil of Nature (the very same title of the 1839 article heralding the daguerreotype in The Corsair), saying “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.”
Talbot’s negative/positive process eventually became, with modifications, the basis for almost all 19th and 20th century photography. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion process which incorporated the best of the Daguerreotype process (clear images) and Talbot’s calotype process (unlimited reproduction).The Daguerreotype, initially immensely popular, was rarely used by photographers after 1860, and had died as a commercial process by 1865.
Given the abhorrent character of Mr. Fairlie in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), I guess he ignored the new processes and insisted on still using Daguerreotypes when his “last caprice has led him to keep two photographers incessantly employed in producing sun-pictures of all the treasures and curiosities in his possession. One complete copy of the collection of the photographs is to be presented to the Mechanics’ Institution of Carlisle, mounted on the finest cardboard, with ostentatious red-letter inscriptions underneath…. with this new interest to occupy him, Mr. Fairlie will be a happy man for months and months to come; and the two unfortunate photographers will share the social martyrdom which he has hitherto inflicted on his valet alone.”
Alexander Graham Bell, about to call San Francisco from New York, 1915 (Source: Wikipedia)
January 25, 1915
Alexander Graham Bell inaugurates the first transcontinental telephone service in the United States with a phone call from New York City to Dr. Thomas Watson in San Francisco.
Richard John in Network Nation: “The spanning of [the 2,900-mile] distance was made possible by the invention of the three-element high-vacuum tube, the invention that marks the birth of electronics.” And: “In the course of the public debate over government ownership, Bell publicists discovered that Bell’s long-distance network had great popular appeal… One of the most significant facts about this ‘famous achievement,’ observed one journalist, was the extent to which it had been ‘turned into account by the publicity departments of the telephone companies. We venture to guess that the advertising value of the ocean-to-ocean line is quite as great so far as the actual value derived from it.’”
January 26, 1926
John Logie Baird conducts the first public demonstration of a television system that could broadcast live moving images with tone graduation. Two days later, The Times of London wrote: “Members of the Royal Institution and other visitors to a laboratory in an upper room in Frith-Street, Soho… saw a demonstration of apparatus invented by Mr. J.L. Baird, who claims to have solved the problem of television. They were shown a transmitting machine, consisting of a large wooden revolving disc containing lenses, behind which was a revolving shutter and a light sensitive cell… The image as transmitted was faint and often blurred, but substantiated a claim that through the ‘Televisor’ as Mr. Baird has named his apparatus, it is possible to transmit and reproduce instantly the details of movement, and such things as the play of expression on the face.”
January 27, 1948
IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) is announced and demonstrated to the public. “The most important aspect of the SSEC,” according to Brian Randell in the Origins of Digital Computers, “was that it could perform arithmetic on, and then execute, stored instructions – it was almost certainly the first operational machine with these capabilities.”
And from the IBM archives: “During its five-year reign as one of the world’s best-known ‘electronic brains,’ the SSEC solved a wide variety of scientific and engineering problems, some involving many millions of sequential calculations. Such other projects as computing the positions of the moon for several hundred years and plotting the courses of the five outer planets—with resulting corrections in astronomical tables which had been considered standard for many years [and later assisted in preparing for the moon landing]—won such popular acclaim for the SSEC that it stimulated the imaginations of pseudo-scientific fiction writers and served as an authentic setting for such motion pictures as ‘Walk East on Beacon,’ a spy-thriller with an FBI background.”
The reason for the “popular acclaim” of the SSEC, Kevin Maney explains inThe Maverick and his Machine, was IBM’s Thomas Watson Sr., who “didn’t know much about how to build a electronic computer,” but, in 1947, “was the only person on earth who knew how to sell” one.
Maney: “The engineers finished testing the SSEC in late 1947 when Watson made a decision that forever altered the public perception of computers and linked IBM to the new generation of information machines. He told the engineers to disassemble the SSEC and set it up in the ground floor lobby of IBM’s 590 Madison Avenue headquarters. The lobby was open to the public and its large windows allowed a view of the SSEC for the multitudes cramming the sidewalks on Madison and 57th street. … The spectacle of the SSEC defined the public’s image of a computer for decades. Kept dust-free behind glass panels, reels of electronic tape ticked like clocks, punches stamped out cards and whizzed them into hoppers, and thousands of tiny lights flashed on and off in no discernable pattern… Pedestrians stopped to gawk and gave the SSEC the nickname ‘Poppy.’ … Watson took the computer out of the lab and sold it to the public.”
Watson certainly understood that successful selling to the public was an important factor in the success of selling to businesses (today it’s called “thought leadership”). The machine also influenced Hollywood, most famously as the model for the computer featured in the 1957 movie Desk Set.
The SSEC had 12,500 vacuum tubes and its various components would fill half a football field. But Moore’s Law was already evident to observers of the very young industry and Popular Mechanics offered this prediction to its readers in March 1949: “Computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.”
January 28, 1878
The first commercial switchboard, developed by George Willard Coy, begins operating in New Haven, Connecticut. It served 21 telephones on 8 lines consequently with many people on a party line. On February 17, Western Union opened the first large city exchange in San Francisco. The public switched telephone network was born. On June 15, 2018, the last call will be made using this network, replaced by an all-digital, packet switching (Internet-speaking) network.
January 31, 1940
Ida M. Fuller becomes the first person to receive an old-age monthly benefit check under the new Social Security law. Her first check was for $22.54. The Social Security Act was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. Kevin Maney in The Maverick and His Machine: “No single flourish of a pen had ever created such a gigantic information processing problem.”
But IBM was ready. Its President, Thomas Watson, Sr., defied the odds and during the early years of the Depression continued to invest in research and development, building inventory, and hiring people. As a result, according to Maney, “IBM won the contract to do all of the New Deal’s accounting – the biggest project to date to automate the government. … Watson borrowed a common recipe for stunning success: one part madness, one part luck, and one part hard work to be ready when luck kicked in.”
The nature of processing information before computers is evident in the description of the building in which the Social Security administration was housed at the time: “The most prominent aspect of Social Security’s operations in the Candler Building was the massive amount of paper records processed and stored there. These records were kept in row upon row of filing cabinets – often stacked double-decker style to minimize space requirements. One of the most interesting of these filing systems was the Visible Index, which was literally an index to all of the detailed records kept in the facility. The Visible Index was composed of millions of thin bamboo strips wrapped in paper upon which specialized equipment would type every individual’s name and Social Security number. These strips were inserted onto metal pages which were assembled into large sheets. By 1959, when Social Security began converting the information to microfilm, there were 163 million individual strips in the Visible Index.”
On January 1, 2011, the first members of the baby boom generation reached retirement age. The number of retired workers is projected to grow rapidly and will double in less than 30 years. People are also living longer, and the birth rate is low. As a result, the ratio of workers paying Social Security taxes to people collecting benefits will fall from 3.0 to 1 in 2009 to 2.1 to 1 in 2031.
In 1955, the 81-year-old Ida Fuller (who died on January 31, 1975, aged 100, after collecting $22,888.92 from Social Security monthly benefits, compared to her contributions of $24.75) said: “I think that Social Security is a wonderful thing for the people. With my income from some bank stock and the rental from the apartment, Social Security gives me all I need.”