A number of this week’s milestones in the history of technology highlight the role of mechanical devices in automating work, augmenting human activities, and allowing many people to participate in previously highly-specialized endeavors—a process technology vendors like to call “democratization” (as in “democratization of artificial intelligence”).
On January 3, 1983, Time magazine put the PC on its cover as “machine of the year.” Time publisher John A. Meyers wrote: “Several human candidates might have represented 1982, but none symbolized the past year more richly, or will be viewed by history as more significant, than a machine: the computer.” In the cover article, Roger Rosenblatt wrote:
Inventions arise when they’re needed. This here screen and keyboard might have come along any old decade, but it happened to pop up when it did, right now, at this point in time, like the politicians call it, because we were getting hungry to be ourselves again. That’s what I think, buddy. “The most idealist nations invent most machines.” D.H. Lawrence said that. Great American, D.H.
O pioneer. Folks over in Europe have spent an awful lot of time, more than 200 years if you’re counting, getting up on their high Lipizzaners and calling us a nation of gears and wheels. But we know better. What do you say? Are you ready to join your fellow countrymen (4 million Americans can’t be wrong) and take home some bytes of free time, time to sit back after all the word processing and inventorying and dream the dear old dream? Stand with me here. The sun rises in the West. Play it, Mr. Dvorak. There’s a New World coming again, looming on the desktop. Oh, say, can you see it? Major credit cards accepted.
The Time magazine cover appeared just a few years after the appearance if the first PCs and the software written for the, devices that automated previous work and helped put it in the hands of non-specialists. For example, turning some accounting work—specifically, management accounting, the ongoing internal measurement of a company’s performance—into work that could be performed by employees without an accounting degree. This “democratization” of accounting not only automated previous work but greatly augmented management work, giving business executives new data about their companies and new ways to measure and predict future performance.
On January 2, 1979, Software Arts was incorporated by co-founders Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for the purpose of developing VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet program, which will be published by a separate company, Personal Software Inc. (later named VisiCorp). VisiCalc will come to be widely regarded as the first “killer app” that turned the PC into a serious business tool. Dan Bricklin:
The idea for the electronic spreadsheet came to me while I was a student at the Harvard Business School, working on my MBA degree, in the spring of 1978. Sitting in Aldrich Hall, room 108, I would daydream. “Imagine if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse…” (I had seen a mouse previously, I think in a demonstration at a conference by Doug Engelbart, and maybe the Alto). And “…imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer ‘10% will be fine!'” (10% was always the answer in those days when we couldn’t do very complicated calculations…)
The summer of 1978, between first and second year of the MBA program, while riding a bike along a path on Martha’s Vineyard, I decided that I wanted to pursue this idea and create a real product to sell after I graduated.
Long before the invention of the PC and its work-enhancing programs, an ingenious mechanical device was applied to the work of painters and illustrators, people with unique and rare skills for capturing and preserving reality.
On January 7, 1839, the Daguerreotype photography process was presented to the French Academy of Sciences by Francois Arago, a physicist and politician. Arago told the Academy that it was “…indispensable that the government should compensate M. Daguerre, and that France should then nobly give to the whole world this discovery which could contribute so much to the progress of art and science.”
On March 5, 1839, another inventor, looking (in the United States, England, and France) for government sponsorship of his invention of the telegraph, met with Daguerre. A highly impressed Samuel F. B. Morse wrote to his brother: “It is one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age… No painting or engraving ever approached it.”
In late September 1839, as Jeff Rosenheim tells us in Art and the Empire City, shortly after the French government (on August 19) publicly released the details of the Daguerreotype process, “…a boat arrived [in New York] with a published text with step-by-step instructions for creating the plates and making the exposures. Morse and others in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia immediately set about to build their cameras, find usable lenses, and experiment with the new invention.”
New Yorkers were ready for the Daguerreotype, already alerted to the “new discovery” by articles in the local press, such as the one in The Corsair on April 13, 1839, titled “The Pencil of Nature”: “Wonderful wonder of wonders!! … Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis, and die! There is an end to your black art… All nature shall paint herself — fields, rivers, trees, houses, plains, mountains, cities, shall all paint themselves at a bidding, and at a few moment’s notice.”
Another memorable phrase capturing the wonders of photography came from the pen (or pencil) of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1859):
The Daguerreotype… has fixed the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality. The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture… [it is the] invention of the mirror with a memory…
The time will come when a man who wishes to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National, or City Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form, as he would for a book at any common library… we must have special stereographic collections, just as we have professional and other special libraries. And as a means of facilitating the formation of public and private stereographic collections, there must be arranged a comprehensive system of exchanges, so that there may grow up something like a universal currency of these bank-notes, or promises to pay in solid substance, which the sun has engraved for the great Bank of Nature.
Let our readers fill out a blank check on the future as they like,—we give our indorsement to their imaginations beforehand. We are looking into stereoscopes as pretty toys, and wondering over the photograph as a charming novelty; but before another generation has passed away, it will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He who
never but in uncreated light
Dwelt from eternity—
took a pencil of fire from the hand of the “angel standing in the sun,” and placed it in the hands of a mortal.
In Civilization (March/April 1996), William Howarth painted for us the larger picture of the new industry in America: “Daguerreotypes introduced to Americans a new realism, a style built on close observation and exact detail, so factual it no longer seemed an illusion. … Hawthorne’s one attempt at literary realism, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), features a daguerreotypist who uses his new art to dispel old shadows: ‘I make pictures out of sunshine,’ he claims, and they reveal ‘the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon.’… By 1853 the American photo industry employed 17,000 workers, who took over 3 million pictures a year.”
A hundred and fifty years after what Holmes called the moment of the “triumph of human ingenuity,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition on the early days of Daguerreotypes in France. Said Philippe de Montebello, the director of the museum at the time: “The invention of the daguerreotype—the earliest photographic process—forever altered the way we see and understand our world. No invention since Gutenberg’s movable type had so changed the transmission of knowledge and culture, and none would have so great an impact again until the informational revolution of the late twentieth century.”
In the same year of the Metropolitan’s exhibition, 2003, more digital cameras than traditional film cameras were sold for the first time in the U.S. The “informational revolution” has replaced analog with digital, but it did not alter the idea of photography as invented by Nicéphore Niépce in 1822, and captured so well by the inimitable Ambrose Bierce in his definition of “photograph” (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911): “A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.”
And what’s today’s Machine of the Year? 2017 was the year the robots really, truly arrived, says Matt Simon in Wired:
They escaped the factory floor and started conquering big cities to deliver Mediterranean food. Self-driving cars swarmed the streets. And even bipedal robots—finally capable of not immediately falling on their faces—strolled out of the lab and into the real world. The machines are here, and it’s an exhilarating time indeed. Like, now Atlas the humanoid robot can do backflips. Backflips.