Since 2005 I have been building a timeline on my website, and more recently an interactive database, on the history of information and media. Writing about this innovative historical project has been a challenge. Here is the latest version of my introductory essay:
About From Cave Paintings to the Internet
A Chronological and Thematic Database on the History of Information and Media
Welcome to my chronological and thematic database on the history of information and media. Using references to discoveries, social developments, books, documents, artifacts and art works, this interactive database arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and recent developments in the methods used to record, distribute, exchange, organize, store, and search information.
Approaching the History of Information and Media from Many Different Perspectives
Since publication of a relatively brief static timeline in my 2005 book, From Gutenberg to the Internet, this has been a work in progress on my website, and as it has grown so has its scope. Reflecting the greatly increased scope of the project, in October 2008 I decided to rename it From Cave Paintings to the Internet. Also in October 2008, with the help of web designer Jessica Gore, I was able to convert the static timeline into an interactive database with several new features. On April 10, 2009 From Cave Paintings to the Internet had 2322 entries, nearly all of which had hyperlinks to online references, images, and occasionally to video and sound. There were also seventy-three themes by which it could be searched, allowing users to approach the information from many different perspectives. Though the project began as a printed book, and much of its information derives from books, it has evolved into this dynamic, fluid and expansive form far different from books, made possible by the Internet. This form combines features of traditional reference books, such as brief narratives and descriptive annotations, with the advantages of hypertext, searchability through pre-assigned themes or random keywords, and aspects of blogging, especially for the recent material. Most advantageous from my point of view is that, in contrast to the static book form, which can only be revised infrequently, I can continually expand and revise this database. As a confirmed collector of many things, including the historical data you will find here, I am fascinated with the potential of this newer, non-traditional form, which I hope will allow you to approach the history of information from your point of view. I am continuing to revise, correct and expand the database on a regular basis.
By following certain themes in the database you can trace the development of specific media; following others may help you trace interrelationships between media, or help you approach the history of information from other viewpoints.
You will find links to themes at the end of each entry. If you click on a theme after an entry you will see a timeline based on that theme alone. You can, of course, access the database by era, and you can switch back and forth between eras and themes. By following certain themes in the database you can trace the development of specific media; following others may help you trace interrelationships between media, or help you approach the history of information from other viewpoints.
To search the database by keyword, name, or phrase use the Google custom search box in the upper right corner of each screen. As the database grows, the keyword search may be the most efficient way to locate specific information. However, there tends to be a lag of several weeks between the time I add information and Google's spiders find the additions. Therefore, if you think there should be information included that the keyword search does not pull up, you might want to check under date, or just email me. You will, of course, obtain different results depending on how you construct the search. For example, if your search includes more than one word you will receive more specific results if you include the search words within quotation marks. I have also noticed occasionally that the search results through the custom search box on the database may in certain instances be inexplicably less complete than a search of the database through Google itself.
In order to follow the development of concepts or technologies I sometimes define themes loosely, and in order to make some themes more accessible to historical treatment I also combine related themes. For example, I combined Internet and Networking in order to trace this theme back to the first road networks in the ancient world, to railroads, to the telegraph lines that followed railroad lines, to telephone networks, up the network of networks that is the Internet. I also combined Social Media and Wikis to show a longer history for both topics. My database program allows me to add or edit themes and index individual entries at will. Occasionally an entry may be accidentally indexed to in inappropriate theme. If you notice such a mistake please report it, and if you think of an additional theme to which you think I should index this database please send me your suggestion.
Though this is, of course, my individual project, I could not accomplish it without hundreds of reference volumes on the history of information in my personal library and the work of countless contributors to websites. To the tens of thousands of contributors to the Wikipedia I am especially grateful. Throughout the database users will find many quotations from, and innumerable hyperlinks to, the Wikipedia and a myriad of other websites. Please note that quotations, when not sourced within the database text, come from a website referenced by a hyperlink. As with quotations from printed books, when I quote from a website I do not include footnotes within the web page, such as the considerable number of footnotes that may be found in certain Wikipedia articles. These footnotes can, of course, be accessed by clicking on the hyperlink. Conversely, when I quote from physical books I sometimes add hyperlinks when I feel that they may be useful. For the purposes of this database I am using an abbreviated form of bibliographic citation, but there should be sufficient details to enable users to identify the sources.
It is, of course, fashionable to point out the inconsistent quality and possible inaccuracy of articles in the Wikipedia. However, one of the advantages of the wiki method of publishing is that over time articles tend to be improved, and many have become remarkably comprehensive. From the standpoint of selecting sources for hyperlinks the Wikipedia also has the advantage of presumed longevity. As we all know, websites frequently come and go, and it is time-consuming to have to replace dead hyperlinks in a project as complex as this. Within the millions of articles in the Wikipedia, however, articles sometimes are divided or moved, making old links inaccurate. I would appreciate your reporting broken or inaccurate links to any source when you find them in the database.
As his schedule permits, my son Max is adding images to entries. When you see "view larger" after a caption, clicking on the image will bring up a larger version, and if you then click on the larger version, so may see a version of the image that is larger still. Sometimes clicking on an uncaptioned image will have the same result. From time to time I comment on an image at the end of an annotation.
It is my pleasure to create and share this growing interactive record of my ongoing voyage through the history of information and media. I would appreciate your comments.
Thoughts about From Gutenberg to the Internet since it was published in 2005 with some additional comments about the database
So massive is the change taking place today that I believe we need to revisit the last information revolution which took place more than 500 years ago to find a situation that may be comparable to our own.
If you review the table of contents of From Gutenberg to the Internet you will see that ninety percent of the 900-page book comprises an extensive collection of readings, with brief commentaries, selected from classics in computing, networking, and telecommunications. These readings provide both theoretical and technological background for developments that led to electronic computing and eventually to the Internet. Prior anthologies on the history of computing concentrated on the development of computing alone. From Gutenberg to the Internet was the first anthology to reflect the origins of the various technologies that converged in the Internet. I tried to include readings that would appeal to those with technical background in computing and readers whose backgrounds and interests are of a more general nature.
Separate from the anthology which comprises most of the book, the introduction contains, among other things, a relatively brief, but reasoned and documented attempt to compare and contrast the introduction of printing by moveable type in the fifteenth century with the development of computing and the Internet in the twentieth century. I was motivated to make this comparison by the general awareness that the way computing and the Internet are transforming the creation and distribution of information in our time is analogous in certain respects to the impact of Gutenberg’s invention of printing by moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century. So massive is the change taking place today that I believe we need to revisit the last information revolution which took place more than five hundred years ago to find a situation that may be comparable to our own.
Why did I focus on making this comparison which is not directly related to the 800 pages of readings which comprise most of the book? Like many people of my generation outside the profession of computing, my educational background was in books and libraries rather than in computing. As a rare book dealer, publisher, bibliographer and author, I came from the world of books and libraries. I had a special interest in the history of books and printing. With the introduction of personal computing about 1980 I became gradually more and more immersed in computing issues, in cyberculture, and in the applications of personal computing to book design and production. Faced with the dramatic changes brought by computing and the Internet, which transformed aspects of bookselling and publishing, I wanted to explore the history of present developments in the way that I found most compatible with my background, and in the way they impacted my own life. Of course, once I began to explore the problems of comparing two complex series of technological and socio-economic developments separated by more than five hundred years, the limitations of the exercise became apparent. It would probably require an encyclopedic work to make this comparison in detail, especially since the transformation of media that took place in the fifteenth century was mainly from manuscript to print while the Internet represented a merging of numerous different broadcast and communications media and print, making the comparison unusually nuanced and complex. But even though I recognized that aspects of the introduction could not be definitive, and would probably be rapidly outdated, I felt that writing this pioneering essay was worth the effort, especially since people with interests similar to mine might find it thought-provoking. Whatever the limitations of my introductory effort, I believed that the anthology had permanent value.
Even though we all read books and use computers connected to the Internet, most people are not necessarily interested in both book history and computer/Internet history. To some extent this may be a reflection of the difficulties in relating the different histories to one another; it may also be a reflection of the fundamental and very long separation between the two cultures, which first began to merge in a widely-recognized way with desk-top publishing, starting in 1984-85, and more noticeably about ten years later through the Internet. I also believe that there is a widely held misperception that while books have a long and fascinating history, computing and the Internet are too recent for their history to be of comparable interest.
Another purpose for which I intended From Gutenberg to the Internet -- though I could not articulate it at the time -- was to begin to address the problems of comparing and contrasting the histories of the separate, but increasingly interrelated cultures that fall under the general headings of book history and computing/Internet history. Although there is a considerable body of scholarship for each of these separate cultures, and both are represented by various themes in the database, there is little scholarship on comparing and contrasting the two. For some readers with an interest in history just considering these two separate cultures in the same sentence might be considered a radical departure. Even though we all read books and use computers connected to the Internet, most people are not necessarily interested in both book history and computer/Internet history. To some extent this may be a reflection of the considerable difficulties in relating the different and nuanced histories to one another; it may also be a reflection of the fundamental and very long separation between the two cultures, which first began to merge in a widely-recognized way with desk-top publishing, starting in 1984-85, and more noticeably about ten years later through the Internet. I also believe that there is a widely held misperception that while books have a long and fascinating history, computing and the Internet are too recent for their history to be of comparable interest.
Prior to the development of desk-top publishing, elements of information in book form and digital form intersected at certain times and places, but the significance of those intersections was probably not recognized at the time by most participants in the separate cultures. Nor was analyzing these intersections, or tracing their development, then generally considered a topic worthy of historical research. Among the earliest points at which the book culture and digital information intersected were in production of mathematical tables from the earliest written records in Cuneiform script, to tables in medieval manuscripts, to printed tables, to the 1960s when these tables were made obsolete by inexpensive electronic hand-held calculators. In book and newspaper production they occurred in early efforts to automate the typesetting process, beginning with punched tape systems to drive the Monotype and Linotype casting machines, and evolved into special-purpose computers for photo-typesetting, the precursor of today’s scalable digital fonts used on monitors and cell phones. Some of the other significant intersections were through projects in searching and organizing information, but these various projects, such as Vannevar Bush's Memex, Roberto Busa's Index Thomisticus, or Eugene Garfield's citation analysis, noted in this database, had little to do with aspects of rare books or manuscripts that were of primary concern to me. However, like many details in the history of these technologies, some information retrieval projects were influential upon the thinking of pioneers in other aspects of computing, such as J.C.R. Licklider. Licklider was the visionary behind development of the ARPANET, which eventually evolved into the Internet. As a psychologist, Licklider was especially interested in the relationship of people to computers. He was also interested in the relationship of physical information in libraries and digital information, and in making the growing body of information stored in libraries more accessible. In 1965 he published a book, now for the most part forgotten, entitled Libraries of the Future. Roughly thirty years later a computer science project in library research at Stanford became the Google search engine, and Google's PageRank link algorithm was adapted and expanded for the Internet from the ranking of printed scientific papers through citation analysis. These are only a very small selection of hundreds of examples of the intersection of book culture and digital information tracked in this database. These intersections, which will help you relate aspects of book history to computing/Internet history, may be traced by following various themes from the main menu.
One consequence of the merging of different information modalities such as imaging, print, video, and audio on the Internet may be to underline the common elements of different media as they evolved in the history of information. While I personally find this topic of abiding interest, and prefer to follow the developments and intersections of a variety of media, no matter how complex, the more I research these problems the more I recognize that different people approach the history of information in different ways. Reflecting this diversity of approaches, this database was designed to be accessed from many viewpoints. Thus, if you prefer to explore the development of specific media rather than to study their interrelationships you may do so by following the threads devoted to specific media.
It may be one of the digital revolution’s more counter-intuitive consequences that in order to put the impact of the Internet on the information of our time in perspective it may be helpful to revisit the development of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. Still another irony may be that to measure the impact of the innovation of printing upon the scribal culture of the fifteenth century we must review medieval manuscript book production and the history of the book prior to the introduction of printing. Thus, in a certain respect, elements of book history, and especially the scribal culture of book production by manuscript copying, including the pecia system, and the early history of printing, may be more relevant today, as a way of putting the rapid changes of our time in perspective, than they were before the impact of the Internet. As I reflect back on why I decided to write the introduction to From Gutenberg to the Internet in the manner that I did in 2005, I believe one reason was the recognition that the impact of the Internet had rekindled my interest in early printing--an interest which had laid dormant for many years. In the process of researching the early history of printing I was awakened to the medieval manuscript tradition, a topic about which I had previously studied little. As I began to understand the subtle interrelationships between the invention of printing and the production of medieval manuscripts, and how the system of manuscript copying had worked within its limitations as an information storage and distribution system for over a thousand years, I recognized that one consequence of the merging of different information modalities such as imaging, print, video and audio on the Internet may be to underline the common elements of different media as they evolved in the history of information. While I personally find this topic of abiding interest, and prefer to follow the developments and intersections of a variety of media, no matter how complex, the more I research these problems the more I recognize that different people approach the history of information in different ways. Reflecting this diversity of approaches, this database was designed to be accessed from many viewpoints. Thus, if you prefer to explore the development of specific media rather than to study their interrelationships you may do so by following the threads devoted to specific media.
No matter how radical change may seem today my studies seem to show that new media do not fully supercede the old.
No matter how radical change may seem today my studies seem to show that new media do not fully supercede the old. Manuscript copying persisted, to a limited degree, for at least 250 years after the invention of printing, and it is informative to review the manner in which it gradually diminished but remained in existence for limited purposes for such an extended period of time. Similarly electronic publication on the Internet is not superceding printing or making printed books obsolete; it is instead providing electronic substitutes or alternatives for segments of information which used to be distributed entirely through printing. Some of these electronic substitutes or alternatives include eBooks, Google Books, and the old standbys-- audio books. The Internet is also providing new distribution outlets for earlier media such as radio, television, and film, which continue to maintain their traditional distribution networks. In addition, the communication and interactive features of the web are allowing development of new modalities, most notably social media, and user-generated content including wikis, virtual reality, newsgroups, blogs, podcasts, Flickr, Twitter, and "open source" scientific journals and other periodical publications, which exist only on the Internet. Interactive online features, blended with traditional or industrial media such as newspapers and television, have transformed news creation and distribution, and are transforming elements of publishing in general. Referencing earlier technology, Twitter, with its requirement of very brief messages, has been called "the telegraph system of Web.2.0." From Cave Paintings to the Internet, which also exists only on the Internet, is, of course, my attempt to harness advantages of the Internet to present aspects of the history of information and media from a multiplicity of themes or viewpoints.
Resources for Book History
For the formal study of book history in an increasingly digital world we are fortunate to have a selection of educational programs including the University of Virginia Rare Book School, and the newer Rare Books and Special Collections program at the Palmer School at Long Island University, and the Rare Book School at UCLA. At the University of Saskatchewan there is an innovative program and website on The History and Future of the Book. Additional programs are offered in England, France, Australia, and New Zealand. These rare book programs, which incorporate digital technology as teaching and communications tools, co-exist with standard library training programs which increasingly focus on information science and technology. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing has over 1000 members in over 20 countries, including professors of literature, historians, librarians, publishing professionals, sociologists, bibliophiles, classicists, booksellers, art historians, reading instructors, and independent scholars. Its website provides an invaluable collection of links related to book history. Supporting scholarship on the history of books, printing, and libraries, Book History Online, the worldwide database for scholarship on the history of the book, was established in 1997 at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Copenhagen. This database uses digital technology as a means of organizing and communicating information on many aspects of the history of physical information. A more specialized online resource is the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. This contains the descriptions of 60,000 medieval manuscripts. Other notable digital resources concerning medieval manuscripts and libraries include the Pecia website and blog. For fifteenth century printing there is the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue maintained by the British Library. Currently it lists just under 30,000 items. This and the English Short Title Catalogue, also maintained by the British Library, which lists over 460,000 items published in the British Isles and America between 1473 and 1800, represent bibliographical reference works far more comprehensive and more easily searched than they could be in printed form.
For the history and traditions of book collecting, and the ongoing process of forming and maintaining, and preserving libraries of rare books and manuscripts, there are numerous clubs and societies, of which The Grolier Club of New York is the most distinguished in the United States. A manuscript collector and dealer’s group is The Manuscript Society. Because of long and illustrious historical tradition of physical information there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands of institutional libraries around the world that hold rare books and manuscripts. There are also numerous museums and institutional libraries that hold recorded information prior to the codex, such as stone inscriptions, cuneiform tablets, and papyrus scrolls.
In spite of the relative fragility of papyrus, the Egyptian desert provided a comparatively hospitable environment for their preservation. As a result of extensive archaeological research mainly since the 1890s, there are about 45,000 papyri in six institutional libraries and museums in the United States, and numerous papyri preserved in other countries. It has been estimated that there are about 500,000 unpublished papyri. Many await further research. The Tebtunis Papyri, a collection of more than 30,000 papyrus fragments preserved at The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, represent the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. Twenty-one institutions cooperate in development of the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS), "a collections-based repository hosting information about and images of papyrological materials (e.g.papryi, ostraca, wood tablets, etc.) located in collections around the world."
Resources for the History of Computing and Digital Information
Organizations and institutions concerning the history of computing and the Internet are far more limited in number. Some of the most significant are the Charles Babbage Institute in Minneapolis, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, the Science Museum in London, and the IEEE Computer Society. Since 1976 the IEEE has published IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. For the history of media--film, radio, and television-- there is the International Association for Media and History. For the history of information management and information science there are various useful websites such as that of Professor Michael Buckland.
Continuity with the Past in an Age of Discontinuity
Though the explosive development of new media is occurring so rapidly that it may appear discontinuous with the past, this database demonstrates otherwise. The use of tally marks for counting predates writing. Computation is as ancient as written records. Over the centuries content evolved along with media for recording, distributing, organizing, searching, and storing information. The world’s first general-purpose electronic computer, the ENIAC, became operational in 1945, and it took forty to fifty years before the impact of electronic computing began to be felt throughout society on a daily basis with the invention and development of personal computers and their eventual connection to the Internet. While computing speeds the production and communication of information in all forms including printing, search engines on the Internet play a role analogous to that played by bibliographical lists and catalogues of physical libraries and archives as they evolved over the centuries.
The Historical Record as a Reflection of Information Survival and Loss
The historical record is based on information that survived. As a result of wars, looting, destruction of institutions, natural disasters or neglect, among other factors, more information was lost than was preserved. Themes traceable in this database include the loss and destruction of information, as well as significant survivals and efforts at preservation and conservation. For example, the technical records of digital information technology fill physical and digital libraries; however, we have relatively few records of the technical side of information technology until the sixteenth century, especially since considerable information was inevitably lost. We know relatively little about how Gutenberg invented printing by moveable type in the first half of the 15th century. What we do know is chiefly inferred from legal documents, and from research on examples of Gutenberg’s printing that survived. The first printers’ manuals were not published until the seventeenth century. For information about the early history of printing especially we must refer to the books themselves, to printer’s archives, to other archival records that concern printing, as well as to the histories of printing that used these resources. For the period before printing we probably have less information on the production of manuscript books and manuscript copying, though scholars have pieced much together surviving archival records, from individual manuscripts and their comparison, from the few surviving model books, and from the study of unfinished and finished illuminated manuscripts. Besides tracing the early records of manuscript copying and printing, the database attempts to track efforts at preservation and conservation, both of physical objects and of digital files.
Beyond the general topics of book history and computer/Internet history the database tracks the development of other media, including electronic media of all kinds, social media, and aspects of archaeology, art, architecture, and music history. Other threads in the database reflect diverse interests of mine such as the history of ecology, prehistory, science and technology, and economics.
An Individual Approach
It should be obvious that this interactive database can reflect only an outline of selected examples on the topics to which it refers, and that this outline will always be more or less incomplete. Precise dates are not always known, or developments did not take place on specific dates. Frequently more people than those named were involved. In addition some developments overlap rather than necessarily follow in linear fashion, or they may be the result of different processes working in parallel or in opposition. Balancing the chronological format are the numerous themes or threads by which the database may be displayed and the many links to websites that provide further details. Nevertheless the format has inherent limitations, and there will always be significant information missing. This work in progress must always be considered an incomplete outline, and the approach of this individual author/editor to the topics concerned. Considering the range of topics covered, and the impossibility of truly comprehensive coverage, this individual approach may remain its strength.