Category: History

Today I read …

Image from the first page of "The Art of Computation" by David White Goorich, 1873

Opening illustration from “The Art of Computation”, David White Goodrich, 1873

The Art of Computation: This was an 1873 book by David White Goodrich, a “lightning calculator”, capable (by his own boast) of doing fantastic feats of mental arithmetic. In this book he details dozens of mental algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing figures in your head. He bemoaned the fact that students were taught tons of mathematic theory, but weren’t taught practical, everyday techniques for doing everyday sums: “Pupils who can discourse learnedly upon permutations and combinations, make labored and lamentable blunders in adding a ledger column. They know arithmetic as a science; they have not mastered it as an art.” Since this was a period long before the common use of calculating machines, the ability to quickly rattle off mental math was crucial for everyone from bankers to carpenters to grocery-store owners. It’s a fascinating record of the world decades before mechanization began to take over routine calculation. The whole book is a free PDF here via Google Books.

“To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf”: An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by a programmer who did a liberal-arts BA and only later became a coder. He argues that of the programmers he’s worked with, some of the most useful problem-solvers had liberal-arts degrees. For example, at one point his team was working on a project and had a problem with pointers. “In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named ‘thing’ being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.” For my new book on “how programmers think”, I’ve been interviewing a lot of coders. One thing that’s struck me is how frequently the very-talented ones — the ones who launched difficult, new products that were pounded on by tons of users — came from a dual background: They studied computer-science and some liberal art. A lot of them double majored in CS and something like philosophy, art, literature, or drama.


That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”


Up to the middle of the 19th century, cities were lit at night by gas lighting, candles, or flame — a soft, gentle radiance! But that changed around 1855 when electricians unleashed the first “arc lamps”, which were Promethean in their intensity.

What was it like when they turned on the first arc lights? Here’s a description from All The Time In The World:

“One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen,” a journalist wrote, reporting on scientific experiments with outdoor arc lighting in Lyon in 1855. “The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas — not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun.”

But not everyone was happy with this newfangled high-tech:

As demand for the technology grew, many resisted electricity’s brilliant new glow. It was just too bright. It lent a “corpse-like quality” to those subjected to its glare, one Londoner argued, and it could make a crowd look “almost dangerous and garish.”   Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris.  “A new sort of urban star now shines at nightly,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

Those damned millenials and their electricity. In a way, though, I can’t blame Stevenson. Version 1.0 of most technologies is often dreadful, and electric lighting was no different. Check out that picture above of New Orleans: Man, it looks like they’re walking around underneath an explosion. It reminds me of our current problems with low-energy lighting. I keep on buying super-efficient LED bulbs, but they always wind up making my house look like a surgical theater; I try to curl up with a book but it’s all horror-movie blue-spectrum pallor. They’ll eventually figure this out, but living through 1.0 of any new tech is always a pain.