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4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating History of Information Technology, February 14, 2011
This review is from: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Hardcover)
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Where did the telegraph, telephone and computers come from anyway? Author James Gleick's new book, "The Information" sheds light inside the black box.

In a revealing work, backed by painstaking research, James Gleick, has combed the archives to show us some absorbing details and insights on how the structure of information progressed from clay tablets to telegraph to cloud technology.

This is a hefty book, but its theme can be shortly stated. Mr. Gleick believes "in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself."

Context can be everything in historical interpretation, as James Gleick makes clear in his convincing prolog that "the alphabet was a founding technology of information; the telephone, the fax machine, the calculator and, ultimately the computer are only the latest innovations devised for saving, manipulating, and communicating knowledge." Mr. Gleick's narrative builds into a fulfilling and thought-provoking story.

The author begins with the amazing tale of how African drums communicated, then shifts to Robert Cawdrey's "Table Alphabeticall in 1604. He shows us how time and space are minimized and global consciousness realized.

At more than 500 pages, with few illustrations, this book looks terrifying. But the pages dissolve quickly as Mr. Gleick introduces us to a range of vivid characters, such as colorful Charles Babbage, the inventor of the ever growing difference machine in 1822.

After twenty years of development it weighed 15 tons with over 25,000 precision parts. But by 1842 the British government had grown weary of Babbage's pork barrel project. "What shall we do to get rid of Mr. Babbage and his calculating machine?" asked Prime Minister Robert Peel. "Surely if completed it would be worthless as far as science is concerned... It will be in my opinion a very costly toy."

But another fascinating part of the story, of course, is of the strange men, and the strange world they inhabited at Bell Laboratories, doing research on code breaking and anti-aircraft gun control during World War II. There was ego and rivalry and brilliance aplenty in those days. We meet Alan Turing, and brillant oddballs like Norbert Weiner and Claude Shannon, who were brought in from other institutions, to imagine and to challenge each other.

This is a book full of great details, like Richard Dawkins's memes: ideas, tunes, catch phases and images that "propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain" through imitation. Claude Chappe's vast network of optical telegraph towers transferring messages by semaphore across revolutionary France in twelve minutes. And an amazing robot mouse developed by the inventor of information theory, Claude Shannon, that could learn to flawlessly navigate a maze back in 1950.

Some of the narrative may seem pretty heavy- going. For readers who are not versed in the subject, it may seem to be almost impenetrable. After a bit, one realizes this book is not written for the general reader.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a scholarly conversation and nothing wrong with a book that assumes its readers will already know something about computer science. As a book for specialists this has its pleasures, from Mr. Gleick's learned discussion of boolean algebra to the German ENIGMA code machine in World War II and the workings of a telephone switchboard invented by the George W. McCoy, the world's first telephone operator.

Mr. Gleick's affection for his subject is so complete -- and completely convincing -- his style is so modest and his research is so thorough that "The Information" manages to be engaging, instructive and thought-provoking, all at once.

Scientific work may not be very glamorous, but "The Information" shows that it can be vitally important, and also surprisingly amusing.

The author could easily have written a fine book focused more narrowly on the development of computers. Mr. Gleick is the kind of historian who excels at showing how everything is connected. He tells us, "hardly any information technology goes obsolete. each new one throws its predecessors into relief." In this investigation, few books could provide a surer guide.

Mr. Gleick is familiar with the vast number of written sources. This book is clearly not intended to be the last word on information technology. But for any readers wanting a learned, entertaining and lucid introduction to a notoriously complex subject, it should certainly be their first.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 6, 2011 12:30:05 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 6, 2011 12:32:17 PM PST
whitney says:
Do you now whether or not the machine Babbage made still exists?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 7, 2011 2:39:46 PM PST
Some parts of Babbage's prototype of the Difference Engine still survive in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This prototype evolved into the first Difference Engine. It remained unfinished and the completed fragment is located at the Museum of Science in London.
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