‘[I]nfinity In The Palm Of Your Hand’: Hand-Held Technology, From Clay Tablets To Computer Tablets

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour […].

– William Blake.

In 1977, two computer scientists named Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg outlined their vision of how technology could be developed to create a hand-held device capable of holding a vast amount of information:

Imagine having your own self-contained knowledge manipulator. Suppose it had enough power to outrace your senses of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of page-equivalents of reference materials, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawings, animations, musical scores, waveforms, dynamic simulations, and anything else you would like to remember and change.

The Dynabook, as they called their prototype device, would have represented a revolution in computing at the time. While it clearly resembles modern tablets, Kay has claimed that it would have exceeded today’s versions in terms of its interactivity, calling today’s iPads and tablets mere media-consumption devices. But it never got beyond the design phase, remaining one of the great pipe dreams in the history of computer technology.

Most of us would admit ourselves to be lost without our smartphones and tablets today. They connect us, enlighten us and entertain us – when they are not distracting us. When we look to their technological ancestors, however, we tend to think of the PDAs (personal digital assistants) of the 1990s, such as the Palm Pilot, or hand-held games consoles, such as the Gameboy, which now look almost as quaint as horse-drawn carriages. But the desire to hold a wealth of data in the palm of one’s hand dates much further back than the last few decades. All the way back to the origins of civilisation, in fact.

The first hand-held technology developed by humans was fairly crude, and likely to have been the roughly-hewn flints used throughout the Stone Age for cutting and chopping. Yet even these have a rude sophistication in the way in which they were carved to fit the human palm, as well as for use as axe-heads and knives. Sophistication came swiftly, however, and the earliest mathematical devices that have been found come from Africa, the so-called Lebombo and Ishango bones. Dating respectively from around 35,000 and 20,000 B.C.E. respectively, these bear marks that have been identified as representing basic calendars or arithmetic tools.

Despite the many intellectual and technological advances made during the prehistoric era, the invention of writing in Mesopotamia around 3200 B.C.E. represented arguably the most pioneering development that had occurred up to that point. For the first time, information could be collected, collated and communicated, not to mention stored for future use. The earliest examples of human writing that survive are in the form of Sumerian cuneiform, wedge-shaped script incised onto clay tablets, whose portable size made them perfect for handling. But writing developed again twice more, each time wholly independent of the other, first in China (1400-100 B.C.E.) and again in Mesoamerica (500 B.C.E.).

Although language and writing grew increasingly sophisticated, a few millennia later the Greeks and Romans were still using similar manual technologies to the Sumerians. For instance, the use of stylus and wax tablets for note-taking and record-keeping were commonplace, since they provided erasable, renewable writing surfaces. And, although papyrus scrolls provided the primary means for documents to be written and stored for most of antiquity, the codex – our modern form of the book – eventually succeeded it, having been developed from the format of the wax tablet. But beyond reading and writing, classical civilisation also took an interest in more complex hand-held technologies.

Time-keeping in the ancient world was relatively imprecise in comparison with today, with water-clocks and sundials providing the primary means of measuring the passing hours. A dozen portable bronze sundials survive from Roman antiquity, although these were likely to have been challenging to operate. Elsewhere, Cicero describes in De re publica seeing two hand-held orreries, or planetaria, originally built by the Greek scientist Archimedes:

[This] invention of Archimedes deserved special admiration because he had thought out a way to represent by a single device for turning the globe those various and divergent movements with their different rates of speed. […] [T]he Moon was always as many revolutions behind the Sun on the bronze contrivance as would agree with the number of days it was behind in the sky.

But one of the most fascinating survivals from the ancient world is the Antikythera Mechanism, an artefact discovered in the Aegean Sea in 1901. Dating from the first or second century B.C.E., it consisted of an elaborate set of thirty-odd clockwork gears that operated a sophisticated calendar capable of predicting  astronomical events. In effect, it was nothing less than the first analogue computer.

In the post-classical world, innovation in manual technology largely migrated east, to the Byzantine and Islamic worlds, where hand-held clocks and models of the solar system were prized devices. Three Persian brothers known collectively as ‘the Banu Masu’, for instance, published The Book of Ingenuous Devices in 850, which outlined their designs of about a hundred gadgets, ranging from automata to music boxes. In China, too, celestial globes had been employed to assist astronomers for centuries, though they reached a particular level of sophistication in this same period during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 B.C.E.).

With the Renaissance in Europe, there was a revival of interest in classical technology, which resulted in the invention of new devices, such as Giovanni Dondi’s ‘Astrarium’ (1364), the most sophisticated astronomical clock developed up to that date. But with the beginning of the Age of Discovery, there was also more of a need than ever before for fresh technologies to attempt to encompass time and space from the palm of one’s hand.

A variety of manual devices were developed in Europe throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to help sailors chart and navigate the new-found world of the Americas and the Indies. Among the most important of these were the astrolabe, the sextant and the magnetic compass, which, between them, transformed the way in which humans travelled forever.

Moreover, it is hardly coincidental that the pocket increasingly became a feature of attire in Europe from the sixteenth century – though only for men. As early as the thirteenth century, a rough version of the pocket called a ‘fitchet’ existed, though this was used mostly for objects to be hung or slung about one’s person. Yet this replaced the leather or textile pouches that were common throughout antiquity and the earlier medieval era. With the multiplication of money, objects and tools in the Renaissance, however, individuals had more of a need than ever before to have places to keep valuables on their person, and the pocket was born.

Despite the advances in navigational technology of the Age of Discovery, it remained difficult to calculate longitude at sea throughout the early-modern era. No timepiece existed that could remain immune to changes in temperature, humidity and pressure, as well as the natural movement of a ship. In the 1730s, however, the English clockmaker John Harrison began to experiment with constructing marine chronometers that sought to do just that. Although it took him thirty years, Harrison’s ‘H4’ timepiece from 1761, though not much larger than a pocket watch, finally managed to retain accuracy enough to allow sailors to determine how far east or west their ships had travelled, and solve the enigma.

Indeed, the timepiece may be said to be the first truly revolutionary hand-held device. Pocket watches date back to the sixteenth century, when they were developed from so-called ‘Nuremberg eggs’, clock-watches worn on a chain around the neck. But, until the Industrial Revolution, they remained mere accessories, available only to the very wealthiest members of society. With the arrival of the factory system and the railways, however, timekeeping became an essential activity, and pocket watches an indispensable means for society to measure out its hours and days.

But one cannot speak of the development of hand-held devices in the nineteenth century without mentioning a far more destructive representative: the handgun. Again, while manual firearms, such as matchlocks and flintlocks, had existed since the early-modern period, it was only with the industrial and metallurgical advances of the nineteenth century that they reached a true level of sophistication. In 1836, the American Samuel Colt invented the Colt Paterson revolver, which became the first mass-produced handgun. Soon manufactured by many other companies, such as Smith and Wesson, the revolver became a standard feature of military and civilian life alike for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Photography, an innovation unique to the nineteenth century, evolved in only a few decades into a hand-held format with the invention of the box camera by Kodak in 1888. Cinema cameras, too, quickly gained a portable version invented by Thomas Edison in 1896, although it took until the 1920s for these to be perfected. Wireless radio communications, another discovery of the turn-of-the-century period, also gained a portable format within a few decades with the invention of the transistor in the 1940s. All of these inventions together placed command of sound and vision into one’s hand, thus laying the groundwork for our own multimedia era.

The technological advances driven by the First and the Second World Wars shrank not only the world, but also the devices used by people. The latter led directly to the evolution of computer technology and founded today’s Information Age. While we often ridicule the oversized computer devices of the 1960s or 1970s, this was also the era that witnessed the birth of the hand-held calculator, which was invented in 1966. From then on, nothing would be the same. With the development of ever-smaller circuitry and micro-processing devices, new technological horizons opened, which led to increasingly small, yet sophisticated gadgets – from clock radios to mobile phones.

Owing to the availability and convenience of smartphones and tablets in the twenty-first century, more than ever we can be said to hold infinity in the palm of our hands. From digital collections of information that would be the envy of the ancient Library of Alexandria to data applications that can encompass time and space in ways undreamt of by Archimedes, we have access to truly boundless knowledge. But while we may mock the computer technology of previous decades, such as the unbuilt Dynabook, that of previous centuries and millennia reveal that our desire to hold vast quantities of information in our hands has existed since the dawn of civilisation.

Before circuitry, there was clockwork; before clockwork, wax and clay; but there has always been a passion to reduce the Universe to something we can encompass and manipulate in our hands. Indeed, many of the devices profiled above were effectively early attempts at building a computer. Now that we have successfully conquered information as we once conquered time and space, numerous possibilities are held out before us. But as we contemplate vast new realms of automated technology and artificial intelligence, it is worth reflecting on what we intend to do with these extraordinary tools. Hand in hand with human progress in every age, one finds manual devices; but the ends to which we put them has also always lain within our hands.

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