Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Technical Appendix: Postblogging December 1943: The Owl of Minerva Flies At Dusk

December is the darkest month. You either set the Yule log alight, or celebrate the darkness. This could just as easily have been the title of my birthday posting for modern electronic warfare, but, if you were young when I was (and, statistically speaking, it is likely that you were: welcome to roughly the biggest birth cohort ever, he said, 49 years too late!), you remember this:

Spy stories were just tired enough for gentle network parody. I was too young to get that it was gentle parody. To nine-year-old me, that clip was as mysterious as The Prisoner still is. With the difference that the point of the mysteries of The Prisoner is that they are mysteries, while Get Smart was mysterious because I was too young to get it. The Prisoner isn't meant to be solved. Get Smart is just another network parody. 

Where, not to push the epistemic point too far while my original point likes fallow, funny spies run around saying pompous things like, "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk." Which is why I went with a hotlink to Kim Carnes' Crazy in the Night instead.

The epistemic point is not going away, though. A big book in the blogosphere right now is Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age. As a Boseruppian, I am predisposed to dislike this book --which I may or may not eventually get around to reading. My basic thesis is that we are hitting the bottom of a long downhill, the end of a storing-up of technological capital centering on the era of the last world war. If this is true, absolutely the last thing we have to worry about is robots taking our jobs. The robots (and slaves) will be doing the work because the (relatively few) people who could be doing it have all gone Croatan (1,2). 

Never mind  crazy theorising, though. If I am to offer anything to the conversation, it is going to be history of technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do start with history of technology, of course. The introductions to their book that I have read focus on the "delayed" start of the Steam Age. The fact that there were steam engines in 1712 gives anyone who loves him some Vernor Vinge since the 1990s and is waiting for the Singularity like some characters in a Beckett play --and Oh God in the New Year's eve morning darkness I see nightmares of first year English again --- where was I? 

Oh, yeah. All the over--produced American lawyers of the last few years are making a living doing doc review and are worried that the Google is coming to take away their jobs. And if first them, moments later it'll be all the knowledge workers. It will be like when slide rules got rid of all the engineers, or when printing got rid of the historians by making all the old scrolls and codices available to everyone so that some idle English gentleman could produce a bigger and better history of ancient times than Herodotus, who was actually able to travel and cultivate the owners of all those scrolls in ancient times and become a real historian. 

That's sarcasm, there, of course. The job of the historian did not go away with printing, or with the railroads and the telegrams and such that allowed Ranke to outdo Gibbon, or with the ---but I am going to try not to get ahead of myself again, here. This is supposed to be a technical appendix, and I will get to the technology that rises to the surface in December of 1943 in a moment. First, though, some historical nuance, because that is what you look for from a historian.

I have objected to the basic thesis before. An usurpation took place in Britain in 1688, placing an uneasy dynasty on the throne of England. Thereafter, it would be fair to call every war of the Eighteenth Century down to the Napoleonic wars a "war of the English Succession." That made the regime willing to spend to win, and one of the things that they had to do in the 1700--1715 round was maintain an army in the low Countries, which meant earning foreign exchange in the Low Countries. To do that, they had to export to that market, and to do that, they had to subsidise export industries such as coal. As the price of coal went up, it became feasible to cut coal at the bottom of flooded colleries by pumping out the water with steam engines. Of course the Savery and Newcomen engines were inefficient! One of the big problems of operating them was that they had to be securely seated in the midst of great mounds of highly flammable coal slack at the bottom of pits! Because while coal slack cannot be sold on the market, it is a dangerous, highly flammable material that gets in the way of mining operations and has to be got rid of somehow. For example, you can burn it. In a contained stove, of course, for safety reasons. Not that those safety reasons are met by using a stove in isolation, but you can always cool it by putting a pot of water on top. Which then evolves lots of steam. You see where I am going, here? With all due respect to them, Savery and Newcomen were patent trolls, taking credit for a technology that circumstances essentially forced our way.

Now let's move ahead sixty years. Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy. There's a "navigation" craze. Basically, canals thread the countryside, taking products such as, for example, coal, to market. Their locks are pumped by water mills in one of those operations that pretty much forces a person to think about the laws of conservation of energy. At this point, the limit on the economy is becoming the amount of water that can be pumped back up the runs by "engines." It is limiting the amount of coal that can be brought to market. So now we want to pump the water back up into the mill pond using the minimum amount of coal. . . 

Let me now quote myself, a paragraph gone: "Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy." That's your lede: not James Watt inventing the condensor. Ask yourself: what endogenous trends within the economy are driving technological adoption? Do not look around for heroic innovation to change it from outside. 

But, but, what about knowledge work, you ask yourself. What about those lawyers, whose research is now being done by "brilliant machines?"

Now it's technological appendix time.

The ultimate brilliant machine:

Well, not really. I wanted to use a picture of a turn-of-the-last-century Victorola letter press copier hosted by Officemuseum.com that looks for all the world like a Victorian operating a photocopier, but their copyright notice was a bit intimidating. (You can see it here, as well as an obnoxious 60s Motorola fax. Because facsimile machines are sexy!)  The Ralph C. Coxhead Corporation's Varityper, which can save up to 70% of your expert draftsmen's time, on the other hand, is a technological orphan. The corporation was done in by the IBM Selectric, bought out by Addressograph-Multigraph International, sold to Tegra, which became PrePrint Direct, and now counts the 'Panther" image-setter  line as its great-grandchild.

All of this, however, is just circling around a much bigger issue. This is the most-brilliantest machine ever made (from Wikipedia, so no image management issues).

Think about it. Or don't, because we can think in images. Specifically, in a brazen act of plagiarism, the two immediately preceding this one in the self-same Wikipedia article:

First, there is this image of an engineer-artist using a camera obscura to sketch fortifications at a military depot.

Next, we have someone sketching directly from a camera obscura box:

Once one notices that a thin, colloidal suspension of silver nitrate on a piece of backing paper will pick up the camera obscura image, you can get rid of the sketch artist entirely. Goodbye, knowledge worker!

Notice just how much knowledge can be erased here. Now that modern scholars are doing critical analysis of the documents that Herodotus might have used, we have some very serious attention being paid to the "world map" which Herodotus uses to frame his account of the Persian Wars. Here is a reproduction, which seems to have been done by J. Siebold and hosted at henry_davis.com, which may be an educational site, or just an orphaned website from the pioneering days of the web. 

The point here is the citation to Mark Munn. This image is constructed ideologically and embodies ideas that we only recently began to understand that we needed to unpack. It is also just about the best and clearest visualisation of the world that it was possible for the smartest people alive in 430BC to make. That is, in some sense, all the knowledge in the world from the classical days of Athens. You know, dramas, poetry, Socrates, all that stuff. 

On the other hand, this is a bog-standard oblique aerial view photograph of Levittown, New York some time in the early 1950s. (Most patronising song ever.)

Has the camera just done more knowledge work than Herodotus and all of his informants? Of course not. We've just let ourselves get carelessly lost in the thickets by letting "knowledge work" go undefined.

Take another perspective. In December of 1943, Flight sent John Yoxall to the RAF's Number One School of Photography to see what is going on. To my shame, I read this article at least three times without realising why it was here. It was, after all, it very informative about the early history of service aerial photography, and this post is only going to scratch the surface of the impact of that innovation. Finally, at the fourth reading, I twigged. 

 "The wide use of photography made in this war necessitates at times enormous numbers of prins being required of particular air negatives. For instance, imagine the colossal numbers which must have been distributed before the Dieppe raid or before the invasion of Sicily."

This is the point where we are introduced to the multiprinter, previously on show as the device that makes it possible for the Royal Mail to send multiple copies of specific "Aerograms," or "microprints." Not, that is, the letters that Service members in the Middle East have been receiving since 1940, bur rather the bulk blueprints which have been circulated to factories around the world. Instead of saving 70% of a draftsman's time, these devices save 100%, or 200%, or, really, as many percent as copies of the blueprint are needed.

Here's an encore appearance of the "microgram printer," and here are some "ATS girls" working with it, or with a similar machine:

Not that you can make out many of the details in this photographic reproduction. As more than a few North American engineers and machinists had occasion to point out in the 1940s. Today, however, I am not here to talk about the dissemination of blueprints, but rather about a still-hypothetical operation of war akin to the Dieppe raid or the invasion of Sicily, neither of which went off, exactly, without a hitch. How is it going to be possible to conduct such an operation, perhaps on a still larger scale, at the level of planning and coordination required, without giving away its secrets to the enemies? The paradox here is that thousands of copies of operational plans could easily be required, with as many aerial view photographs of the operational area. Yet, somehow, this mass of materials must be produced and disseminated with a minimum of human involvement in order to maintain secrecy. 

Exactly such a thing is, actually, imaginable. "Microphotography" has been urged as a means of preserving documents since 1851. In 1935, the Library of Congress sent experts to microphotograph the entire contents of the British Library, in case civilisation in the Eastern Hemisphere collapses into barbarism due to global war. As might very well happen. The New York Times has been available on compact photographic reel since 1935, and American doctoral dissertations have been disseminated by this means by University Microforms, Incorporated, since 1938. It remains only to reduce the necessary plans and photographs to "microforms" and then reproduce them with "microprinters" when there is demand for an actual print copy. "Print on demand," as it were. 

So there you go. I have solved the problem of disseminating plans for this still-hypothetical operation while using the absolute minimum number of draftsmen, ATS girls, and other highly skilled individuals by an order of magnitude sufficient draftsmen available to hand draw copies of the necessary maps.  It would be absurd to even think of using skilled engineers to such rote work, after all! There are so many more important things for them to do!

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