WHEN INFORMATION CAME OF AGE: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700–1850. By Daniel J. Headrick. Oxford Univ. Press. 246 pp. $29.95
When I taught a course 10 years ago on the history of information, the 18th and early 19th centuries had no strong themes of their own. Before them came the ferment of the printing revolution and elite literacy; after them, the rise of mass communication, with its Faustian bargain of cheap publications on doomed acidic paper. There were, to be sure, superb studies of 18th-century book publishing, of mapmaking, of early probability theory and statistics. But these trees were far better known than the forest.
In his previous works, Headrick, a professor of social science and history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has chronicled technological developments in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Historians seldom make bold claims for the period preceding their specialties, but that
is what Headrick does here: he deems the years 1700–1850 a period of exceptional innovation, featuring a "cultural revolution in information systems" that prepared the way for developments ranging from the punch card to the World Wide Web. When Information Came of Age provides a respectful overview not of hardware breakthroughs but of the conceptual leaps made by scientists, scholars, artisans, businesspeople, government officials, and publishers. It begins with monuments of system that were essential to later science—Linnaeus’s binomial classification scheme, still the international standard for living matter from E. coli to Homo sapiens; Lavoisier’s chemical nomenclature; and metric weights and measures. It reviews the theory and practice of quantification, the still-vibrant faith in the power of population statistics and other numbers to guide policy decisions. Headrick quotes the first director of Napoleon’s statistical bureau, who acknowledged the limitations of his work: "The most exact determination of the number of vegetables that France produces will not bring forth one additional cabbage in her gardens." The chapter on graphic representation suggests that war may be healthy for mapmaking and other arts of information display: colonial conflicts and the revolutionary era helped bring cartography to new heights. Some illustrations from the period are still reprinted in graphics texts as classics for emulation with the latest computerized methods. There was also a new wealth of textual information, led by Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. And the nascent U.S. Post Office and the French optical telegraph laid the foundations for today’s communication networks.
As Headrick recognizes, some readers will quibble about omissions, such as the Foudrinier papermaking machine that helped flood the world with print. Still, he has produced an original, lucid synthesis, one that serves to remind us that today’s controversies often have long pedigrees. Many of our debates on Internet privacy and encryption, for instance, have their origins in the postal service and legislative controversies of the French Revolution. The recounting of the history of power and information has only begun, and this book is an outstanding contribution.