Mechanists of the Revolution: The Case of Edison and Bell

The “information age” is often thought in terms of the digital revolution that begins with Turing’s 1937 paper, “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” However, this can only be partially correct. There are two aspects to Turing’s work: one dealing with questions of computation that leads to computer science and another concerned with building computing machines that leads to computer engineering. Here, we emphasize the latter because it shows us a Turing connected with mechanisms of information flow rather than solely with the mathematical and logical problems of computability for which he is better known. Our reasons for doing so will become clear in what follows. In fact, the 1937 paper just mentioned provides a general schematic for building a computing machine; this mechanical connection puts Turing on an historical continuum with others who discovered mechanisms to cope with information. Of those involved in this quest in the 19th Century, two people in particular, Edison and Bell, had explicit visions of an information age that would follow from their work. Because they were explicitly aware of what they were doing and partly brought it about long before 1937, they deserve substantial credit for the information age they set out to inaugurate. Regarding one purely mechanical and non-electronic technology, Edison noted ten uses for the phonograph, including not only the replication of sound, but also “connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication”. Even though the telephone was only two years old when Edison wrote of a network made up of mechanical hard storage systems and people connected by wire, the network vision was already clearly in his head.
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