Technology and Design (Part 1 of 3)

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Ancient Sumerian abacus

The modern computer has roots going back to ancient Sumeria, where the abacus was developed around four and a half thousand years ago.  The concept of condensing large numbers into layers and representing them with small movable beads (or bits) laid the foundation for facilitating menial mental task-work with physical representations. This allows the user to concentrate on the meta-task of organizing the overall picture shown by the figures, without holding all those figures in their mind at once.  Throughout the following centuries, many forward-thinking people tried to apply that concept to different areas.  However, the complexity of the small, precise parts needed could not be met by manufacturing technologies until the mid 1600’s. At that point Blaise Pascal was able to produce a mechanical calculator capable of doing complex mathematical operations.

Jacquard loom

The next big step was the development of the Jaquard Loom by Joseph Jaquard in 1801.  This loom allowed the reproduction of very complex patterns using a system of rods and hooks which could raise each individual thread on its own. The system was controlled by punch cards, a hole in the card meant the hook would lift the thread, no hole meant no lift.  It was an early form of binary language, where a large variety of options are available using only 2 characters or states: 1 and 0, on and off.  Unique patterns of 1’s and 0’s could be assigned to represent any pattern the user (programmer) desired.

Hollerith census tabulator
Hollerith census tabulator

In the late 1800’s Herman Hollerith adapted Jaquard’s system and invented methods to store and reference data for US Census’s tabulation of the US population in 1890.  The company he formed for that project went on to become the foundation of IBM.  In 1936 Alan Turing developed methods for applying algorithms and computation sequences that utilized the on/off binary language in much more efficient ways.

vacuum tube
Vacuum tube

Vacuum tubes, transistors, and finally microprocessors were just smaller and more efficient ways to represent sequences of on/off patterns, and each allowed the computer to shrink in size and further reduced mechanical complexity.  As the the mechanical complexity decreased, conversely the programming complexity increased. With more and more “space” available, more complicated and longer strings of on/off instructions were achievable, and programmers took advatange of this to create applications with more capabilities. What we have now are sets of instructions that control sets of instructions that control sets of instructions….on and on depending on the complexity of the system. These upper-levels of instructions would represent things like the iOS or Windows, Photoshop or Illustrator user interfaces we are familiar with, while the lower levels are perfuming the actual operations that are requested by modified instructions handed down from upper levels.  For example we don’t have to manually type in a series of 1’s and 0’s to open a web browser, our mouse clicks or keyboards inputs are translated into that series of 1’s and 0’s by intermediate programs.


It wasn’t long before programmers began to apply the potential of these systems to creative areas, making digital tools that allowed text and image creation/manipulation.  One of the early innovations that shaped how we interface with computers was Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad program and “light-pen” (basically a stylus/mouse combination) from 1959.  For example, when creating a square shape with this program instead of drawing and lining up each side, one simply specified the location and size of the desired shape and the computer created it perfectly.  This was a revolutionary step, and I’m sure anyone who has used anything from MS Draw to Adobe Illustrator will be thankful for it. This system of digital representation allowed otherwise difficult physical design tasks (like accurately masking areas of an image, moving text or type around a layout while maintaining certain spacing or ratios, or combining and manipulating images) to be performed with a speed and accuracy impossible with traditional methods.  As the actual capabilities of the technology caught up to their type, most of the commercial design world jumped on board and never looked back.


On to Part 2

Skip ahead to Part 3