History teaser

Further to my history blog of the other day, here’s a taster of the sort of topic threads that could be followed up in a comprehensive history of language technology in the loosest sense of the term –i.e. engineering devices or media designed to enhance, accelerate or transmit linguistic performance. For this series, I’ve simply trawled back from 2004 as a baseline for ‘round number’ years in Europe and the U.S.

1714: In the UK Henry Mill received the first patent for a typewriter.

“An artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.”

As it happened, the first mass-produced typewriter was not launched until 1874 in the U.S.!

1824 The 15-year old Louis Braille demonstrated his new 6-dot cell Braille alphabet for the blind in Paris.

1834 Jules Verne published Les tribulations d’un chinois en Chine, in which is imagined two Chinese people in vocorrespondence, using a system of phonographs and disks as and epistolary media. (Has anyone seen the 1965 film made from this novel with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress?)

Coincidentally, Charles Babbage conceived his analytical engine, forerunner of the computer the same year.

1844 Samuel Morse transmitted that famous first message by morse over a telegraph line. What God hath wrought travelled faster than any message before in history from Washington, DC to Baltimore. (The quote is from the St James translation of the Bible, Numbers 23:23 There is no soothsaying in Jacob, nor divination in Israel. In their times it shall be told to Jacob and to Israel what God hath wrought. Not exactly a vast range of alphabetical letters being morsed there.

1854 George Boole published An Investigation of the Laws of Thought. The guy who set down the original logic of our Boolean searches

1884 James Murray and the Oxford University Press published Part 1 of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, setting high standards for huge cost overruns in print dictionaries. Waterman produced the first fountain pen this year, too.

1894 Ludwig Zamenhof put forward a ‘reformed’ version of his Esperanto auxiliary language, in response to demands for simplified grammar. These reforms were not accepted by Esperantists.

1924 The International Auxiliary Language Association was founded as a non-profit organization to promote widespread study, discussion, and publicity of all questions involved in the establishment of an auxiliary language. It was in part a response to the shock of World War I, and the belief that international conflict could be mitigated by developing a better linguistic framework for international communication. There was also thinking along similar lines by ‘experts’ at the League of Nations which flourished briefly at this time. Plus ça change…

1934 The Belgian researcher Paul Otlet, a pioneer in what we’d today call knowledge management, published his path-breaking Traité de documentation, all done with photographs and filing cabinets. Similar ideas were emegring in Vannevar Bush’s Memex concept.

By 1944, the first shoots of what would become digital language technology were sprouting in the minds of Turing and company, the inventors of symbol processing machines. By January of 1954 – just over fifty years ago today – Leon Dostert demonstrated the brand new Georgetown-IBM machine translation system .

Watch this space for more on the last half century of language technology.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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