For a long time, there was a… conceit, of sorts, in science fiction, of connecting simple large objects in such a way that produced inexplicable complexity. The sort of thing where the characters would put five or six pieces together, and suddenly have a walking, talking robot.
It never made the least bit of sense, either in reality or to me personally, but that latter is changing. As I’ve been playing around with this carbon microphone (here’s a new test recording from yesterday, using the improved circuit) and along the way reading about things like the early telephone system and early radio and most of all the telegraph – I really start to see how they get there.
Particularly early radio, and even more particularly the telegraph.
The telegraph, I mean, damn. They ran one wire. Not a pair of wires: one. They relied on local grounding at each station; the ‘return’ for the power supply was the planet.
So look at this from a not-really-that-naive point of view, right? You’re a farmer out in the middle of Saskatchewan or something, right? It’s weeks to anywhere. You go into town for your mail every couple of weeks, the nearest neighbour is a mile or two or three away, a big gathering in town is monthly market day. You’re not stupid; you deal with complex machinery pretty regularly as a farmer. You know how this works; you know clocks, you know how complex machines have to be to do even simple things well, you know how they work and now to fix them and how to adapt them to new tasks.
Now take this metal rope, attach it to a bit of wound-up metal thread and a lever and a spring, and suddenly you can talk to Vancouver. Sure, you need to learn a code, but that’s easy, and suddenly there’s impossible spooky action at a distance – a really big distance.
Then there’s radio. Even crazier. Take another metal rope, and another bit of wound-up metal thread, and a tiny bit of inexpensive crystal, and this thing you put in your ear that you ordered by post (which is not more than a magnet and some more metal thread and a piece of paper) and suddenly you have news from Toronto in your house.
To the observer at the time, it is intense complexity from small numbers of simple parts. Sure, most of the complexity comes from the humans at the far end of each connection, but it’d take a good bit of sorting out to get that really parsed, and in the meantime, the reaction is more along the lines of:
What magical fuckery is this?!
Suddenly the whole “small numbers of simple objects producing combinations of intense complexity” makes a lot more sense. They’d seen it multiple times in their lives, so… let’s make a robot with eight vacuum tubes, a motor, and a bunch of metal tubes? SURE, WHO EVEN KNOWS – THAT OTHER SHIT WORKED, WHY NOT THIS? How is an empty metal tube supposed to do anything? I dunno, I didn’t expect this metal rope to do anything either, but now it’s 8pm and dark since 4pm and I’m snowed in on the cold cold plains in January, and before going to bed I’m listening to a jazz band playing right now in the Savoy Hotel in New York City.
Impossible madness, from small numbers of simple parts.
Really, if anything, it’s surprising those decades weren’t even goofier.