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Thanks for the memories

September 01, 2009

Jack Ganssle-September 01, 2009

If each of our hands had eight fingers, we'd count in hexadecimal and non-geeks wouldn't puzzle over numbers that include the letters A through F. But would we still start at one instead of zero?

How often have you seen a child learning to enumerate hold three fingers out in an effort to remember how many of something he just counted? Perhaps these digits were the earliest memory devices.

Or maybe not. Long before writing was invented people had developed storytelling to a fine art. Oral traditions taught the young to avoid the bad berries and saber-toothed tigers. Long before being committed to paper or papyrus, the Bible was transmitted between generations by word of mouth. Matthew and Luke's begats most likely mirrored how elders tracked their own family history.

The very concept of "mine" that toddlers unceasingly chant likely is buried deep in our genes. Unless earliest societies were truly communal, Grog the caveman would have needed some sort of device, perhaps piles of stones, to track exactly how much was "mine."

At some point humans made the leap from physical representations of quantities to the abstract. Perhaps the first form of writing involved scratching lines in the dirt as a memory aid. I have read that the earliest symbols existed as far back as some 30,000 years ago. These were mnemonics rather than novels; but the very word mnemonic means "memory aid." Clearly, humankind has long wanted mass storage. Unfortunately, the early history of writing has gone to /dev/null.

Some scholars date the Tărtăria tablets from Romania back to 5,500 BC, in which case they may preserve the oldest known written data. The regular shapes of the glyphs encoded in the clay suggest that standardized writing had existed for some time. No one knows what the symbols mean, but a media that lasts seven thousand years puts all of our modern high-tech solutions to shame.

Just as the Kindle uses sequences of ones and zeroes to store the Kama Sutra, at some point most societies moved from pictographs to alphabets. Egyptian hieroglyphs contain elements of both. Our alphabet reduces the number of symbols needed to express complex ideas from thousands to 26. Fewer symbols means more storage is needed to encode an idea, but there's no practical limit to the things that can be described. This remains a very diverse world, so ironically we still need thousands of representations in Unicode to build computers useful to the planet's population.

Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and parchment. The latter, made from animal skin, is quite expensive and led to what was perhaps the first rewritable storage medium: the palimpsest. Scribes would scrape or wash the ink from a parchment document and write again on the now-blank sheet. In fact here in Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum holds the Archimedes Palimpsest (www.archimedespalimpsest.org/). In the tenth century an unknown scribe copied some of Archimedes' work onto parchment; two centuries later it was reused for a liturgical text. Science has been able to reveal the original text, which is fortunate as it has the only known copy of the sage of Syracuse's The Method of Mechanical Theorems.

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