Cortada on Information History
CHARLES BABBAGE INSTITUTE
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Cortada on Information History

Readers of this newsletter will know that James W. “Jim” Cortada, CBI Senior Research Fellow, publishes both “small” and “big” books.  Lately, he’s been on a roll with big books, including The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology Across the U.S., Europe, and Asia (Oxford 2012).  This spring Oxford brought out another “big” book of his, destined to be a seminal work in the emerging field of information history. 
all the facts
All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870 is an impressive 600-page book that takes off and elaborates on Jim’s well-received edited volume, with Alfred Chandler, A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States From Colonial Times to the Present (Oxford 2000).  There they assembled some of the brightest historians in the field—including, just to name those who will be familiar in the CBI orbit—Margaret Graham, Richard John, and JoAnne Yates, in addition to Chandler and Cortada.  The chapters focused on key turning points in U.S. history and examined the role of information.  For instance, Richard John drew on his post-office work, and anticipated his telegraph and telephone research, with a chapter on the industrial-age transformation.  JoAnne Yates, also in between two major book projects, examined the flow of business information, including the U.S. Census, prior to computerization.  Margaret Graham, having just published The Business of Research: RCA and the VideoDisc (1989), was well placed to assess radio, television, and motion pictures.  Cortada’s essay examined the semiconductor industry’s impact on the computer industry.  Richard Nolan evaluated information management since the 1960s, while Lee Sprout presented data on the use of computers in U.S. households beginning in the late 1970s.  A Nation Transformed by Information was not exactly a “computer history” book, or even a “computing history” book, but it was all the same deeply insightful about how social and economic processes involving information shaped American history.  In Business History Review, historian Thomas P. Hughes observed that the book “builds a solid foundation upon which to construct a substantial scholarly edifice.”

All the Facts comprises ten topical chapters plus a conclusion.  While any 30-year period might be grist for an equally long book on information, Cortada covers an immense timeframe by the judicious use of well-chosen topics.  One early chapter stretches from 1600 to 1870, sampling the use of information by libraries, social networks, government, and cities—all of which had information-rich traditions of literacy and learning.  Middle chapters survey the increasing dependency on information of business, farming, the federal government, and citizens, advancing the timeline from the 1870s to 1945.  Four chapters zero in on the postwar years, more closely examining government and education, the business system, the knowledge worker, and everyday life.  Attentive readers may note resonances with recent special issues in Information and Culture and Cortada’s own Rise of the Knowledge Worker (1998).

Illustrations for the book come from a variety of sources, including the Smithsonian Institution, government agencies, the Library of Congress—and the Charles Babbage Institute.  Jim spent an afternoon pouring through CBI’s file-folder drawers of photography.  Here are the CBI photos that I spotted.  The late 19th century age of commercial expansion saw the information infrastructure of offices, retailing, and wholesaling expand tremendously.  Photo 3.1 shows an office, characteristic of the 1870s-1880s where ledgers, boxes, and accounting books were the chief repository of business information; photo 3.2 indicates the use of new information technologies such as typewriters in the early 20th century.  (Great minds think alike: I used the same photo in my Digital State for figure 2.10, on the office machines of Remington Rand.)  Photo 5.5 is a household scene with radio, Bible, and telephone all perched on a single small table.  Photo 7.3 pictures a Hewlett-Packard HP-70 business calculator, widely used by technical office workers.  Photo 7.4 complements the earlier household scene with a cluttered desk of a 20th-century information professional: charts, graphs, telephone, cigarettes, and coffee.

I believe this might be Cortada’s seventh book on information, in addition to the Cortada and Chandler edited volume.  Earlier titles include: Best Practices in Information Technology (1997), Making the Information Society (2001), How Societies Embrace Information Technology (2009), Information and the Modern Corporation (2011), The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology Across the U.S., Europe, and Asia (2012), The Essential Manager: How to Thrive in the Global Information Jungle (2015).  In his Technology and Culture review of Chandler and Cortada’s A Nation Transformed by Information, historian Daniel Headrick, author of a recent information history himself, wrote: “this book shines . . . in the attention it pays to information as a key to American history. . . . The authors are not filling a gap.  They are plowing a new field.”  I suspect that reviews of All the Facts will agree, even if Jim is no newcomer to the field.

Thomas J. Misa

 


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