When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850

Daniel R. Headrick, Professor Emeritus of Social Science and History Roosevelt University

Other titles include The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century 1st Edition (1981) and Technology: A World History (2009)

Information and its History

Defines information as “patterns of energy and matter that humans understand”, and knowledge as “ideas and facts that a human mind has internalized and understood” (p. 4).

As the complexity of societies increases, it becomes more important to have accessible and easily understable organization systems for all different types of information.

Headrick’s book is more concerned with information systems (ways to “organize and manage information” (p. 4)) instead of the information itself.

Breaks up systems of categorization into five “technologies of knowledge”

Systems to gather information: Journalistic methods, researchers, historians, spies, censuses, laboratories, etc.

Systems to name and classify and access information: Library classification systems, scientific taxonomies, etc.

Systems to transform information: The transformation from narrative into lists, data into graphs, etc.

Systems to store and retrieve information: Dictionaries, encyclopedias, telephone books, directories, libraries, gardens, databases

Systems to communicate information: postal service, messengers, telephones, email, websites

Headrick acknowledges that many of these categories can serve more than one function.  

Information is then converted into data through organization that facilitates quick retrieval.

Pinpointing the “start” of the information age is dependent on the discipline, and Headrick discards several of the possible beginnings of the information age with the following quote: “The information age has no beginning, for it is as old as humankind” (p. 8). Instead he finds that there are periods of “acceleration” of information creation and access that coincide with the creation of new technologies, including the creation of the printing press, the computer, and modern mapmaking.

Headrick focuses on the Age of Reason (1700-1850) because the thought revolutions during the time period changed the way that people engaged with information, and provided a scaffolding for updates in technological systems. In other words, “cultural revolution in information systems (the “software”, if you like) preceded its material (“hardware”) revolution” (p. 8)

The Age of Reason: “Historians of the Enlightenment, by and large, have followed the lead of the philolses in stressing the fundamental ideas of that era: reason and science against religions and superstition, tolerance against prejudice, justice against the abuse of power, a social construct instead of absolutism” (p. 9).

Information systems appeared in this period because of a “cultural change driven by social, economic, and political upheavals” (p.9). A growing economy and long distance trade demanded more information for decision making; governments (enlightened despots) became more concerned with the demographic makeup of their countries and sought to gather information about sentiment and lifestyle to forestall revolutions; and professions required ways to make sense of the increased amount of scientific information they were creating (seen more in future chapters). It became necessary for once closed systems (like alchemy) to become more accessible to researchers and decision makers around the world.

Organizing Information: The Language of Science

“Organized research accumiltes information faster than any person and absorb and process mentally. Hence the need for systems to organize existing information so that individual items can be retrieved efficiently; to place new pieces of information where they can be located again when needed; and to discern patterns in this body of knowledge. In order to capture a nre piece of information and place it in the existing body of knowledge, one must identify it with precision, in other words, give it a distinct name. To avoid ambiguities and confusions, a one-to-one correspondence must exist between every term and the object it represents” (p. 17).

Artificial classification system drawbacks: “A nomenclature, being a construct of the mind, may impose on the objects that it names a pattern that destroys the underlying reality” (p. 17).

Headrick covers three main areas (below) in this chapter that changed the language of science, which were a “reflection of the spirit of the enlightenment”(p. 17) as it indicated that traditional narrative was no longer enough to accurately describe the scientific discoveries that were taking place at the time, and their individual, specialized languages were necessary to ensure that scientists are able to discuss and innovate around the world. These new languages replaced regional, obscure systems that were meant to keep information within the hands of the few that created them. Popular interest in science also facilitated the move away from Latin as the language of academia, as nobles and other genteel personalities became more interested in reading and discussing scientific discoveries in their salons, and most did not read Latin.

Linnaeus’ Binomial Nomenclature and Classification of Living Things

A system that replaced the common practice of unwieldy, narrative descriptions of plants. The system not only identified each plant, but also described the connections (affinities) of plants within specific groups. This was necessary because of the immense growth in the number of different species within this time period.

Classification could fall into two groups:

Chemical Nomenclature

“Before the 18th century there was no standard chemical nomenclature but instead of hodge-podge of terminologies derived from alchemy pharmacy, metallurgy glass making cloth dying and other sources” (p. 32)

“...Pharmacists who invented new compounds often deliberately misname them in order to hide their composition from rivals” (p. 33).

The expansion of chemical research required that a new nomenclature be created because of the extensive collection of new compounds that were being discovered in the 18th century. This closely followed of the problem seen in the botany.

“According to Lavoisier, languages have as their purpose not only as is, believed to express ideas and images by signs they are also true analytical methods with which we go from the known to the unknown up to a point in the matter of mathematicians doesn't analytical method is a language a language is an analytical method and these two expressions are in a sense synonymous page 36.

Lavoisier and Guyton’s work for a standardized nomenclature for chemical substances and compounds was followed by John Dalton's work with atomic theory. His creative visualizations of atoms and showed the number of atoms of each element in a compound and their arrangement. This allowed for Berzelius’’ summarized nomenclature of elements (C for Carbon, etc.).

Metric System

Finally, Headrick discusses the metric system and its adoption by scientists around the world. First, he discusses the problems inherent in standardizing measuring systems in the world before the 18th century and the inherent privilege and power that came with the creation of these weights and measures.  

“Hundreds of cahiers complained about the proliferation of standards and their abuse by Warden merchants and demanded one king one law one way one measure or something along those lines. Scientist s Revolutionary supporters took a simple popular demand and hijacked it for their own ends” (p. 43)

“To understand the significance of the metric system and why it took so long to find acceptance, we need to renew its salient characteristics. First and foremost, the metric system was meant to be a universal untrustworthy set of Standards, officially created and it first, to replace the myriad units of the old regime. This is what the writers of the cahiers de doleances had required, and this is why it succeeded in the end. But it had for the characteristics introduced by scientists but it relevant to the general public” (p. 49).

“Science does not just accumulate data and find patterns in nature, it also seeks to explain those patterns, yet finding patterns requires classifying and naming natural phenomenon paints classification and nomenclature of the foundations upon which the explanations can be built and influence those explanations” (p. 49).

Transforming Information: The Origin of Statistics

“...it is not easy to imagine a world just awakening to the meaning of numbers” (p. 59).

Malthus statement: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence only increases in a arithmetical ratio” (p. 59) was created without the assistance of valid census data, and updated his hypothesis with correct data.

Political arithmetic

Displaying Information: Maps and Graphs

History of traditional maps, then a discussion of statistical and more abstract mapping (people on a timeline, graphs, charts, etc.) “the mind retains graphical data more efficiently than lists of words and numbers)

Storing Information: Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Communicating Information: Postal and Telegraphic Systems

Five characteristics of long-distance communications systems:






Information Ages: Past and Present

“The purpose of this book is to argue is to argue that the information revolution in which we live is the result of a cultural change that begin roughly 3 centuries ago a change as important as the political industrial revolutions for which the 18th and early 19th centuries are so well-known. The cultural change itself and close the entwined with a demographic economic and social transformation of the. Manifested itself in the increasing interest in information of All Sorts about nature people events business and other secular and practical topics.”

In his last chapter Headrick reviews the technologies and information systems that he discusses in the previous parts of his book and shows how aspects of classification, statistics, visual displays of information, and encyclopedias and dictionaries have been updated for the current time period. 

“I prefer history as hindsight, for it is a historian’s job to interpret the past in light of the present and the present in light of the past. The Industrial Revolution was only “discovered” (i.e., named) in the 1840s; social history dates from the 1930s; feminist and gender studies from the 1970s; environmental history from the 1980s. Since we now live in an age of information, we need to understand how we got here. Our ancestors, as Moliere might have said, also lived in age of information, without realizing it.” (p. 219).

Defining information

Headrick takes the story forward to argue that the modern information revolution is the consequence of a cultural change beginning in Europe in about 1700 that focused on a demand for more, more accessible, and easier to assess and apply information. He ranges widely, to cover scientific classification, cartography, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, postal services and a range of other systems for organizing, transforming, displaying, storing and communicating information. Headrick traces this to a Zeitgeist focused on information as a means to human betterment. Increasing demand for information led to an increase in supply, as well as to innovations in the methods of handling it, i.e. information systems. Thus cultural factors, not the modern machinism of computers, are seen as providing the drive for change. Headrick offers this as an instructive contrast to the printing revolution, and to technology-driven changes over the last 150 years. Thus, government demands for information in order to know and control the population helped drive the process of quantification in the Age of Revolution, whereas, after the Napoleonic Wars, statistics became a mode of discourse of moderates, and of bourgeoisie and bureaucrats who, alike, sought to use knowledge to further what they defined as orderly, rational progress. Headrick also shows how advances in knowledge interacted. There was, for example, much more, and better, information to be found in nineteenth-century maps and graphs than ever before, reflecting the greatly increased knowledge that had been accumulated and systematized. In turn, cartographers, geologists, and statisticians found means of representing such information in more precise and accurate graphical forms: visual narration giving way to scientific system. Although, it would be valuable to know far more about the large areas of Europe to which he does not refer, Headrick is to be congratulated on a most important and impressive work.

Black, Jeremy. "Revolutionizing the Sciences. European Knowledge and its Ambitions, 1500-1700 & When Information Came of Age. Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850." Journal of European Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 2001, p. 108. Academic ASAP, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A77674911/AIM?u=orla57816&sid=AIM&xid=6a138afc. Accessed 27 Mar. 2018.

Mariz, George. “Victorian Periodicals Review.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 36, no. 4, 2003, pp. 385–387. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20083980.

The delineation of the book into five themes is perhaps necessary for coherence, but it gives rise to some problems because the technologies themselves do not allow such a clean categorization. For example, the concept of dictionaries and encyclopedias as information-storage devices is not wholly convincing. One could just as well argue that they are classification and display systems for the universal body of knowledge stored in libraries and human minds. Further, the argument set forth throughout the book [End Page 773] that the world of knowledge can be separated into distinct "systems" for classification, transformation, display, storage, and communication does not translate readily into the contemporary taxonomy of information systems. Today, an information system is understood to embody four of Headrick's themes--transformation, storage, display, and communications--and to speak of these as separate entities seems awkward. Again, the theme of knowledge classification is not on the same level as the other four, and really has no corresponding subsystem within a modern information system. However, these are quite minor criticisms of a very fine book and perhaps illustrate why writing a synthetic history is so difficult: what is a logical categorization to one person can seem a distortion to another.

There is not very much that is "new" in this book; its originality lies in its point of view and the integration of a large body of secondary material. As a practitioner of information-technology history, I did find some information that was new to me, some ideas of which I was only dimly aware that were traced to their sources, while even very familiar material benefited by the juxtaposition to like technologies and by being embedded in Headrick's framework. I should also say that this is an unusually readable book--I consumed it with real absorption over one holiday weekend. As a readable and accessible account of the very early development of information technologies, When Information Came of Age can be strongly recommended as suitable for undergraduate studies of information-technology history and as an essential library acquisition.

Martin, C. (2001). When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 Daniel R. Headrick. Technology And Culture, (4), 773.