Friday, February 19, 2010

Is Twitter Really 75 Years Old?

Would you be surprised to know learn that Twitter is older than you, your parents and maybe your grandparents?

A Stone Age Computer? Most technology is older than you think.Well, not Twitter itself but the germ of the idea. BoingBoing published a report of a robot messenger called the Notificator that served a similar need in London in 1935. It was a type of vending machine installed in public places that let people leave notes for their friends. You walked up to this device, wrote your message on the next blank space of a continuous strip of paper, and then dropped a coin into the slot. With that, your message moved up one place on the list leaving a new blank area for the next message. After at least two hours, your message would roll off the top of the list so it couldn’t be seen anymore. But that assumes that by then your friends would have checked the messages and seen what you left for them.

Seems like a good implementation of the technology of the times to create a social networking system where people could follow their friends and leave messages that would be viewed by all users. Sounds a bit like “tweeting,” doesn’t it? How the Notificator would have evolved, we’ll never know. World War II moved the focus of inventing and manufacturing to military needs. From that conflict, the British gave us both radar and the jet aircraft.

We think we know the narrow class of genius geeks who are uniquely qualified to make major advances in technology today. But a lot of that is just stereotypes and popular culture. Would you believe that the basis of Bluetooth technology was patented by a gorgeous movie star of the 1930’s?

Yes, you can thank Hedy Lamarr for Bluetooth. Of course, there were no cell phone headsets or wireless computer mice in 1940. But WWII was already raging in Europe would soon engulf the United States. Hedy Lamarr, popular actress and former wife of an Austrian arms manufacturer, had an idea for an undetectable radio control scheme for torpedoes. She discussed it with her music composer neighbor and they created a scheme using player piano rolls to constantly shift the radio control frequency to keep it stealthy. The key was in synchronizing identical piano rolls at each end, so the transmitting and receiving frequencies would be coordinated only for that particular transmitter and receiver.

Today we know that technology as FHSS or Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum transmission. It traces its lineage to patent number 2,292,387, “Secret Communication System,” awarded to George Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey. Markey is the remarried name of Hedy Lamarr.

So, is everything old new again? Could be that those steampunks are sensing some hidden truth when they build modern computers and related technology that have the appearance of something Jules Verne would have cooked up. By the way, Verne had the basics of the moon landing worked out in 1865 and we still haven’t mastered time travel.

Follow Telexplainer on Twitter