The Loom

a research blog exploring the diverse history of digital computing by Whitney Trettien

The Loom is a research blog exploring the diverse, sometimes surprising origins of digital computing.

The story of how the machines we now call “computers” emerged from government-funded research initiatives during World War II is well known. But before mainframe computers could be built, humans had to figure out something more fundamental: how to encode text, image, and audio in electricity.

In other words, they had to invent a new language of communication between humans and machines.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across Europe and East Asia, many different people contributed to this task, including papermakers, disability advocates, musicians, engineers, diplomats, and inventors. Some of their ideas were successful; others, not. This research blog weaves together their stories.

Who are you?

My name is Whitney Trettien, and I’m a historian and critic of books, media, and other technologies. Most days, you can find me digging in libraries, archives, or digital collections, searching for stories about how people have used media* * By “media,” I don’t mean the news media, but those technologies that have mediated human knowledge: e.g. vinyl records that store and playback sound, printed books that save texts and images, paintings that represent human experience visually. In a sense, all technologies are media technologies, in that they come between, or mediate the relationship between, us and the world. (For instance, a car comes between us and the built environment.) But I use the word “media” specifically to signal that I am *most* interested in those technologies related to communication between humans: text, image, sound. in inventive and unexpected ways. My work is driven by curiosity and a deep appreciation for human creativity, in all its forms.

My first book, Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments from the History of Bookwork (2021), tells a new history of seventeenth-century writing that centers experimental, amateur publishing with scissors and paste. You can buy it here or read it for free online, on a platform called Manifold, where I have enriched the text with images, visualizations, and datasets.

This research blog is a space for thinking through the ideas in my next book project, which takes up the messy early history of digital computing. As a book historian, I am especially interested in thinking about the ways that print media and the laborers in the book trade contributed to this history. Here, you can expect to find photographs of fun archival finds, musings on history, and what I’m currently reading, among other things.

The writing contained in this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.