Go back to article: Information age? The challenges of displaying information and communication technologies

The long view

The newness of ‘new’ technologies has been addressed by historians (Marvin, 1988; Edgerton, 2006), with Edgerton arguing that the history of technology is too focused on the moment of invention, to the detriment of developing a richer history that incorporates the technologies that have become so everyday they are often perceived to be mundane. Traditionally, museum displays have also been open to this criticism, emphasising novel technologies and a moment of discovery or invention, rather than the arguably more transformational period when technologies are used and integrated into people’s everyday lives.

The aim for each of the networks in the Information Age gallery was explicitly to focus on this long use, for instance showing in The Exchange network not just the personal motivations of Alexander Graham Bell when developing the prototype telephone, but the opportunities that telephony subsequently opened to a new female workforce. It also highlights the way telephone usage was negotiated in the home, and its ability (nearly eighty years after Bell received the first patent) to act as the technological platform for innovative new services to those desperately in need, through the Samaritans helpline.

Taking as a starting point the work of Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003), which showed how users are involved in the co-constructing of technologies, we wanted the gallery to reflect the experience and contribution of users as well as innovators. To achieve this we interrogated both the (relatively) short histories of specific inventions and the longer histories of diffusion and use within society. This approach also opened up the interpretive landscape of the gallery, away from the familiar histories of white middle or upper class male inventors, allowing us to bring to the fore histories which illuminate the contributions of more diverse sections of society to the shaping of technology. In this way we could show how information and communication technologies can both work to disrupt existing social structures and be used to maintain existing power relations.

The benefits of such a user-focused approach are demonstrated, in terms of both historical research and gallery output, in our approach to the history of the world’s first business computer, the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO. LEO 1 was developed for the Lyons catering firm by the Cambridge Computer Laboratory (then known as the Mathematics Laboratory). In 1949 a team at Cambridge led by Maurice Wilkes and Douglas Hartree had developed EDSAC, a new computer for university research purposes. The team at Lyons heard about the machine and saw the potential benefits that digital electronic computing could offer to their business, so they approached the university with an offer to part fund the development of EDSAC in return for subsequent help creating their own business oriented machine.

During the research phase of the Information Age gallery we were able to work closely with surviving members of the LEO team to record their oral histories and explore not only the creation but the operational history of the machine. The result was an oral history with a much wider range of roles and a far greater gender balance. There were many women among the voices of the engineers, programmers, data entry clerks and teashop manageresses that we interviewed, all of whom were either given new roles at Lyons or whose working lives and functions were considerably changed through the introduction of the computer. The resulting audio exhibit in the gallery doesn't look at the development of LEO per se; it explores the range of ways that the machine both supported and changed existing hierarchies between the engineering, clerical and managerial staff at Lyons, to show how the computer changed forms of work and control over production. The use of the machine throughout the 1950s for bakery valuations and payroll calculations and the way that this changed the nature of work at Lyons is of at least as much importance in understanding the impact of the world's first computer for business applications as the more limited and traditional study of the team that ‘invented’ LEO.

Yet despite our attempts to take a long view on the history of technology, and extensive historical literature that promotes this approach, society and the media still expect science museums to conform to the norm, presenting stories of invention, preferably by a lone genius (Jordanova, 2014; Schaffer, 2014). Such narratives also intertwine with a prevailing belief in modernity and a myth of exponential progress that privileges the ‘now’ as a time of ever more rapid, more pervasive and more significant technological change (Lane Fox, 2015). Information Age encourages the audience to challenge this view. With a perspective of multiple ‘nows’ over the last two hundred years and many moments of change which could, from the perspective of the time, make a reasonable claim to be unprecedented, the gallery intentionally questions the current view of relentless change, acceleration and progress through our digital devices; to show, as Wajcman (2015) does, that we are not mere hostages to our communication devices, but that society co-constructs the forms of technological use that we partake in.

Such an approach involves significant research work for a museum. In attempting to address the balance between displaying a history of use and a history of invention, it was necessary to seek out and reflect a range of voices often absent from written histories. These are the histories ‘from below’; not the formal histories of governments and those in a position of authority, but the often unrecorded experience of daily life at every level in society. To capture these accounts we developed a variety of research strategies and audience participation projects with the direct aim of reflecting diverse histories in our displays (for more information see Bunning et al. in this issue). The results can be experienced in the gallery in a number of ways, such as through the voice of the black activist and singer Paul Robeson, who gave a concert from New York to London using the first transatlantic telephone cable, the TAT-1; through the Cameroonian entrepreneurs who have learned to develop and mend mobile phone technology, self-taught through the internet; and through the stories of the Samaritans’ first callers and listeners who saw the potential of the telephone for helping those desperately in need.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a transatlantic telephone cable submarine repeater and a large screen above showing an early transatlantic communication

Paul Robeson and Alfie Bass communicated via the first transatlantic telephone cable, the TAT-1, in 1957. The installation is played above an original submarine repeater used to amplify the signal travelling through the cable. 

This detailed historical research opened up a far richer – often female – narrative for the gallery. It would be tokenistic and ahistorical to present women as playing a major role in the creation of early communication technologies – there simply is no female counter-part to Charles Wheatstone, Alexander Graham Bell or John Logie Baird, because women had little access to the education, capital and resources available to male inventors and scientists. But if women rarely made these machines, they were central to the way they were used, adopted and integrated into society, changing social relations in the process. By focusing on the ways that technology was operated and used we can see the strength of women’s roles in information and communication technology – as programmers, communicators, operators – who all helped to define the meaning of these information machines as they became central to our world.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150303/003