Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Book: Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life was like at the Turn of the First Millennium (Little, Brown and Company, 1999)

Why: It’s fun to imagine what the future will look like, but chances are some entrepreneurial inventor out there will come up with something that we can’t even imagine today. 

Kermit Nash’s post earlier this week, touching on how the future looked to us in our youth, led me (via an interestingly circuitous firing of synapses) to think about what I will call the “history of the future.” How have past generations seen the future? Inevitably, the future at any given time must be seen in terms of the present, as some developments cannot be foreseen. The world of the Jetsons is merely an extrapolation on the world as we knew it in the mid-1960s.1

So what did the future look like in, say, the year 1000? As I cast my eye on one of my heaving home bookshelves, out popped The Year 1000, a book I impulsively purchased in 1999 at a Toronto bookshop before heading to the airport for a flight home. My trip was in February. Did I mention I was catching a flight from Toronto? Turns out I was glad to have this lively book to entertain me while my flight was subjected to repeated weather delays.

Anyway, let’s set the stage. In 1000, most adults died in their 40s; someone my age would be deemed venerable indeed. There were no buttons, so clothes were fastened by clasps or tied together. England was still an Anglo-Saxon tribal country, occasionally troubled by Viking incursions in the North.

Agriculture was the basis of the economy. Children were taught, “The ploughman feeds us all.” That’s not to say there was no trade. Trade in wool and other commodities brought wine from continental Europe and other more exotic goods from afar. There was one impediment, though. Numbers were still written in Roman numerals.  Try doing multiplication and division using Roman numerals and you’ll immediately grasp the problem. And there was a perceived limit to how high counting could go. It was thought that 9,000—written as MMMMMMMMM—was just about the highest number (sort of the way we might think about a “Google” today). So accounting was pretty much a nightmare.

Enter a Frenchman, Gerbert of Aurillac, a savvy scholar, churchman and politician recognized as a kingmaker in his day. (Oh, and he also happened to be the Pope, known as Sylvester II.) He made innumerable contributions to the various worlds he inhabited, but entrepreneurs can be thankful for one in particular. He didn’t invent it, but he promoted the use of the abacus (along with Arabic numerals) in Western Europe.

To say that the introduction of the abacus was revolutionary is to give this development short shrift. The use of the abacus eliminated the need to write out figures and sped calculations, boosting the ability of merchants to conduct and track trade. The abacus became the model of the chequered table, which worked along the same lines and became the central feature of the counting house—otherwise known by the Brits as the Exchequer.  As the authors of The Year 1000 tell us, “Its potential effect on the business, intellectual and scientific processes of its time was comparable to the impact of the computer today.”

Gerbert of Aurillac—virtually unknown today—was, in fact, “the first millennium’s Bill Gates.”

1 Unlike that young whippersnapper Kermit, I actually watched this program in primetime during its inaugural 1962-1963 season on ABC.

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