Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Digital Scholarship as Handwork and Brainwork: An Early Modern History of Cryptography

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Digital Scholarship as Handwork and Brainwork: An Early Modern History of Cryptography

Article excerpt

Samuel Morland, Royal Society member and close confidant of Charles II, invented a series of computing machines before and after the London Fire of 1666. In The Description and Use of Two Arithmetick Instruments (1673), he describes a tool for calculating money and the "Machina Nova Cyclologica," a multiplication device. Though these early calculators were viewed by some, such as Samuel Pepys and Robert Hooke, as practically trivial, they were distributed widely and became quite fashionable; consumers purchased these small curiosities to carry in their pockets and quickly compute change and elementary equations for £3 10s, the equivalent today to about $432.00.1 Crafted in silver, gilt, brass, wood, and crystal, these devices were ornate and detailed, manufactured by craftspersons like Humphry Adamson, a cele- brated clockmaker, and mechanics Henri Sutton and Samuel Knibb. One might equate the social distinction of carrying a Morland instrument to the vogue of holding the newest iPhone. And like many users of our latest tech- nologies, Morland's customers were often more interested in displaying trendsetting technologies than in pushing their capabilities.

While these inventions may have been as much for commercial profit as they were for promoting mathematics, Morland saw more practical, noncom- mercial use in an invention he diagrams in A New Method of Cryptography (1666). There, he describes the "Cyclologica Cryptographica." It is a round de- vice with a series of interlocking disks much like those in his calculating ma- chines, though these are adapted for the encryption and decryption of secret messages to resemble Leon Battista Alberti's earlier cipher disk and the later more famous disk used by Thomas Jefferson. Together, Morland 's body of ma- chines illustrates the many purposes of and audiences for computing that ex- isted even as the discipline emerged during the seventeenth century. The de- vices were at once symbols of emerging capitalism, both as products to be coveted and as instruments to calculate one's finances, and they were also markers of the division of labor between brainwork-the theory and vision of new technologies and their uses-and handwork-the craftsperson's talent for making that vision into material form. Finally, they were designed for two kinds of audiences, popular and specialist.

I begin my examination of the place of the digital in early modern studies with Morland's machines for three reasons. First, the division of labor that cre- ated them anticipates the partnerships that early modern scholars have en- gaged in recently with computing scholars, where one is often seen as the cre- ative mind behind the vision and the other the mechanical technician putting the project into usable form. I refer to these two roles as "brainwork " and "handwork " not because I believe one is a " brainier" or "handier" mode of pro- duction; on the contrary, I challenge that assumption, as do the early modern thinkers I study. Consequently, I seek to contextualize one possible origin of that distinction as we see it made even at the earliest stages of computing history. I also take seriously-and literally-the term digital as it centralizes the hand in that history. Morland very clearly uses the word digital to explain how to use his devices, as I will examine. Second, the kinds of questions that seventeenth-century mathematicians-and, specifically, cryptographers- and twenty-first-century humanities scholars were and are raising about the nature of knowledge sharing are similar. And finally, I argue that the early modern history of cryptography is a history of digitization. After working through these connections, I then examine the potential for the re-digitization of early modern cryptography artifacts, which have arguably already been digi- tized because they exist in coded form and in a variety of media. The call for papers for this journal's special issue asks what kinds of scholarship might best be done in digital form, and the scholarship of early cryptography-itself con- cerned with the digital both in its etymological form as relating to the digits, or fingers, and as a language of code-is one answer. …

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