Everyone knows the old saw that “no technology exists in a vacuum.” Less clear to our linear-narrative-obsessed culture is the fact that no technology was invented in one, either. The strands that connect the dots of a technology’s path from invention to deployment to adoption criss and cross much more than we give them credit for, even in TED Talks. History Mesh is an interactive timeline tracing the interconnected history of four technology megatrends over the past four millennia, using the London Tube Map as graphic inspiration. Think the history of computation started in the 1950s and has nothing to do with “water puppet theater” in the third century B.C.E.? Think again.
History Mesh is actually a slight misnomer, since the London Tube Map is less a mesh than a repurposed wiring diagram. And history really is more like a messy mesh than a crisp schematic. But History Mesh’s clever visualization still draws more connections between storylines than we’re used to seeing. It’s not exhaustive, but its four conceptual strands–Automatons, Computing, Power, and Textiles–are at once incongruous and adjacent enough to spark lots of intriguing exploration. That connection between water puppets, for example, lies in the Automatons timeline just before a node explaining how an automatic flute player invented in ninth-century Baghdad abstracted the idea of “automaton” over machines that weren’t necessarily designed to be lifelike, and could be “programmed” to perform different actions. As what History Mesh calls “the first programmable machine,” the automatic flute player sits at an intersection between two ur-technologies: the ability to imbue inanimate objects with “life” (automation) and the ability to make objects transform information (computation).
Did one precede the other? That’s a less interesting question than, “How did they inform one another?” And that’s what History Mesh tries to illuminate. Its Tube Map-style visualization is a clever and elegant compromise between the very normal, human urge to understand events in a linear, “first this, then this” progression, with all the forward momentum that implies–and the unavoidable fact that transformative ideas in history don’t actually unfurl in a neatly compartmentalized way.
The interaction design of the site itself is a little janky, but that’s because it was built quickly in a hackathon-like team effort by a group called dev/fort. History Mesh may not be perfect, but it does provide a framework to understand and survey a 50,000-foot view of technological history that feels as familiar and comprehensible as your morning commute. Maybe “graphic design” could be another strand on its map.