Category Archives: history

Cloudy words, faster than horses


Prior to the Internet, radio, and telegraph, the fastest human communication on Earth belonged to African drums. They were amazing, really; while northern Europeans would send messages via slow horses, which can go 50 miles per hour in short bursts but only 17 mph galloping long distances, villages across Africa could speak to each other via drum signals at the speed of sound, using drums with only two tones. Messages passed from village to village could travel faster than 100 miles per hour (given the time to hear and resend the drum signals). If invaders struck or fire spread, villages thousands of miles apart could know within half a day.

The question, of course, is how was this possible? The drums carried only two sounds (an upper and lower pitch, created by playing two separate drums). Unlike Morse Code, there was no consistent African alphabet to be transcribed into dots and dashes. How could information about war, or whether to meet by the river, be encrypted in such simple drum signals?

It worked because African languages had a secret that took decades for European intruders to discover: they were based on both sounds (like English) and pitch (high or low notes). In English, we use pitch infrequently, at its most basic to distinguish a statement from a question (You are mad, downbeat. You are mad?, upbeat.) By contrast, in many African tongues, as James Gleick profiles in The Information, minor nuances in tone change the definition of each word. Alambaka boili expressed one way means “he watched the riverbank”; alambaka boili with a different series of pitches means “he boiled his mother-in-law.”

But drumming information remained a challenge — because African language required both sound and pitch, and drum beats removed the human sounds. Drummers relying solely on tones had to create an entirely new language; because tones by themselves could signal several different words, the drummers solved this problem by adding several other words of context to each phrase of beats. Say you needed to drum the word “bird.” To remove ambiguity, drummers signaling the message would beat “the foul, the little one that says kiokio.” Every term used others to clarify itself. Gleick writes, “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate.”

It was an ingenious solution to a complex communication problem. Sadly, the drum language is being replaced by the Internet and text messaging.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+. Image: Martin Sharman.

J.S. Bach, backward time and brand history

One of the puzzles of physics is there is no mathematical reason why time flows forward and not backward as well — all the theories that explain the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces work equally well in either direction. (All right, entropy gives time a push, but we digress.) There is a universe in which you are still a baby, so why aren’t you headed back to mommy now?

Humans are myopic and we tend to focus on today and tomorrow, explaining wars and politics and the corporate obsession with quarterly results (see our debate with @swoodruff and @obilon). Marketers fall into this immediacy trap often, thinking up the latest campaign to give their product sales a lift … without examining the context of their customers’ history. U.S. automakers fell into this boat in 2009, approaching bankruptcy as it dawned on them a vast swath of Americans still doesn’t want to buy their cars (trucks and SUVs, yes, but for smaller U.S. vehicles memories persist of the junky tin rigs sold in the 1970s).

If we are connected to our history, any communication must examine that context. You can’t repaint a brand today without understanding what it was yesterday. All perceptions of value are connected, and sometimes they form loops — like this beautiful riff by J.S. Bach.

Animation by Jos Leys. Via Andy Jukes at Million Monkeys.

The Rutledge Inn is gone. Totally gone.


We took a road trip last weekend to our teenage haunts, and on a whim drove past a country inn about 10 miles from the old home, on the edge of a Vermont lake, where we spent two summers working to save money for college. It was a magical resort, the location of early romances (the inn had more than a dozen waitresses compared to us few “handymen”), and had the old-fashioned entertainment that once ruled vacation spots in New England. Boat rides. Shuffleboard. Thursday evening picnic and talent show by the staff. Necking on the shore.

Trouble is, the inn is gone. The main building has been razed, the dance hall removed, and in their place is an empty lawn on one side of the lake road and a new McMansion on the other.

We drove back to reality and Googled “Rutledge Inn, Vermont,” to try to find a record or photos of what we remembered. A big wraparound porch. A dozen cottages hidden in the trees. A laundry outbuilding out back that once caught fire, and made us a modest hero for seeing the blaze and rushing in to stop it.

Nothing.

All of this made us realize how new today’s information nimbus of the internet is. In 2008, you can find almost anyone or anything of note online, with reviews, photos, histories of communications, an entire wikipedia on almost any topic. But that all began back in about 1999, and before then, anything you remembered either made a book, or hopefully a few photos in a cupboard.

Anything before the internet is fragile and fading fast. The Rutledge Inn stood for about a century, generated untold love tangles and perhaps a few children, and Google has barely a whiff of its passing. Some engineer named Paul mentions it briefly on his cycling blog, but that’s it.

We wonder if today’s blogs and electronic records will really be more lasting than old photos a few decades from now. We also wonder if Paul dated the same waitress.