Follow in the footsteps of geeks

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website too]

About ten years ago I went on a family holiday to Cornwall, and one day I dragged my unwilling kids to a delightful but otherwise undistinguished beach so I could point out to them the spot where the world’s first undersea telegraph cable came ashore in 1870.

They were about as impressed by Porthcurno beach as they had been on our trip to the fabled Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo, which my son memorably recalls as ‘mounds in a field’, but I felt a moment of geek joy that has stayed with me since.

That first cable linked Britain to India, and helped create a communications revolution that transformed the world. The telegraph, as Tom Standage makes clear in his excellent book, was ‘The Victorian Internet’, and undersea cables were vital to its development. The cable at Porthcurno was the precursor of the Seacom cable that has just gone live in Kenya, and is a direct antecedent of the complex web of fibre-optic cables that make today’s Internet possible.

The museum was closed on the day I made it to the beach, and no amount of persuasion would persuade my kids that the drive was worth making a second time.  But if I’d had The Geek Atlas with me I would have been able to plan my trip properly and managed to make it into tunnels, dug during the Second World War, and explored the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.

John Graham-Cumming’s book The Geek Atlas is a travel guide for those interested in the history of science, mathematics and technology, and lists 128 sites around the world, including Porthcuno and nearby Polhdu from which Marconi made the first transatlantic radio transmission. And if I have to explain why there are 128 entries you shouldn’t be reading the book.

Locations range from the Jacquard Museum in Roubaix, France, where you can see the punched-card weaving technology that inspired Herman Hollerith’s tabulating machine and led to modern computers, to the Stadtfriedhof in Gottingen, Germany. Max Planck, Friedrich Wohler and David Hilbert are among the many notable scientists and mathematicians buried there, while Carl Gauss can apparently be found just across town in the Albanifriedhof.

It’s primarily a guidebook, with details of the historic importance of each site accompanied by visitor details and, of course, the precise latitude and longitude of each place listed so you can plug in into your GPS tracker and make sure you’re on exactly the right spot.  If you don’t have a GPS tracker you’re probably outside the target market.

But each entry also has background information on the science, maths or technology itself, with entries covering complex numbers (Broom Bridge, Dublin), penicillin (Alexander Fleming Laboratory, at St Mary’s Hospital, London) and the infinite loop (Apple HQ, Cupertino, CA), so it’s worth picking up even if you’re stuck inside during a typical British summer deluge.

Geeks cover the world, and the atlas offers places to visit in Australia, Ecuador, Japan and the Ukraine, but forty-five  of them are in the UK and therefore more accessible than the magnetic north pole or the White Sands missile testing range in New Mexico, USA.

So if you’re planning a summer break in the UK this year, whether because of the financial situation, your desire to reduce your C02 output or just because it’s a lovely country, you should pack The Geek Atlas along with your National Trust handbook and good hotel guide.

First stop, of course, has to be 51° 59’ 47.44” N, 0° 44’ 33.94” W – better known as  Bletchley Park, home of the British code breaking efforts during the Second World War and now also the location of the fabulous National Museum of Computing, but you might also find time to visit Manchester for the Science Walk and the Eagle pub in Cambridge.

The site of the old Mathematical Laboratory where the EDSAC computer was built doesn’t get an entry, perhaps because it’s now a modern lecture theatre with a plaque on the wall, but I’m prepared to forgive that omission and head off to discover places I hadn’t even heard of, and find out more about the places where science, mathematics and technology happened or is still happening.

It’s our geek heritage, and the more we make people aware of it the more likely it is to be preserved in some way. After all, the work that Hooke and Boyle and Newton did during the Enlightenment has had at least as much impact on the modern world as that of the artists, architects, authors and musicians who make it into the big national museums.

The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive, was written by John Graham-Cumming and is published by O’Reilly Media.
50p from each UK sale for the next year is being donated to Bletchley Park

Bill’s Links

Seacom goes live:
Tom Standage: The Victorian Internet:
My guided tour of Cambridge computing history:
BoingBoing on the Geek Atlas:
Geek Atlas Flickr Group:
Geek Atlas and Bletchley Park:

4 Replies to “Follow in the footsteps of geeks”

  1. I love Porthcurno too. My wife thought I was having her on when I told her about undersea telegraph cables being laid across the Atlantic until she saw it for herself!

    The museum itself is very interesting. I seem to recall it being underground and felt like something out of a Bond film to me. The Minack open air theatre is also fabulous, though I didn’t get a chance to see anything performed when I was down there.

  2. There’s a TV show produced here in Canada which features crime solving in the 1890s in Toronto.

    What’s interesting is that it shows some of the new technology of the era with “cameos” from Tesla, Conan Doyle, and other personalities and concepts like internal combustion engines on bicycles, robots…

    They use state-of-the-art forensics like “finger-marks” (finger prints) to show us that while we think we live in an age of new technology, it has been quite evolutionary and probably just as, or more exciting more than a hundred years ago.

    The show is Murdoch Mysteries, and features at least one name you might be familiar with across the pond. (Thomas Craig, of Where the Heart Is and Coro)

    For people who like the CSI/Law & Order type shows, coupled with history, and a bit of tech, it may be worth tracking down DVDs.

  3. Bill

    I had not read any of your writing before. Reading this you truly are a geek, but so am I, so I loved your post. The Geek Atlas sounds like a great Christmas present.

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