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What a Character! (Book Review)

book cover Characters of the Information and Communication Industry
By Richard F. Bellaver
AuthorHouse, 2006

When I started to read this 300 plus page book, I thought: What a humdrum title. What have we got here? ASCII characters or some of the current weirdoes of our industry? What I discovered was a wealth of historical data, technology details, and personal quirks of some of the fabulous—almost mythical—people who have animated and adorned our world of technology, computers, and communication. The amazing, tumultuous, and awe-inspiring journey begins with Gutenberg and continues onward to the present day, 500 years later.

I must first mention that Professor Bellaver of Ball State University has forty years of experience in telecommunications and information technology, and has served as a UPA Board member. He candidly admits that the book is a collection of graduate papers he has edited and embellished from a course he has taught for fifteen years. Unfortunately, this heritage shows: from typos in the foreword of the book, the use of underlined text instead of italics (as though a quaint throwback to typewritten student reports from the 1960s and ‘70s), and a writing style that is sometimes bland, resembling encyclopedia entries, with occasional ambiguities or loose ends left unexplained. For example, Charles Babbage “produced eight children, but only three sons survived to adulthood.” How many sons did he have originally? Is the number of surviving sons important? One begins to wonder about the quality of graduate student writing capabilities, the ability to construct cogent arguments, and the ability to employ our language’s full power to embellish structured thought. I began to fear for this gradual degradation when I taught at Princeton University in the 1970s. This book is a sampler from about thirty years later. Bellaver’s own text has much more engaging rhetorical flourishes, as demonstrated in his foreword.

Despite these minor off-putting characteristics (which make one want to read through the book with a red pen to mark the typos or writing-style expressions that need editing,) the basic premise and content of the book should interest anyone who is curious about information technology, the emergence of computers, the recent centuries of personal and mass communication, and the personalities that have produced these far-reaching changes. The text holds many nuggets of curious facts, uproarious oddities, technical details, and personality quirks. The book’s title is indeed about character, as well as unforgettable characters, including Blaise Pascal, who is described on page 18 (alas, anonymously) as “precocious, stubbornly persevering, a perfectionist, pugnacious to the point of bullying ruthlessness, yet seeking to be meek and humble.” Then Bellaver asks rhetorically “Does this remind you of any one in our business these days?” I had to smile as I mused upon possible resemblances. Or, in a later passage, Charles Babbage is described as “notoriously incoherent when he spoke in public.” The chapters are replete with:

  • Detailed descriptions of technical accomplishments
  • Geographic/historical milieu
  • Spouses, parents, siblings, offspring, and other complex family relations
  • The seemingly random role of bets, dares, bluffs, and accidents
  • The psychological, legal, financial, and educational struggles of the protagonists
  • Occasional breakdowns in physical, emotional, and mental health

This should give you a sense for the richly textured panorama.

What emerges are underlying shared threads of struggle, perseverance, unexpected twists of narrative, and frequent (but not certain) achievement of successful innovation through bold initiatives. The heroes and heroines are impatient souls, sometimes too far ahead of their times, led by potent visions of what can be, of what, for them, inevitably must be. After Gutenberg, the book holds forth on world-stage events (but focuses primarily on European and North American originators, most of them male, but does include women including Ada Byron/Lady Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Barbara Walters) such as the emergence of printed books, the newspaper and freedom of the press, the first calculators and computers, the first electrical devices, the telegraph and telephone, the AT&T monopoly, IBM, radio and television, the personal computer, and eventually the Internet. In addition to numerous factoids—the average wage for a servant in the City of London in the early eighteenth century was four-to-five cents per day; the first transistor radio sold by Raytheon cost $80 in 1954—the story of innovation touches on many modern themes and issues: who exactly innovates? Who benefits? Who controls? What is the role of government? What are appropriate levels of censorship, monopolies, and intellectual property rights? How does convergence stimulate new technology directions?

Once you begin reading a chapter—any of the twenty-one in this book—you may find it hard to stop. Despite the occasional imperfections of scholarship, the book is an informative, entertaining collection of biographies and narratives of technology development during the past half-millennium. By recounting the past, the author provides much food for thought regarding how we consider our current innovators and their likely future.