Maxed Out: Ancient and Modern Tablets

Reading time ( words)

by Max (Clive) Maxfield

My mind is currently buzzing with thoughts about tablets that are used to capture, record, store, and – in some cases – process information.

As fate would have it, I have two tablet devices sitting on my desk. One is an iPad 2 tablet computer that is pretty much state-of-the-art for today. The other is a clay tablet that was considered state-of-the-art 4,200 years ago.

Clay Tablets

Let’s start with my clay tablet. I purchased it from a company called the Sadigh Gallery that specializes in ancient artifacts; this little beauty arrived in my office just a few minutes ago as I pen these words.

Let’s set the scene: The area known as Mesopotamia (during the time known as the Bronze Age) is widely considered to be the cradle of civilization. The name Mesopotamia comes from the ancient Greek meaning “The land between the rivers,” where the main rivers in question were the Tigris and the Euphrates. The area embraced by Mesopotamia largely corresponds to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and southwestern Iran.

Of particular interest to us here is the Sumerian civilization, which spanned thousands of years from around 5300 BC to 2900 BC. As seen in the map below, Sumer was located in the southern part of Mesopotamia, a little north of what we now know as the Persian Gulf.

Figure 1. Map showing the locations of some of the earliest civilization.

One of the earliest known forms of written expression is cuneiform script, which emerged in Sumer around the 30th century BC. Cuneiform writing was created by pressing the symbols into soft clay with the slanted edge of a stylus (possibly a stick or a bone or a reed). The tablets were later fired to make them rock-hard. Cuneiform was not a written language like English – instead it was a picture-writing system that used symbols, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Chinese system of ideographs.

Over the millennia, the original pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew gradually smaller (from about 1,000 unique characters in the Early Bronze Age to about 400 unique characters in Late Bronze Age).

Figure 2. An example of cuneiform script.

As one little tidbit of trivia, the Sumerians had three distinct counting systems to keep track of land, produce, and animals. On the basis that these were three different “things,” they used a completely different set of symbols for each system! (I’m sure this made sense at the time).

The picture below shows me holding my small terracotta tablet (only 1.75 x 1.5 inches) with five lines of cuneiform inscriptions on both sides. It is incredible to me to know that I’m holding something that was created 4,200 years ago (2200 BC). It’s also amazing to think that this was around the same time that the first stones were being erected at Stonehenge in England (give or take a few hundred years).

Figure 3. A cuneiform tablet dating back 4,200 years.

I cannot describe what it feels like to hold this tablet – it literally sends shivers down my spine. I also cannot but help wondering who created it and for what purpose. And, of course, I have to wonder what it says. I tried using the Google Goggles app on my Android smartphone in the vague hope that this would translate the tablet for me, but the app decided that I was holding a small cake, so that wasn’t much help.

Maybe one day I will discover what this writing means. I suppose there’s a chance it contains an interesting mathematical theory or some deep philosophical musings – more likely it’s something a little more mundane like a recipe or a laundry list (“Three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, not too heavy on the starch”). I really don’t care – I just love knowing that someone created something that can “talk” to me over thousands and thousands of years. Also, I wonder what the tablet’s creator would have thought about the fact that I would be talking about this artifact 4,200 years in their future.

Today’s Tablet Computers

And so we return to the present day in general and my iPad 2 tablet computer in particular. As an aside, I’m currently reading a really interesting biography on Bill Gates called Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews (I already read Paul Allen’s Memoir Idea Man and Steve Wozniak’s biography iWoz, and I’m eagerly awaiting the Steve Jobs Biography by Walter Isaacson, which is scheduled to hit the streets on 24 October 2011).

Anyway, while reading the Bill Gates biography (which is tremendously interesting), I discovered that someone back in the mid-1970s envisaged a day when something like a modern tablet computer would exist. I think this was amazingly visionary, but I bet he had no idea as to the raw processing power of an iPad 2 and the sophistication of the sound and graphics.

All of which leads us to the fact that I always tell people that I’m really not a big player of computer games, but I make an exception in the case of an incredible creation called Machinarium. As is illustrated in the screenshot below, the action takes place in a Steampunk-style robotic city. All I can say is that the animated graphics and subtle sound effects are simply mind-boggling.

Figure 4. A screen shot from Machinarium.

We control a little robot called Josef (the small silver robot in the lower left-hand corner of the image above). The goal of the game is to solve a series of puzzles and brain teasers, some of which are so convoluted that they make my brain ache. By tapping different areas on the screen with your finger you can make Josef move around, collect and use objects, and perform various tasks. This scene reflects just one location out of many – each is a delight to see and each presents its own conundrums to be solved.

For only $4.95, this game – which took many, many person-years to create – is an absolute bargain. Quite apart from anything else, it will keep you engrossed for hours (or weeks in my case). This is also something that would be fun to work on with your kids; it would help them with their problem-solving skills and give you something to do together that everyone will enjoy.

Until next time, have a good one!

Clive (Max) Maxfield is founder/consultant at Maxfield High-Tech Consulting. He is the author and co-author of a number of books, including Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics) and How Computers Do Math featuring the pedagogical and phantasmagorical virtual DIY Calculator. To contact Max, click here. 


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