Essay/History of Technology

The hand-held’s tale

For centuries, the powerful would never hold anything useful for themselves. How did devices become universal luxuries?

Joyce E Chaplin

Detail from Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze 1532. Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Courtesy Wikimedia

Joyce E Chaplin

is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. Her latest book is Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit (2012).


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Behold Shalmaneser III. The neo-Assyrian ruler lords it over everyone else on the Black Obelisk made in 825 BCE in his honour, now in the British Museum. Two servants or slaves attend him, each holding items for his convenience, with a parasol extended over him. Shalmaneser is not comparably encumbered. He surveys advancing lines of men from defeated nations who bear tribute, on their heads, on their backs, in their hands. He holds a small and probably ceremonial vessel in one hand, with the other resting on the hilt of his sword – his hands and implements designate his superiority over the laden. In ancient art, these obviously different manual postures were standard. In the tomb of the Egyptian official Nebamun, a wall painting shows him seated, holding symbols of his office, while servants or slaves present livestock. One man holds a basket of fowls, another a goad to herd oxen. Their hands work. Nebamun’s hands are free, showing his station above manual labour.

Whatever the finer social distinctions in pre-industrial societies, the main one divided those who worked with their hands from those who did not – ever. Anything hand-held made the bearer’s status clear. Egyptian rulers went into the afterlife clutching the flail and sceptre they had borne in real life. Sceptres and orbs would continue to represent earthly rule. Swords advertised military might. Books stood for the word of God and the ability to interpret it. Keys represented access to real or unearthly realms. These were things worth holding precisely because they symbolised freedom from quotidian effort, to which the vast majority were consigned. And yet the hand-held device is now the great equaliser. The squillionaire clutches the iPhone 6, but so might the underpaid worker who assembled it in semi-gulag conditions somewhere. The development of the hand-held’s marvellously tiny technology is interesting, of course. But our shared willingness to fill our hands openly and daily with these devices is the more important historical transformation.

These days, technology tends to mean high-tech, specifically electronic gadgets. In fact, technology is anything that humans have crafted to maintain or enhance life, from the plow to the selfie stick. The device on which you’re reading this essay is technology, but so is whatever you’re wearing.

For most of history, human labour was a technology substitute, with humans the instruments of other humans, their hands not really their own. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which notes the earliest known uses of words, lists many pre-1150 CE Old English instances when ‘hand’ was added to an object’s name to indicate its handiness: ‘hand-axe’, ‘handbell’, ‘handbook’, ‘handcloth’, all preceded by the early Old English ‘handle’. But also quite old are the revealing ‘handmaid’ (c1300), ‘handmaiden’ (c1350), ‘handwoman’ and ‘handservant’ (both 1382). It was mostly women who were to lend their hands. ‘Handman’ came into English usage nearly two centuries (1496) after ‘handmaid’.

This status difference – working with one’s hands versus not – governed Western culture into the 20th century. If the society allowed it, anyone who could afford to do so owned slaves or kept servants to hand them things rather than pick them up themselves, let alone carry them – or (almost unthinkable) actually use them. Hence the multiple waiting persons and gofers who survived even into the 20th century: the valet with the silver-backed hairbrushes, the lady’s companion with the smelling salts, the nanny with the travelling rug. If you were anyone at all, you avoided touching the hands of people who handled everyday things. Surviving traces of that preference include the small, adorable, cushion-carrying ring‑bearer at a certain kind of wedding, and the small, convenient tray on which cash payment and change are placed in certain kinds of shops – high-end in the United States, but also just supermarkets in Italy.

Even skilled labour was debased, along with its technical equipment, including some ancestors of hand-held GPS. Navigational instruments, for instance, belonged to the least respected of pre-modern working men: sailors, the desperados so unemployable on land that they had to go to sea. Only over time would portraits said to be of Christopher Columbus (none done from life) include the tools of his trade. The earliest, by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519, shows the subject with the beautifully idle, uncalloused hands of a gentleman. Only much later would subsequent paintings fill Columbus’ hands with plumb lines, charts and astrolabes, which he had surely handled before his promotion to captain and admiral. But it would not be respectable for an officer to brag about that until the late-18th century, at the earliest, because to do so would have weakened his ranking superiority over ordinary sailors, the working men who used their hands all the time.

So though most of human history is the history of technology, the hand-held device occupies but a small place within it. Objects habitually clasped in a hand were rare, not least because most artificial things exceeded the size of a hand or were otherwise heavy and awkward. An astrolabe was only just hand-held. Backstaffs, sextants and octants – essential navigational technology from the 16th through 18th centuries – were big and awkward. They were stowed away when not needed. Mechanical clocks were even bigger, with works the size of a small room in the case of turret clocks, the kind of mechanical clock that most people in the Middle Ages were likely to consult.

Then the clockwork shrank. By the late 1400s, a rich person could hang a clock on a wall or sit it atop a table for all to admire. By the 1500s, someone with means could hold a timepiece in their hand, though the smaller pocket-watches, available from the late 1600s onward, were usually put into pockets and sometimes also pinned or clipped to clothing. These were not hand-held devices but status jewellery on which the ‘hand’ in question was the one that pointed to the hour on the clock face. Minute hands weren’t standard‑issue until the 18th century. Even then, watches were so unreliable as to make a minute hand superfluous.

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It didn’t help that science and technology were not things that respectable people did. Because they were in fact pursued by the low-born – however clever they were, however arcane their knowledge – those skills were associated with hand-held drudgery. ‘Computers’ used to be humans, for example. By the early 19th century, they would be women, the numerate handmaidens regarded as docile yet trainable beings who could patiently tot up numbers, for hours on end, as they did for astronomical calculations.

There things would have remained, with technical expertise and manual know-how mere dreary drudgery, the domain (like kitchen work) of women and girls – but for war. Just as Shalmaneser III’s ancient hand atop his ancient sword hinted that military equipment was exempt from the prejudice against hand tools, so would war dignify technical instrumentation. Military need would transform technical know-how and its manual operations into respectable and manly endeavours.

Long before the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed high-tech destined to trickle down to civilians, British and French naval authorities did it by encouraging the development of chronometers, portable timepieces able to cope with turbulence at sea. John Harrison’s celebrated prototype H-1 was the size of a large mantelpiece clock, but his sea-tested H-5 was more like an overgrown pocket watch. In his portrait by Thomas King of c1767, Harrison holds H-5 triumphantly in his right hand.

From naval specialty items, timepieces became consumer goods, and thus the first widely owned hand-held devices. Here I propose Chaplin’s Law: every eventual hand-held device has shrunk from an earlier portable incarnation, one that had to be borne by two hands, if not an arm or two flung companionably round it. As with the accurate watch, descended from bigger clocks, so with cameras, radios, telephones, computers, TV systems and pinball machines (the original game consoles). All of them underwent the H-1 to H-5 shrinkage, from portable-by-embrace to palm-sized or smaller, yet never so small as to sacrifice the ability of the human eye to see the artificial ‘hand’ or other indicator. War did it first. And war would continue to generate fantasies of hand-held power. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, US diplomat in France and man of science (but known to have been an artisan who had worked with his hands), was rumoured to have ‘invented a machine of the size of a toothpick case… that would reduce St Paul’s to a handful of ashes’.

holding things, even when a person was willing to do it, might require artificial hands – pockets – or else extensions of hands: cases

The timepiece was hand-held technology’s first triumph. At last, by the early 19th century, practicality defeated snobbery. Industrialisation demanded it: steam power made transportation run to the minute, as it did to work in factories, with everyone subordinated to clock-time. Engineering and science gained in prestige. Even the well-born and well-off carried watches. In Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days (1872), the carelessly rich circumnavigating hero, Phileas Fogg, carries only two personal items, a railway timetable and a pocket watch – the pair go together. Of course, Fogg only sometimes handles his watch in order to consult it, otherwise consigning it to his pocket. His valet, Passepartout, totes everything else (including Fogg’s passport and cash) in a ‘sac de nuit’ or overnight case.

So holding things, even when a person was willing to do it, might require artificial hands – pockets – or else extensions of hands: cases. Pockets and cases both solved the problem of visibly clutching materials, like a yokel with a sack of fruit. Many early pockets were external pouches that attached to belts or other clothing. (When ‘Lucy Locket’ loses her ‘pocket’ in the nursery rhyme, she has mislaid part of her attire, not torn it off.) In the 18th century, women’s pockets were almost always detachable, and easily hidden in the hip-enhancing styles of the time. When dresses began to cling to the hips at the turn of the 19th century, many women switched to reticules, hand-held or wrist-borne bags. Even the noblewomen in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) carry reticules. But not the noblemen. By the Victorian era, however, men’s clothing incorporated far more pockets than women’s. A man could conceal extensive paraphernalia in his multiple pockets (trousers, vest, coat, overcoat) but a woman revealed much about her portables in the size and configuration of her handbag. She was her own handmaid, whereas men had hidden, sewn-in handservants.

Like women’s handbags, hand-borne cases carried without concealing much. Coverings that conformed to the dimensions of hand-held instruments had existed since ancient times, as with Egyptians’ portable cosmetics cases, still rather stylish. Musical and scientific instruments likewise had special cases, as did weapons; the French word étui described small versions made of precious materials. From them descended rigid cases for opera and field glasses (but also ordinary eyeglasses), vanity cases, cigarette cases, and all manner of framed pocketbooks and traveling portmanteaux. The smaller and more expensive these were, the more likely that even someone with servants might hold one him or herself.

But however elegant their design, many such articles remained faintly ridiculous, for the reason that anyone encumbered with one looked rather workaday. Thus the risible container in which the title character of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is, as a baby, mislaid at London’s Victoria railway station: not a dignified satchel, but ‘an ordinary handbag’, a contemptible article ‘whether it have handles or not’.

The wrist offered another extension of the hand, as Tolstoy’s reticuled ladies knew. ‘Bracelet watches’ were an alternative to pocketwatches, though initially regarded as undignified, odd, effeminate. Again, war changed things. Demand for no-hands precision in the Boer War (1899-1902) and then the First World War (1914-1918), when using effort – and time – to fetch a watch from a pocket could be fatally inefficient, rechristened the delicate bracelet watch as the manly ‘trench watch’. Thus the world acquired the ‘wristwatch’, a hit. Though by definition not hand-held, the wrist-watch prefigured some distinguishing features of our current devices. It was in constant contact with the body; its backside and band easily accumulated as much sweat and dirt as the face of your smartphone. And self-winding watches, with clockwork rather than oscillating crystals to drive their innards, need the human body to function – you move, your watch gets ‘wound’, and therefore it measures time. By becoming the servant of your device, you gain knowledge of the world beyond it, and beyond you.

But lest a watch seem too serviceable, it could (and can) be stunningly expensive. Any timepiece offered a space for consumer branding and status statement. Both Phileas Fogg and Passpartout carry pocketwatches, but the valet’s device is comically enormous in an era when mechanical shrinkage was signifying consumer expense. Following on from pocketwatches, the wristwatch came in simple and fancy versions, all the better to advertise status. The elegantly rectangular Cartier ‘tank’ might have been invented in patriotic reference to grimy battle, but it was after all a Cartier and priced accordingly. It was a body-borne signal of buying power, as is currently true of a selection from the high-end of the Apple Watch range.

Wristwatches set a pattern for all subsequent hand-held technology: one part yearning for the cutely small contrivance, one part borrowing from the boys in uniform, two new cultural preferences that shouldered aside the prejudice against holding your own stuff. The result has been a historically distinctive expectation among modern consumers: we too should have portable, accurate, high-tech accessories, ones so wonderful that we cannot wait to get our hands on them.

And thus the generation of the term ‘hand-held’. The OED notes its first occurrence in 1891, in England, recording enthusiasm for a new consumer good: the ‘hand-held camera’. That device, on demand, made images of what you were seeing. It could at last do so without bulky equipment and fraught manipulation of chemicals and glass plates, though it probably helped that photography, in its earlier incarnation, had been an expensive, therefore desirable hobby. Various entrepreneurs had developed ‘films’ treated with chemical emulsions that would take the image. As the films got smaller, so did the cameras. After 1888, hobby photographers could buy Kodaks, small box-cameras preloaded with film. Shutterbugs could send a used camera to Eastman-Kodak, which returned the developed photographs and another preloaded device: ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ was the company’s perfectly hand-held slogan. By the 1960s, inexpensive versions were about the size they tend to be today, slightly bigger than a cigarette case.

The 1923 release of the 16-millimetre Cine-Kodak made hand-held movie cameras available to consumers for the first time. These devices – eventually produced by a great many international competitors – were subsequently modified to produce film in colour and with sound. Recording daily events became a matter of raising a camera to an eye and pushing a button. And so it was a private citizen-consumer, Abraham Zapruder, who, on 22 November 1963, armed with a hand-held 8-millimetre Bell & Howell movie camera, generated what is still the best record of the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Hand-held sound was designed for the male iconoclast

The development of wireless communications and miniature electronics would shrink all hand-held technology, including cameras, further and faster. In 1899, one entrepreneur had predicted that there could be a ‘little instrument that one can almost carry in the pocket’ for sound transmission. Nikola Tesla more confidently predicted ‘a cheap and simple device, which might be carried in one’s pocket’. (Some early wireless communicators were even snuggled into pocket-watch cases.) The first ‘shirt-pocket’ radio, the Belmont Boulevard, released in 1945, used mini-components developed for hearing aids and weaponry. The transistor (invented in 1947, it switches an electronic signal’s direction or force) had its first commercial application with a radio that Texas Instruments released for Christmas in 1954. Given the solitary nature of the small sound machine, how apt that the top US single for December 1954 was the Chordettes’ sleepily forlorn Mr Sandman:

Sandman, I’m so alone

Don’t have nobody to call my own

Please turn on your magic beam

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream.

That woman’s plea, to a man with a magic beam, matched the era’s state of hand-held technology, still offered primarily to men. Transistor radios marketed as ‘shirt-pocket’ size were by definition radios intended for men, and increasingly young men who preferred rock music. Hand-held sound was designed for the male iconoclast. He did not have to put his radio in a handbag; he could slide it into handy niches in his shirt, moto jacket, or – above all – jeans.

In 1967, hoping to build consumer demand for products with microchips, the busy wizards at Texas Instruments released a cheap, small calculating device, the Cal-Tech, the first hand-held calculator. It liberated the calculating handmaidens. The vacuum-tube powered business machines that had begun to replace the toiling human ‘computers’ in the mid-20th century were just barely portable and cost about as much as a car. The other option, the slide rule, was hand-held (and inexpensive) but with a steep learning curve. Yet to do arithmetic with an electronic calculator, and even some forms of mathematics, was now a dumb, passive process. And with the aid of batteries, a person could do it on the move, for instance finishing homework or an office presentation while on the bus. Mainframe computers were still room-sized, but civilians had got their first taste of highly portable (semi-)artificial intelligence.

On it goes, with multiple functions miniaturised and adapted to wireless technology. Smushed within it, your device holds several diminished bits of history: clock, positioning system, camera, audio works, televisual display, phone, artificial intelligence, game console, all in one case, one that slips into a pocket of your jeans, now that you and everyone else can wear jeans pretty much every day. But the really interesting historical development is that you hold your device in your hand, proudly, for all to see. Rather than most of us being minions who work with our hands, we hold the equivalents of those efforts in our hands. There is no stigma; we are equals.

Consider James Bond. In the recent films, he wields a smartphone. In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Pierce Brosnan uses one to summon and pilot a BMW 750iL. Quite amusing, but in earlier films, Bond (meaning Sean Connery) was conspicuously served by human servants. That’s what Moneypenny and ‘Q’ were. To British viewers, it was obvious that Commander Bond (of the chronometer-developing Royal Navy) outranked them, socially and professionally. They toiled behind the scenes so he could show up in some glittering locale, encumbered at most by an attaché case and concealed weapon, hands free to adjust his tie, hoist a martini glass, grope the girl. Now he has his hands full with his bloody phone.

After all, if you have to carry its dead weight around, maybe you are your device’s servant. Among the interesting details that emerged during the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of email was that she and her husband, the former President Bill Clinton, communicated via their assistants’ personal devices. In at least one case, President Clinton made the call to his wife on his assistant’s phone. He is bucking the trend in which we break our necks to get, cherish and use our very own hand-held devices.

Clinton and Obama reaffirm a prejudice against the powerful carrying their own stuff. Squillionaires, take note

Maybe presidents don’t do that. Barack Obama doesn’t. Until 2011, he had Reggie Love, his ‘body man’, handle everything for him, meaning handle every thing for him. Obama called him ‘iReggie’ because the man was the equivalent of an iPad/iPod/ iPhone. Then there is the fabled ‘nuclear football’ – officially ‘the president’s emergency satchel’ – the briefcase containing the code and instructions with which a US president could launch an atomic attack. It is indeed hand-held. But an aide, not the president, carries the ‘magic beam’, the one that would ‘reduce St Paul’s [or wherever] to a handful of ashes’.

Knowingly or not, Clinton and Obama are reaffirming a prejudice, one even more ancient than Shalmaneser, against the powerful carrying their own stuff. Squillionaires, take note. This could be an alternative to the current arms race of acquiring ever‑smaller gadgetry. Moore’s law predicts that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double roughly every two years, but it’s not clear that the necessary technical shrinkage can continue indefinitely. What good is carrying a status symbol if it’s so small no one can see it?

Moore’s law might not hold up, but Chaplin’s Law will. So which of the now barely portable devices will soon become hand‑held? Or maybe the covetable devices of the future will resemble jewellery or étui, made of ebony and platinum, pearls and sharkskin? Or maybe – global employment rates depending – personal minions will become standard issue for the Shalmanesers of these latter days? Yet again, the powerful would never hold anything useful. No, they have people to do that for them.

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