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How Napoleon inspired the computer


Ever wondered whether it is possible to link all knowledge? It’s more than a little ambitious, but if you could, just think what you could do to construct interesting narratives for brands, particularly if it’s all about the stories we tell.

The James Burke Institute have developed a project called the Knowledge Web, which is “an expedition in time, space, and technology to map the interior landscape of human thought and experience.” Sounds a bit grand doesn’t it? But in essence, they come from a standpoint that modern education techniques have the tendency to encourage specialised learning and thinking (e.g. if you specialise in Physics, you’re unlikely to also do History) – in other words learning more and more about less and less.

This, they say, creates the illusion that knowledge and discovery exist in a vacuum. They exist only in the context of their own disciplines. Instead, in reality, they are born from interdisciplinary connections. And if you can’t see these connections, "history and science won’t be learnable in a truly meaningful way and innovation will be stifled.

This, I think, echoes the value of multi-disciplinary, lateral, and perhaps unconventional approaches in advertising and media. The world is full of connections – we have more of them than ever – yet great ideas, and great results, often come from making a connection between two seemingly unrelated or remote concepts. And this can only happen if our thinking about advertising and about brands is open to different, original, and fresh stimulus.

So how did Napoleon inspire the modern computer?

“Napoleon’s troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.”

Link courtesy the excellent Mike Love’s blog

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