Up until about 150 years ago the only recording devices on earth were humans. We notched bones, painted caves, tracked the planets, told history in hieroglyphs. We have records from the Ice Age forward. Robins don’t notch their tree to keep track of the nestfuls they’ve had this season. Just us, with our language skills and our big brains, we keep track of things.
We began to document by counting and by picturing. Those oddly-proportioned horses painted at Lascaux? They looked like that back then. Our ancestor humans recorded their form. Today scientists can analyze fossil bones and deduce mountains of minutia about those ancient horses. This is fascinating, but doesn’t resonate like records made by living hands.
Another way to record, say an epic saga, is to have designated people in society whose prodigious memories can pass knowledge down the centuries. These were records too, but we can’t discover them. Then when writing developed, stories, songs, the invisibles, got written down. Think about some six thousand years of hand-scribed clay tablets, papyruses, parchments.
Until the printing press hurtled humanity in new directions. At first it didn’t even record, it copied what had already been recorded by tired-eyed monks. It came along in the 1400s, as the recording techniques of painters and sculptors were getting more precise. As explorers sailed out toward the unknown. As critical thinking arose and scientific investigation, with its arguments and dialogs, got underway.
Now there is recording, and there is having something to record. The pomp of a visiting medieval prince’s entry into an ally’s capital could take a full day of caparisoned horses, music makers, bejeweled lords and ladies, craft guilds in gaudy livery, all chronicled with the meticulous eye of a society reporter accountable to the king. But back when Lascaux was painted there would not have been the head count, the organizational skills, the silks and stranded pearls. They painted what they knew.
And for long ages all that humans knew was what their eyes could see, their ears could hear, their imaginations believed. The complete outer limit of the known world was what your group picked up from travelers. Even in Paleolithic times there were curiosity and trade. But societies until very recent times have had frontiers where their geographic and cultural knowledge stopped. Their worldly perimeter — beyond which, air and question marks.
Eurasians are thought to have reached the Americas some 12,000 years ago, but they don’t seem to have kept the memory of their far-off home. On a new continent they forgot about a wider world and their perimeters now ended in the new. Vikings, Kon Tiki, the Clovis People — humans seem to migrate and forget. But the Western world had grown into chroniclers and when they launched out across the seas they wrote and mapped. Then the compass of the human world exploded. These people recorded, they learned, they did not forget.
Humans also found new ways to explore without embarking on sea voyages or treks. Magnifiers, fire starters were known 3000 years ago. Eyeglasses came along less than a 1000 years ago, extending a myopic’s knowable world. But about 500 years back optics begin radically expanding the human perimeter with microscopes and telescopes. We saw wild new things and drew them, we developed technologies to document in unimagined ways. Think how familiar we are with a fruit fly’s close-up beauty shot.
Scientific instruments were developed — here it comes, fast as it happened in the arc of human history — Galileo sees Jupiter’s moons with a telescope, Herschel discovers Uranus with a better one, Daguerreotype portraits become de rigueur, Edison invents recorded sound… Charlie Chaplin, CinemaScope, Avatar.
Photron and GelSight are among the new technologies for capture and display that this blog will enjoy investigating further. Geek love, yes, but the artist in me sees that art will take these devices further than their makers can imagine. Artists and their quirky, deep-seeing, strange right brains.