October 7, 2003

Software in the 17th Century...

[This is an old thing I'm reposting because I'm reading Quicksilver, where Samuel Pepys sometimes appears...]


My readers probably think I'm an antiquarian crank for occasionally quoting Samuel Pepys. Little do you know. Sam Pepys was one of the people who invented our world.

Pepys (pronounced 'peeps') lived in the 17th Century. There was at that time a movement of radical young software developers who were deploying a powerful new operating system; one that was to change the world in remarkable ways. Pepys was one of them.

The goal of these revolutionaries was to replace ad hoc management by cronies of the King with a corps of dedicated experts operating out of permanent government departments. They wished to replace rule of thumb with rational analysis, and improvisation with orderly procedure. Their success was an important part of what made it possible for the West to dominate the entire globe.

We call that new OS Bureaucracy. Now of course it's an old OS; old and creaky and inefficient. Our modern world runs on top of it, sort of like Windows running on top of DOS.

What about Pepys himself, what did he do? Well, have you ever wondered why we have a Secretary of Defense? Secretary seems like an odd word to use. Secretaries and clerks were sort of the nerds and techs of that new OS. The were the systems guys, and, like now, they rode new technologies into positions of power.

Samuel Pepys himself was a "secretary," he was Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board (which was responsible for ships and supplies). It was not then an important position, but under the new system the person controlling the paperwork could become very influential. Pepys hated the waste and disorder he saw around him, and began organizing the office, and learning everyone else's jobs. Filing and accounting were information technologies that he wielded to great effect.

One result, typical of his style, was a book of abstracts of every contract the Navy Board had ever let. With this database in hand he could quickly compare prices and terms with what had been done in the past. Though the other members of the Board were, initially, greatly senior to him, his stock began to rise. He went on to become the most important naval administrator of his time, and when you hear of the glorious history of the British Navy, some of the credit goes to him.

Historically minded readers will be aware that I've grossly oversimplified various complex matters, but this is just for fun.

* And here's a quote from an essay on Pepys by Robert Louis Stevenson...(Other Pepys posts here and

Posted by John Weidner at October 7, 2003 9:43 AM
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