Search This Blog

Friday, 28 March 2014

Steering a course through cyberspace

Cyberspace, that ill-defined area controlled by computer technology, first appeared in William Gibson's Neuromancer, but that was just one point in a long trail that began with the ancient Greeks.

The old Greeks called the art of steering a boat something that sounded like 'kubernan', but for complicated reasons to do with the ways we transliterate Greek into our alphabet, we write this as cybernan. The Romans were more accurate when they adopted this word into Latin as gubernare, calling the steersman a gubernator, a word that lives on in American English in 'gubernatorial race', a competition to elect a governor.

In the engineering sense, a governor is once again involved with a sort of steering. In simple terms, it is a control device which stops something from running out of control, and cybernetics is intended to carry that same sense of control, of maintenance of the status quo.
Watt's governor

James Watt did not invent the first steam engine, but he invented a governor, the first automatic speed control for a steam engine. This neat gadget featured two brass balls and a series of levers called a pantograph (another Watt invention that he later adapted to reproduce drawings, among other things). Watt's 'governor', from the Latin word, reduces the steam supply when it spins faster, and increases the steam supply when it runs slow, and thus by feedback (another Watt invention), it controls the engine's speed.

With careful design, the steam engine and the governor ease into a compromise where the engines spins at constant speed, and the governor holds the balls at a constant angle, so the steam supply is held constant.

Norbert Wiener went to the Greek word to name his method of aiming guns to shoot down German 'buzz bombs' (which used feedback controls as well), he dubbed his control systems and their study "cybernetics". And that, in turn, gave us cyborgs, cyberspace, cybercrime and cybersex, so now 'cyber' means anything done by computer communication. But the language progresses: if people who know each other in cyberspace meet in the real world, they are in meatspace.

In nautical space, the item used by the steersman to control the ship was a stéorbord in Old English, a rudder or paddle placed over the side of a ship, traditionally on the steerboard side, which became the starboard side. The other side of the ship used to be called the larboard side, and this is often explained as a corruption of lee-board, but this is unlikely for a number of reasons.

It is rather more likely that larboard comes from the Middle English laddeborde or latheborde. This indicated the side of the ship from which loading took place, now called the port side, also meaning the side from which loading took place, but preferred by sailors because it was less likely to be confused with 'starboard' when shouted in an order given in a howling gale.

Sadly, one bit of folk etymology attaching to port and starboard, the alleged origin of 'posh' is completely untrue. The yarn has it that 'posh' stands for 'port outward, starboard home', indicating those who, in travelling from England to India, were to be allocated the cabins on the shadier port side while sailing to India, and the shadier starboard cabins sailing back to England. It is a pretty tale, but one entirely unsupported by any evidence. In reality, 'posh' probably was a slang term for money.

Some things change slowly: young people going to see are still taught that "If two lights you see ahead, port your helm and show your red", which means swinging the tiller over to the port side, which turns the bows to starboard, showing the port light, which is red, yet the tiller was replaced by the ship's wheel soon after 1700.  Small boats still have a tiller, but few of them have navigation lights.

This tiller, nothing to do with farming, was the grooved stock of a crossbow, and hence a beam of similar size used to control a rudder, a word which comes from the same root as 'row', reminding us that originally the helmsman steered with an oar-like paddle.

But why was he called the helmsman? Did he have a special hat, a turn-helm? Apparently not: the steering sort of helm was a hjalm in Old Norse, and that was just another name for the tiller. When Mao Zedong was acclaimed as the Great Helmsman, he may have governed many people, but he did not need a Chairman Mao hat to qualify for the title.

No comments:

Post a Comment