Fossil Labour

Sometime in August 1769, miners at Mearn’s Pit in High Littleton, Somerset discovered that a rectangular drainage pipe they had constructed from elm wood was blocked. As in many mines, removal of water was a problem; so was ventilation. Around the end of 1766 they had sunk a new shaft to improve the airflow, but this brought more water coursing down the walls. They tackled this problem by installing lightly inclined wooden gulleys on the mine’s four sides to direct the flow to the 7.5 x 4 inch pipe. In turn, the pipe would carry the water off to a passage out of the mine about 42 feet below, probably pumped out by a Newcomen Engine – the early steam engine typically used at the time for this purpose. Less than three years later, their drainage system had begun to fail, prompting them to excavate and examine the pipe. This is a drawing of a cross-section of the pipe as they found it:

Cross-section of the blocked pipe, from Edward King, ‘Observations on a singular sparry incrustation found in Somersetshire’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 63, 1773.

It had become so scaled up with minerals that the water could not drain fast enough. The deposit had a certain peculiarity: it was striped with alternating dark and light bands quite evenly throughout, but for a point where a nail had penetrated the pipe’s side.

A sample of the deposit from Mearn’s Pit came into the hands of the Reverend Alexander Catcott of nearby Bristol, a theologian with an interest in fossils and geological strata who had just published the expanded second edition of his Treatise on the Deluge (1768). Fossil traces of apparently aquatic forms far from any ocean had of course, since antiquity, fuelled the idea in many cultures of a great primeval flood. Now, as ever-deeper mining operations driven by capitalist industry brought heightened awareness of the Earth’s strata and the fossils with which they were associated, the gentleman scientists of the era were increasingly puzzling over implications for the Genesis narrative in the pages of such publications as the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

Indeed, already in 1719 local landowner John Strachey, who had developed an interest in extracting the coal under his estates, had written to the Society with his observations about the regularity of strata in the area around High Littleton. Strachey diagrammed the regular, sloping bands.

Cross-section of the strata, with various ‘veynes’ of coal, from John Strachey, ‘A curious description of the strata observ’d in the coal-mines of Mendip in Somersetshire…’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 30, issue 360, 1719.

Of particular interest to those prospecting for coal, was that the regularity of these layers, always sloping towards the South East, made the location of veins predictable. While most mining since antiquity had occurred near the surface of the Earth, with knowledge like this deeper mines could be sunk with greater certainty of a return. A few years later, in 1724, Strachey followed up with another Philosophical Transactions article, further diagramming the Somerset strata and proposing a bold theory of their formation: the planet had been constituted with layers radiating from its centre at Creation, but its spin had caused them all to twist, furled one upon the other, ‘like the winding up of a Jack, or rolling up the Leaves of a Paper-Book’. There were 24 layers – one for each hour of the day – which had ticked by in a daily cycle ever since.

Speculative diagram of the Earth’s strata, from John Strachey, ‘An account of the strata in coal-mines, &c’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 33, issue 391, 1724.

Strachey had granted a mining concession in 1719 to a neighbouring landowner, William Jones, who married his sister Elizabeth. Their daughter, Mary Jones, inherited the estate and coal property at High Littleton, and was one of eight local landowners involved with Mearn’s Pit a half century later when the pipe blocked and the strange, striped rock fell into Catcott’s hands.

From Catcott, the stone was passed to Edward King, an antiquarian and also a Fellow of the Royal Society, who wrote up his finding and diagrammed it in the image with which we started this article. Like Catcott and Strachey, King was much concerned with the implications of geological phenomena like regular strata and fossils for the Genesis narrative, and had offered his own speculations to the Society a few years earlier in ‘An attempt to account for the universal deluge’ (1767). In the terms of the proto-geological debates of the day, King was a Plutonist or volcanist: without quite contradicting the idea of a primeval flood, he proposed volcanic activity as the transporter of aquatic fossils from ancient sea beds to mountaintops. The opposing theory was that of the Neptunists, who held the continents to have precipitated out of ancient waters – but, King asked, where did all that water go? Similar debates can be traced all the way back to figures of the Islamic Golden Age such as Avicenna, and to some extent to Strabo, a Greek thinker writing at the time of the shift from Roman Republic to Empire. King was also a catastrophist, in that he took this volcanic movement of seabeds to have occurred in a single gigantic event which might also account for the deluge – with such an upheaval, there would, after all, have been a lot of water sloshing around. Within decades the Plutonists would win out as the modern scientific discipline of geology cohered, but catastrophism would give way to the gradualism of King’s more famous contemporary James Hutton and his heirs, such as Charles Lyell.

In 1791, Mary Jones died. According to her will, the estate and colliery were to go to a cousin, and in the execution of this a land surveyor was required, for which they hired a young man named William Smith; by the next year he was surveying Mearn’s Pit. Smith seems to have gained access to Strachey’s papers on the geological strata of the area – likely through the close family connection of his employer – and to have drawn on them in his own enquiries. It was in this work at Mearn’s Pit that he first developed the geological understanding which would eventually enable him to create his famous stratigraphic maps of Britain; the 1815 version was the first of any whole country.

Smith’s 1815 stratigraphic map of Britain. Image courtesy of the British Geological Survey © UKRI 2021; permit no. CP21/064.

Key to this was the orderly, predictable sequence of layers and associated fossils, a layering which, in his work and that of his scientific heir and collaborator John Phillips, would provide the basis for geological periodisations – Paleozoic, Mesozoic – still in use to the present. Thus Mearn’s Pit may be seen as a central location in the formation of a new notion of time, caked in the composition of the planetary crust; a time that is deep, structured in superposed layers, descending from the present surface down into the ancient past; a geological time that would come to be recognised as far greater than the biblical scales people were accustomed to, and which would provide an important basis for Darwin’s work a few decades later.

As to the peculiar rock that was clogging the pipework, King, for his part, does not seem to have put much thought into explaining its stripes. He attributed them to ‘the water bringing, at different times, more or less oker along with the sparry matter’. But his specimen seems to have been an example of what miners themselves called ‘Sunday stone’; indeed his is the earliest record of that stone I have been able to find. This stone often formed in the drainage pipes of mines as pale coloured lime was deposited by the water flowing through them. This lime would be tainted regularly by the coal dust that filled the air when miners were working. The resulting rock – a pure by-product of the labour process – could thus be a fairly good record of working hours in a particular mine, with dark stripes for working hours, separated by thin pale bands. Since miners typically worked six-day weeks, there was a pattern of six fairly even pairs of stripes, followed by a thicker pale band for Sundays – hence the name. Holidays too were marked in this mineral timesheet. Here was another temporality inscribed in the layered rocks of Mearn’s Pit, on a scale far different to the geological one that would emerge from the work of stratigraphers like Smith. This was the time of the capitalist labour process, caked in rock.

Sunday stone specimen from the Natural History Museum. Image © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

A younger contemporary of Smith’s, Robert Bakewell, would publish his Introduction to Geology in 1815, the same year as Smith’s map. Bakewell was familiar with Sunday stone and noted a certain analogy in a discussion of ‘the formation of the superficial part of the globe’. If the Earth’s strata could have been formed through ‘successive igneous and aqueous eruptions forced through craters and fissures of the surface’, which would each have deposited a new layer of rock, this layering could be seen in microcosm in a certain artefact:

To compare great things with small, there is an analogous formation taking place every day in the channels which receive the boiling waters from some of the steam-engines in the county of Durham. This water contains a large quantity of earthy matter which is deposited every day, except Sunday, in regular layers that may be distinctly counted, with a marked line for the interval of repose on Sunday, between each week’s formation: hence the stone got out of these channels has received from the country people the name of Sunday stone.

Thus Sunday stone appeared as an example of geological time in microcosm, the strata deposited during regular cycles of work and rest analogous to those deposited during phases of volcanic activity and inactivity. If the regular, measured time of the working week gave Sunday stone its peculiar form, materially encoding its periods in stripes legible to miners, the same may be possible with geological strata, reading from their sequence the time of the Earth itself. The mine was at that point the primary means for the development of geological knowledge – and, it turned out, even its labour process could supply a model of deep, structured time.

By the 1870s, according to Francis Buckland’s Curiosities of Natural History, King’s specimen had made its way to the British Museum’s North Gallery No. III. Marx was still working in the reading rooms, so it seems reasonable to wonder if he encountered the stone, and what he might have made of it. Marx read the work of the geologists that emerged in part from Mearn’s Pit: he engaged fairly substantially with Phillips – and Smith gets the odd mention – in the notebooks of March–September 1878; he was well aware of the stratigraphic science of the moment. But King was a minor, eccentric figure from a previous age. Bakewell was more significant, but by the time Marx looked seriously at geology his introduction was out of date; he studied the 1872 edition of Joseph Beete Jukes’s Student’s Manual of Geology instead.

Sunday stone was known somewhat in British culture by the mid nineteenth Century, apparently more from miners themselves than the more famous geologists, to whom it would perhaps have remained a mere curiosity. It was mentioned with characteristic moralism in Christian children’s literature, as God’s record of labour time in admonitions to observe the Sabbath – as if a religious injunction was required for miners to desire a day out of the pits. But this stone seems, on the contrary, an exemplary materialist object, for here we find capitalist social forms already – in the belly of the Industrial Revolution – meshing with geology, leaving traces in the crust, the most literal announcement of the Capitalocene; labour time fossilised like the rings of an ancient tree, at a key site in the discovery of geological temporality; a time written in the black of fossil fuel; a time that congealed until the production process itself broke down.

Read on: Adam Hanieh, ‘Petrochemical Empire’, NLR 130.


The Mojibake

It is a truism that one only notices certain things when they break. An encounter with some error can expose momentarily the chaotic technical manifold that lies hidden below the surface when our devices function smoothly, and a little investigation reveals social forces at work in that manifold. For the history of capitalist society is caked in the layers of its technical infrastructure, and one need only scratch the surface of the most banal of technologies to discover that in them are fossilized the actions and decisions of institutions and individuals, companies and states. If our everyday interactions are quietly mediated by thousands of technical protocols, each of these had to be painstakingly constructed and negotiated by the sorts of interested parties that predominate in a world of capital accumulation and inter-state rivalry. Many persist as the outcome of survival struggles with others that proved less ‘fit’, or less fortunate, and which represent paths not taken in technical history.

In this sense, technical interrogation can cross over into a certain kind of social demystification; if the reader will tolerate a little technical excursus, we will thus find our way to terrain more comfortable to NLR readers. A string of apparently meaningless characters which render nonsensical an author’s name is the clue that will lead us here towards the social history of technology. That name bears a very normal character – an apostrophe – but it appears here as &039;. Why? In the ASCII text-encoding standard, the apostrophe is the 39th character. On the web, the enclosure of a string of characters between an ampersand and a semicolon is a very explicit way of using some characters to encode another if you aren’t confident that the latter will be interpreted correctly; it’s called an ‘HTML entity’ – thus &039; is a sort of technically explicit way of specifying a “‘”.

Until relatively recently there was a babel of distinct text encodings competing on the web and beyond, and text frequently ended up being read in error according to an encoding other than that by which it was written, which could have the effect of garbling characters outside the narrow Anglo-centric set defined by ASCII (roughly those that you would find on a standard keyboard in an Anglophone country). There is a technical term for such unwitting mutations: mojibake, from the Japanese 文字化け (文字: ‘character’; 化け: ‘transformation’). In an attempt to pre-empt this sort of problem, or to represent characters beyond the scope of the encoding standard in which they are working, platforms and authors of web content sometimes encode certain characters explicitly as entities. But this can have an unintended consequence: if that ampersand is read as an ampersand, rather than the beginning of a representation of another character, the apparatus of encodings again peeps through the surface of the text, confronting the reader with gibberish.

In large part such problems can be traced back to the limitations of ASCII – the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. This in turn has roots that predate electronic computation; indeed, it is best understood in the context of the longer arc of electrical telecommunications. These have always been premised on encoding and decoding processes which reduce text down to a form more readily transmissible and manipulable by machine. While theoretically possible, direct transmission of individual alphabetic characters, numerals and punctuation marks would have involved contrivances of such complexity they would probably not have passed the prototype stage – somewhat like the early computers that used decimal rather than binary arithmetic.

In the first decades of electrical telegraphy, when Samuel Morse’s code was the reigning standard, skilled manual labour was required both to send and receive, and solidarities formed between far-flung operators – many of whom were women – as 19th Century on-line communities flourished, with workers taking time to chat over the wires when paid-for or official traffic was low. Morse could ebb and flow, speed up and slow down, and vary in fluency and voice just like speech. But in the years after the Franco-Prussian War, French telegrapher Émile Baudot formulated a new text encoding standard which he combined with innovations allowing several telegraph machines to share a single line by forcibly regimenting the telegraphers’ flow into fixed-length intervals – arguably the first digital telecommunications system.

Though Baudot code was taken up by the French Telegraph Administration as early as 1875, it was not put to use so readily elsewhere. In the United States, the telegraphers were still gradually forming into powerful unions, and in 1907 telecommunications across the whole of North America were interrupted by strikes targeting Western Union, which included demands over unequal pay for women and sexual harassment. A year later, the Morkrum Company’s first Printing Telegraph appeared, automating the encoding and decoding of Baudot code via a typewriter-like interface. Whereas Morse had demanded dexterity and fluency in human operators, Baudot’s system of fixed intervals was more easily translated into the operations of a machine, and it was now becoming a de facto global standard.

‘Girl telegraph operators’ or ‘Western Union men’ striking in 1907.
The Morkrum Company rolled out its first completely automatic telegraphy machines in 1908, during the peak years of telegrapher militancy.

In 1924, Western Union’s Baudot-derived system was enshrined by the International Telegraph Union as the basis of a new standard, International Telegraph Alphabet No. 2, which would reign throughout mid-century (ITA1 was the name given retrospectively to the first generation of Baudot code). Though Baudot was easier than Morse to handle automatically, only a limited number of characters could be represented by its five bits, hence the uppercase roman letters that characterized the Western telegraphy of that moment.1 The European version allowed for É – a character that would remain absent from the core Anglo-American standards into the era of the web – but still lacked many of the other characters of European languages. There were some provisions for punctuation using special ‘shift’ characters which – like the shift key of a typewriter – would move the teletype machine into a different character set or encoding. But this shifting between modes was laborious, costly, and error-prone – for if a shift was missed the text would be mangled – pushing cautious senders towards simple use of the roman alphabet, in a way that is still being echoed in the era of the web. A 1928 guide, How to Write Telegrams Properly explained:

This word ‘stop’ may have perplexed you the first time you encountered it in a message. Use of this word in telegraphic communications was greatly increased during the World War, when the Government employed it widely as a precaution against having messages garbled or misunderstood, as a result of the misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period. Officials felt that the vital orders of the Government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word ‘stop’, to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out ‘comma’, ‘colon’, and ‘semi-colon’. The word ‘query’ often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, ‘stop’ has come into most widespread use, and vaudeville artists and columnists have employed it with humorous effect, certain that the public would understand the allusion in connection with telegrams. It is interesting to note, too, that although the word is obviously English it has come into general use in all languages that are used in telegraphing or cabling.

A 1930 telegram demonstrating the use of the reliable all caps, with no punctuation and minimal use of numbers.

The Cyrillic alphabet had its own version of Baudot code, but depended on use of a compatible teletype, making for a basic incompatibility with the Anglo-centric international standard. The vast number of Chinese characters of course ruled out direct encoding in such a narrow system; instead numeric codes identifying individual characters would be telegraphed, requiring them to be manually looked up at either end. Japanese was telegraphed using one of its phonetic syllabaries, katakana, though even these 48 characters were more than Baudot could represent in a single character set. Thus technical limitation reinforced the effects of geopolitical hegemony to channel the world’s telecommunications through a system whose first language would always be English.

Morkrum’s printing teletypes came to dominate American telecommunications, and after a name change to the Teletype Corporation, in a 1930s acquisition the company was subsumed into the giant Bell monopoly – which itself was to become practically an extension of the 20th Century American state, intimately involved in such things as Cold War missile defence systems. Having partly automated away the work of the telegraphers, in the early 1930s Teletype were already boasting in the business press of their role in facilitating lean production in the auto industry, replacing human messengers with direct communications to the assembly line – managerial missives telecommunicated in all caps, facilitating a tighter control over production.

Teletype Corporation ad, November 1931, showing a surprisingly early conception of ICTs as facilitating ‘lean production’.

With the propensity of telegraphic text to end up garbled, particularly when straying beyond the roman alphabet, the authority of those managerial all caps must sometimes have been lost in a blizzard of mojibakes. Communications across national borders – as in business and diplomatic traffic, for example – were always error-prone, and an incorrect character might mess up a stock market transaction. The limitations of Baudot code thus led to various initiatives for the formation of a new standard.

In the early 1960s, Teletype Corporation and IBM, among others, negotiated a new seven-bit standard, which could handle lower case letters and the standard punctuation marks of English. And before these components of the English language, the codes inserted into the beginning of this standard – with its space for a luxurious 127 characters – had a lot to do with the physical operation of particular bits of office equipment which Bell was marketing at the time via its Western Electric subsidiary. Thus while ASCII would carry codes to command a machine to ring a physical bell or control a feed of paper, it had no means of representing the few accented characters of French or Italian. The market unified by such acts of standardization was firstly national and secondarily Anglophone; the characters of other languages were a relatively distant concern.

Alongside these developments in existing telecoms, early computing struggled through its own babble of incompatible encodings. By the early 1960s, as computer networks began to spread beyond their earliest military uses, and with teletype machines now being called upon to act as input/output devices for computers, such problems were becoming more pressing. American ‘tech’ was in large part being driven directly by the Cold War state, and in 1968 it was Lyndon Johnson who made ASCII a national standard, signing a memorandum dictating its use by Federal agencies and departments.

The 1968 memorandum signed by Lyndon Johnson, effecting the adoption of ASCII as a national standard.

ASCII would remain the dominant standard well into the next century, reflecting American preeminence within both telecoms and computation, and on the global stage more generally (even within the Soviet Union, computing devices tended to be knock-offs of American models – in a nominally bipolar world, one pole was setting the standards for communications and computation). To work around the limitations of ASCII, various ‘national’ variants were developed, with some characters of the American version swapped for others more important in a given context, such as accented characters or local currency symbols. But this reproduced some of the problems of the ways that Baudot had been extended: certain characters became ‘unsafe’, prone to garbling, while the core roman alphabet remained reliable.

Consider the narrow set of characters one still sees in website domains and email addresses: though some provisions have been made for internationalization on this level, even now, for the most part only characters covered by American ASCII are considered safe to use. Others risk provoking some technical upset, for the deep infrastructural layers laid down by capital and state at the peak of American dominance are just as monoglot as most English-speakers. Like the shift-based extensions to Baudot, over time, various so-called ‘extended ASCII’ standards were developed, which added an extra bit to provide for the characters of other languages – but always with the English set as the core, and still reproducing the same risk of errors if one of these extended variants was mistaken for another. It was these standards in particular which could easily get mixed up in the first decades of the web, leading to frequent mojibakes when one strayed into the precarious terrain of non-English text.

Still, reflecting the increasing over-growth of American tech companies from the national to the global market in the 1980s, an initiative was launched in 1988 by researchers from Xerox and Apple to bring about a ‘unique, unified, universal’ standard which could accommodate all language scripts within its 16 bits and thus, effectively, solve these encoding problems once and for all. If one now retrieves from the first press release for the Unicode Consortium, which was established to codify the new standard, it is littered with mojibakes, having apparently endured an erroneous transition between encodings at some point.

The first press release for the Unicode Consortium itself displays encoding errors.

The Consortium assembled leading computing companies who were eyeing global markets; its membership roster since then is a fairly accurate index of the rising and falling fortunes of American technology companies: Apple, Microsoft and IBM have remained throughout; NeXT, DEC and Xerox were present at the outset but dropped out early on; Google and Adobe have been consistent members closer to the present. But cold capitalist calculation was at least leavened by some scholarly enthusiasm and humanistic sensibility as academic linguists and others became involved in the task of systematizing the world’s scripts in a form that could be interpreted easily by computers; starting from the millennium, various Indian state authorities, for example, became voting members of the consortium as it set about encoding the many scripts of India’s huge number of languages.

Over time, Unicode would even absorb the scripts of ancient, long-dead languages – hence it is now possible to tweet, in its original script, text which was originally transcribed in the early Bronze Age if one should so desire, such as this roughly 4,400 year old line of ancient Sumerian: ‘? ??? ???? ? ?? ????? ??’ (Ush, ruler of Umma, acted unspeakably). It must surely be one of the great achievements of capitalist technology that it has at least partially offset the steamrollering of the world’s linguistic wealth by the few languages of the dominant powers, by increasingly enabling the speakers of rare, threatened languages to communicate in their own scripts; it is conceivable that this could save some from extinction. Yet, as edifying as this sounds, it is worth keeping in mind that, since Unicode absorbed ASCII as its first component part, its eighth character () will forevermore be a signal to make a bell ring on an obsolete teletype terminal produced by AT&T in the early 1960s. Thus the 20th Century dominance of the American Bell system remains encoded in global standards for the foreseeable future, as a sort of permanent archaeological layer, while the English language remains the base of all attempts at internationalization.

Closer to the present, the desire of US tech companies to penetrate the Japanese market compelled further additions to Unicode which, while not as useless as the Teletype bell character, certainly lack the unequivocal value of the world’s endangered scripts. Japan had established a culture of widespread mobile phone use quite early on, with its own specificities – in particular the ubiquitous use of ideogrammatic emoji (絵文字: ‘picture character’; this is the same ‘moji’ as that of mojibake). A capacity to handle emoji was thus a prerequisite for any mobile device or operating system entering the market, if it was to compete with local incumbents like Docomo, which had first developed the emoji around the millennium. Since Docomo hadn’t been able to secure a copyright on its designs, other companies could copy them, and if rival operators were not to deprive their customers of the capacity to communicate via emoji with people on other networks, some standardization was necessary. Thus emoji were to be absorbed into the Unicode standard, placing an arbitrary mass of puerile images on the same level as the characters of Devanagari or Arabic, again presumably for posterity. So while the world still struggles fully to localize the scripts of websites and email addresses, and even boring characters like apostrophes can be caught up in encoding hiccups, people around the world can at least communicate fairly reliably with Unicode character 1F365 FISH CAKE WITH SWIRL DESIGN (?). The most universalistic moments of capitalist technology are actualized in a trash pile of meaningless particulars.

1 Bit: a contraction of ‘binary digit’; the smallest unit of information in Claude Shannon’s foundational information theory, representing a single unit of difference. This is typically, but not necessarily, represented numerically as the distinction between 0 and 1, presumably in part because of Shannon’s use of George Boole’s work in mathematical logic, and the mathematical focus of early computers. But the common idea that specifically numeric binary code lies at the heart of electrical telecoms and electronic computation is something of a distortion: bits or combinations of elementary units of difference can encode any information, numerical or other. The predominant social use of computing devices would of course prove to be in communications, not merely the kinds of calculations that gave the world ‘Little Boy’, and this use is not merely overlaid on some mathematical substratum. The word ‘bit’ might seem an anachronism here, since Baudot’s code preceded Shannon’s work by decades, but the terms of information theory are nonetheless still appropriate: Baudot used combinations of 5 elementary differences to represent all characters, hence it is 5-bit. This meant that it could encode only 31 characters in total: if a single bit encodes a single difference, represented numerically as 0 or 1, each added bit multiplies by 2 the informational capacity of the code; thus 25 = 32, though we are effectively counting from 0 here, hence 31. Historically, extensions to the scope of encoding systems have largely involved the addition of extra bits.

Read on: Rob Lucas, ‘The Surveillance Business’, NLR 121.