Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Typesetting by Natural Selection

From the book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick:

”In the name of speed, Morse and Vail had realized that they could save strokes by reserving the shorter sequences of dots and dashes for the most common letters. But which letters would be used most often? Little was known about the alphabet’s statistics. In search of data on the letters’ relative frequencies, Vail was inspired to visit the local newspaper office in Morristown, New Jersey, and look over the type cases. He found a stock of twelve thousand E’s, nine thousand T’s, and only two hundred Z’s. He and Morse rearranged the alphabet accordingly. They had originally used dash-dash-dot to represent T, the second most common letter; now they promoted T to a single dash, thus saving telegraph operators uncountable billions of key taps in the world to come. Long afterward, information theorists calculated that they had come within 15 percent of an optimal arrangement for telegraphing English text.”

This is a striking example of Evolution by Natural Selection, not originating from the Nature, the one with plants and animals, but from simple human experience.

Over years from the late 19th century to do 1970s and 1980s newspaper Linotype machine operators who work with hot metal typesetting systems learned to stock metal letters in right amounts. Lacking even a single pre-cast metal letter could prevent the newspaper from being printed. Having them in surplus would be wasteful as they were heavy, required storage and costed. These constraints constituted selection pressure akin to Natural Selection in biological systems.

Like a blind watchmaker newsletter operators over years of trial and error learned to store pre-cast metal letters in right amounts matching actual frequency of letters in the Alphabet so that that they never miss a print.

Alfred Vail who along with Samuel Morse were developing and commercialising American telegraphy simply observed and exploited Natural Selection in typesetting systems and achieved something that could only be achieved with computers today.

Resources inspired me to write this story:

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick, 2011

The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins, 1986

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