IT Revolution, 1898 Edition


An offhanded mention by Robert Shiller in one of his financial markets lectures led me to look up the story of the surprisingly recently inventing filing cabinet. The innovator at hand was one Edward Seibels of South Carolina:

He invented a vertical filing system in 1898 that revolutionized record-keeping. Businesses then kept papers in envelopes that were placed into rows of small pigeonholes often lining a wall from floor to ceiling. Finding and opening envelopes and unfolding papers was troublesome and inefficient. Seibels reasoned that folding was not necessary; papers could be kept in large envelopes standing on end vertically in a drawer.

The Globe–Wernicke Company of Cincinnati made five wooden filing boxes to his specifications, and he applied for a patent; however, Seibels was told the system was an idea; only a device could be patented. “It was pointed out that by simply varying the size, a filing box could be made which would not infringe my patent,” he said. “Unfortunately, I overlooked the part played in setting the envelopes upright, and separating them by guide cards. This device, of course, could have been patented.”

To me this is a reminder that we often overstate the idea that we’re currently in some special moment where information technology is revolutionizing the world. If you look at the past several hundred years of history you’ll see that IT has been constantly improving. It’s just that for a long time key IT innovations took the forms of inventing better and cheaper ways to manufacture, store paper, or copy pieces of paper. That’s not to say that the digital turn is somehow trivial or irrelevant, but merely that it’s continuous with a historical process of improved transmission and storage of information.

I think there’s also a lesson here about patent law and intellectual property, namely that it’s simply not the case that we generally have useful innovations available today because the inventors of the past were able to construct airtight government-sponsored monopoly control of their ideas.