The iPads of Ancient Rome

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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The app selection might have been limited, but the iPad was around as long ago as ancient Rome. Or a version of it, at least, writes Tom Standage at

“Instead of notebooks they jotted things down on wax tablets of various shapes and sizes,” he explains, “from small ones (the size of an iPhone) to big ones (the size of a big iPad, before the iPad Air showed up).”

Upon wax within a wooden frame, this pre-digital tablet could record words and images, etched in with the sharp end of the stylus, and erased with the flat opposite.

A wealthy Roman citizen might read the news on it, having sent a scribe “down to the forum to jot down excerpts from the daily gazette, or acta diurma, on to one of these tablets”. And while Facebook was not available, sharing still took place.

Having read the news yourself you could then copy selected highlights to your friends: the text would be transcribed onto papyrus rolls and taken to them by messenger. They might then copy those news reports, in turn, to their own friends, adding their own comments or analysis. ]

It was common for wealthy Romans to rely on their friends to filter and distribute the news for them in this way when they were away from the city. This is how the Roman social-media system worked. It’s just one example (and, in fact, the earliest example) of how social-media environments predate the Internet.

Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist and author of the excellent The Victorian Internet, is one of many authors fascinated by historical examples that show there is no new thing under the online sun.

Another fascinating case concerns the idea of virality – the way a joke, or meme, or tale, is communicated. After market squares, missionaries and travelling salesmen, telegraph operators accelerated the spread, taking advantage of the small hours, when the lines were quiet.

A 1910 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, highlighted by – a blog devoted to interesting historical tidbits from the famous supplement – described the process like this:

Suppose a message has just been sent from New York to Buffalo; for the time being there is nothing more to be dispatched, and no other operator is trying to get the wire. In this case the telegraph instrument in Buffalo is very apt to click off, ‘Say, Jim, I just heard a new story. It’s a good one,’ and the story follows

It continues:

When Jim at Buffalo gets Jack at Chicago or Pete at St Louis on an idle wire, the new story is passed along. And so in a single night a cracking good story may be passed from New York to San Francisco.

More by Toby Manhire

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