Thursday, April 8, 2010

LOW TECH BUT IT WORKED



Listen to the tech heads and the marketers. We live in a technological Nirvana and pity the poor souls who had to make do with less. Sometimes we forget that what the technology actually provides isn’t new. It’s either faster, more elaborate, or replaces something we used to do for ourselves. Computers process information in seconds that used to take days or weeks to complete. The global information network allows us to know about earthquakes in Chili or Haiti in minutes. Planes allow us to cross the Atlantic in a few hours instead of a few weeks. The Battle of New Orleans is an icon in American history. It was fought after the peace treaty was signed.

Chasing some ancestors through the centuries prompted me to finally crack open some of the history books I’ve been collecting over the years. (The reading list doesn’t seem to get shorter.) Anyway, I stumbled across something low tech, but very effective.

I’m not sure if the English still use the term, but the royal finances used to be managed by the Exchequer. Before the exchequer was an office it was a thing. A tablecloth, actually. A tablecloth with a simple grid painted on it.

This is a simplified version of the system in use in the 1100’s in England. It would be at least two hundred years before Roman numerals were replaced by the decimal system we use now. Remember playing with Roman numerals in math class? Remember trying to actually add or subtract with them? Instant insanity.


This sample grid just has hundreds, tens, and ones. When it was time to collect the taxes the court officials would go on circuit and meet with the local justices or sheriffs. The cloth would be laid out where everyone could see what was happening and collections began. Working through the list tokens would be laid out on the cloth. The top row was for what had been assessed. The bottom row represented what was actually paid. You could see at a glance whether the totals matched.

At a time when literacy was at a premium that checked cloth was a way to get the job done in a way everyone could follow and agree on, And the receipt? The final total was notched onto a stick. The stick was split and each side kept a half. The clerk who could actually read and write wrote out the final results on parchment and rolled everything together for safekeeping.

It worked; it’s hard to argue with that.