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Data intelligence is a hot topic these days (isn’t that right, Mr. President?), and adoption is growing (though not nearly as fast as it should). As petabytes are streaming through nitrogen-cooled servers each day, we thought it might be fun to look back on some of the milestones of data from ancient history. Here are five examples of data intelligence from way back when.

1. The human brain

The Human BrainOk, maybe this one is a little cheating and sort of a no-brainer. But it’s important to keep the human brain in perspective when talking about all the technological advances in data. Though hard to quantify (we’re guessing the memory of your first kiss is a little more vivid than the memory of your first time opening Excel) [ed. note: arguable], some estimates put the average memory capacity at around 2.5 petabytes. This is enough to hold three million hours of TV, which is mostly what we use it for.

That’s just storage. When it comes to computation, some researchers have calculated that “the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second.” Keep this in mind when reading the recent Time article that showing that in 2011, 60% of hedge funds lost money in 2011. Hedge funds have some of the most sophisticated algorithms on the planet and they again lost out to a monkey with darts on its random walk down Wall Street.

We don’t even quite know the limits of human memory either. Remember the TV show Taxi? We bet Marilu Henner does, and not just because she starred in it. Rather, because she has hyperthymesia, a condition that enables someone to remember nearly every single day of their lives in extreme detail. In the time it takes you to Google the weather on this day 15 years ago, Henner could tell you without any effort.

So, let’s not get too cocky about creating a computer that can beat someone at Jeopardy. Humans were doing just fine with their brains back before electricity, paper, or written language.

2. Quipu

Quipu

Looks like just jewelry, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s more like this:

Calculator Watch

But no where near as dorky

You’re looking at an example of quipu, a wearable data storage and communication system used by Incans at least 500 (and perhaps 5000) years ago. According the the Museum of Ancient Heritage, “cord color, manner of connection, relative placement, cord spacing, the types and placement of knots on individual cords, are elements of the recording code.”

Imagine being able to tell someone’s whole financial story by just looking at them. Need to track another transaction? Just make another knot on your necklace. At the very least, quipu were used to store data about numbers, but some historians think they could have conveyed non-numerical data as well.

Quipu

"This essay on Moby Dick was terrible. Re-knot this immediately."

As mentioned earlier, some archeologists point to the Caral quipu as an example of its use over 5000 years ago. Though its meaning has not been deciphered, given how we have trouble opening Word 97 documents, I think we can give that a pass. Let’s see how well your thumb drive lasts over the next thousand years.

3. Coins

Ancient CoinsSure, they are a massive source of annoyance these days as eloquently expressed by the Citizens for Retiring the Penny via, apparently, Geocities cerca 1997. But before you toss that penny into history’s recycle bin, keep in mind that for centuries, coins were the best method of economic data storage and intelligence ever devised.

 

Consider these points:

  • Coins replaced the barter system. That’s basically replacing one economy for another, if you’re missing the significance of this.
  • Coins made transactions reliable, trustworthy, and easy for the first time.
  • Due to the ease and speed of transacting with coins, the eventual globalization of commerce started to become realized.

Knowing exactly how much something is worth is the foundation of business intelligence, and coins provided this accurately for the first time. As coins evolved, the data intelligence only got better as they were inscribed with pictures and language (essentially, a way to hold the issuer accountable) so the average person would be assured of each transaction, instantly. Then once a coin’s size and shape were standardized in a geographical area, money changers could easily weigh a sack of coins to determine worth, exponentially speeding up accounting.

Sure, coins are pooh-poohed today, but it says something that the general public still retreats to gold coins when the stock market hits a rough spot.

Coins Raining

Though making it rain using coins hurts a lot

4. Numbers

The Book of NumbersNot just numbers in general, but The Book of Numbers. Sure, many censuses exist in ancient documents, but how many are revered as sacred texts in major religions?

The Book of Numbers tells of the Israelites before entering the Promised Land. The people are counted and meticulously organized by tribe and lineage. Here’s a sample:

“So Moses counted all the firstborn of the Israelites, as the LORD commanded him. The total number of firstborn males a month old or more, listed by name, was 22,273.”

Fairly dry, right? Where’s the fire and brimstone here? What is the point of this book?

Well, theological interpretations aside (we do data intelligence, not deity intelligence), the Book of Numbers serves as the raw data to an ancient spreadsheet. Here are some of the numbers in a more digestible form taken from bible.org:

Book of Numbers SpreadsheetThe way it is written and structured makes digesting the data much easier, especially when these figures were memorized and passed down through generations. The Bible.org article goes on to say:

“A literal understanding of the numbers in the census is in congruence with Pharaoh’s fear of the rapidly increasing Hebrews overrunning Egypt (Ex 1:7-12), the promises made to Abraham about becoming a great nation (Gen 12:2; 17:5-6), the earlier census taken during the first year in the wilderness (Exod 30:12–16; 38:26), and other traditions about the numbers of adult males who left Egypt (Ex 12:37; Num 11:21)”

There was a reason these dry numbers were carefully memorized and eventually written down: the numbers signified something. The numbers told a story, proving that even during their exile, the Israelites’ population was increasing; a fact that was incredibly important to these tribes.

Abraham and Isaac

And, you know, justifies this whole thing

Good businesses take cues from data intelligence, letting the numbers guide them and reassure them of their decisions. This ancient example of keeping statistics to ensure they were on the right path is an awesome reminder that high quality data has always been important.

5. The Antikythera mechanism

Ok, it’s just an old rusty gear, right? Maybe from some sunken ship from a century ago or so?

Close, you’re only off by about 2000 years, give or take a century.

Found in 1900 in an ancient shipwreck, the Antikythera mechanism has been perplexing archeologists for years. It’s worth reading about in its entirety, but here are the quick hits from Wikipedia:

  • It was primarily used to navigate ships.
  • It’s incredibly complex, with between 30 and 70 gears.
  • When a date was entered, it would calculate the location of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies.
  • It’s sophisticated enough to compensate for leap years.
  • One of the dials tracked the dates of the Olympics.
  • Similarly complex artifacts would not reappear until the 14th century.
Basically, this artifact is the equivalent of having a Droid during the Dark Ages, and it’s considered to be the first analog computer.
First Apple Computer

Yes, it pre-dates this, fanboys

This is simply the coolest example of ancient technology, and yes, data intelligence. It represented a huge leap forward in computing ability and was most likely a boon to any ship captain or astronomer to could afford to have one made (most archeologists speculate that many of these were manufactured). We’re big fans of being on the cutting edge of computational technology, and the Antikythera mechanism was ahead of its time by a thousand years. It’s a shame it was lost to history.

Then again, we probably dodged a bullet not having Facebook back during the Renaissance.

Renaissance

"Lady Beth hath posted her visage anon! Liked."

 

Want more data intelligence? Check out our infographic of 7 Data Quality Facts and the top 10 Fictional Companies that Needed Better Data Intelligence.

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Samuel Clemens
Sam is founder and chief of product & marketing for InsightSquared. Previously, Sam was VP Product at HubSpot, VP Product at BzzAgent, and on the founding team at Elance.com. His background also includes venture capital with Greylock Partners, the Algorithms group at Amazon.com, and management consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton. Sam has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a B.S. in Applied Math from Yale. In his off time he dives shipwrecks in the New England area.
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