African Information Engineering Part 1

African talking drums were the global leader in long distance communication technology until the telephone began to mature in the late 19th century. Even when the electric telegraph caught up with their speed a half century earlier, the sophisticated math powering talking drums made them more reliable for complex messages. We don’t know precisely when Africans began using advanced math to encode information, but we do know that this math was not formalized until the field of Information Theory was founded in 1948.

Though not stated as directly, the above mentioned facts can be found in “Drums That Talk(When a Code Is Not a Code)”, the opening chapter of  the widely acclaimed book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by noted science writer James Gleick. One reviewer notes:

 Gleick makes clear that coded messages did not begin with the computer (and uses this vivid example to clarify how information theory operates). …  The book explains more fully and more systematically than any other how the foundations of our information order were laid.

Washington Post

Upcoming parts will explore two topics the book and most reviewers omit or misunderstand:

  1. how and why the talking drum was invented
  2. contemporary applications of the techniques used

A sizable portion of the Drums That Talk chapter was posted online by Gleick here. Some other reviews and comments follow.

Gleick begins with an examination of sub-Saharan African talking drums, an astonishingly effective technology of long-distance communication. Using systems of repetition and built-in redundancy, drummers could communicate messages using a two-tone drum.

American Library Association

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

… the talking drums of Africa, a way of relaying messages, in 1841. Around the same time F. B. Morse was developing Morse code. (19) African languages are tonal and are not do not correspond to a representational alphabet. The meaning of their verbal language is conveyed as much by tone (rising and falling of inflections etc.) as it is by distinct words (23). African drum language takes this to the extreme and conveys meaning in tone (24). In order to reduce confusion, extra phrases are added to each short word, (much like the NATO phonetic alphabet) (25-26). Verbosity aids contextualisation.
The chapter sets up context and redundancy as key to understanding Gleick’s version of Information.

It has been a long progression toward the infoglut of today. The author chooses as a logical if unanticipated starting point the talking drums of Africa, an information technology that delivers a satisfying amount of signal in all the noise. From those drums to Morse code, and indeed to binary signaling, is a pretty short hop

Kirkus Reviews

In his first chapter, James Gleick effectively demonstrates yet another example where Western history has made major misses. African talking drums, poetic and complex, transmitted messages over hundreds of miles without a physical messenger.  And this well before American soil was dubbed such.

Relevant Links


One comment on “African Information Engineering Part 1

  1. Pingback: Physicist Uses African Symbols for Advanced Math | STEM Drum

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