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Happy Egg-Shirt Day

The story we tell goes something like this: Two-and-a-half centuries ago, Ben Franklin walked out into a thunderstorm with a kite; tied to the string of the kite was a small key; the key developed a charge, and Benjamin Franklin — inventor, philosopher, publisher, lecher — discovered electricity.

A few decades after Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key, a man named Charles Babbage was born. Babbage was a talented mathematician, and over the course of his life, collaborating with another genius named Ada Lovelace, he developed concepts for what he called a “Difference Engine,” to compile mathematical tables, and an “Analytical Engine,” for a wider variety of computational tasks. His ideas, unfortunately, exceeded the physical limits of engineering in his day, and neither machine was fully completed by the time of his death.

Across the English Channel, a Frenchman named Louis Daguerre was drawing on centuries’ worth of scientific work in optics and chemistry to create lasting images by cast light on a chemical-treated metal plate. This process, called the “daguerreotype process,” created what are understood to be the first photographs.

Over the course of the 19th century, as Babbage worked on his engines and Daguerre on his images, electricity would be isolated and tamed, herded into a grid and used to power the tools and devices that used to be powered by burning things, like coal or wood. Great fortunes would be made on its back; and two men, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, would enter into a struggle over who controlled its system of transmission. Alternating current, Westinghouse’s system, eventually won out — though in 1903, Edison produced the moving picture “Electrocuting an Elephant,” a 74-second film depicting the execution of unruly circus elephant Topsy.

As electricity entered more homes, so, too, did cameras. In 1935, the camera company Eastman Kodak released Kodachrome film, and the pastime of photography moved permanently outward from the domain of the expensive professional to the middle-class amateur. Soon thereafter, Edwin Land invented the Polaroid instant camera, leading to a revolution in cheap, spontaneous photography.

Engineering, meanwhile, had finally caught up with Babbage’s dreams. Room-size computational systems contracted at exponential rates. By the 1980s, it was possible to have a marvel of engineering and integrated circuitry that allowed users to perform billions of calculations at once on your office desk. By the 2010s, most people had one in their pockets. In many cases, it was a camera, too.

We stand, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, on the shoulders of giants. Millennia of human striving, of cultural production and memory, of thought and debate, of trade and war, of genius and hardship, has led us here, to this moment, the fourth anniversary of someone sewing an egg to a shirt. The electricity powering the sewing machine and the servers hosting the image. The feats of engineering that gave us devices to host and spread the image across the globe. The optical trickery that allows us to save a singular image frozen in time, so that it may be enjoyed many times. The egg sewed to a shirt is a milestone we are able to bear witness to, and to celebrate, because of the achievements of those who came before. We thank you.

Happy Egg-Shirt Day