A Brief History of the Grid
(Valley Forge, PA—December 2011) In a provocative feature in the current issue of the online Journal of Empire Studies (JES), scholar Judd Case traces the history of the grid and finds several precedents: the Nile river, geometry, and radar. He argues that all three provided us with a way to conceive of our world as a single and whole place, and to map ourselves within that place.
The Nile, he explains, forced all societies in the cradle of civilization to become aware of the seasons. In a lengthy interview and excerpt from his dissertation, “Geometry, Radar, and Empire,” Case cites all manner of phenomena pulled into the Nile’s grid, from planting crops, the migration of swans, and the phases of the moon to the tides of the Mediterranean and navigation. Case quotes the Canadian economist and media theorist Harold Innis’s estimation of the river’s power:
The Nile, with its irregularities of overflow, demanded a coordination of effort. The river created the black land which could only be exploited with a universally accepted discipline and a common goodwill of the inhabitants. The Nile acted as a principle of order and centralization, necessitated collective work, created solidarity, imposed organizations on the people, and cemented them in a society.
Likewise, Case argues, radar has lent order to the modern world, from coordinating commercial air traffic to patrolling national borders to issuing speeding tickets.
At some point, the grid became political. “Searchlights could be seen by most anyone within range, but radar pulses could only be seen by those with the knowledge and means to detect them,” writes Case.
JES editor Durwood raves about Judd Case’s attempt to take on this biggest of big ideas. “My students always get a kick out of writing like this⏤provocative, smart, funny, and ambitious.” He points to two typical sentences:
In the 19th century, Geronimo could cut a telegraph line and affect an empire’s grid. He could disrupt communication between forts, throw off the train schedule, stop the settlers from ordering seed, and make it difficult for the cavalry to arrive.
“This is writing so vivid and original that it stays in a reader’s mind a long time,” says Durwood, who teaches English full time at Valley Forge Military College in Pennsylvania. “When we read texts like this out loud in class, the ideas are so challenging and out-of-the-ordinary that, at first, the cadets are startled. Then we stop reading and one of the students makes a connection⏤then a light bulb seems to go on over the entire classroom.”
Case considers how grids have developed in the 20th century, with a focus on the British military’s invention of radar in World War II to keep the Luftwaffe at bay. He creates a continuum from radar to Sputnick, television, and finally to the contemporary grids of Global Positioning Systems, the Internet, and the iPod.
“These are challenging ideas,” says Durwood, “but our students love a challenge. This is critical thinking at its best.”
All content of the Journal of Empire Studies is offered free. Durwood has also created lesson plans for secondary and post-secondary instructors at no cost, in hopes of bringing writing like Case’s into the classroom.
The Journal of Empire Studies (JES) is a new online journal devoted to the study of empire, east and west, across a number of disciplines—science, literature, technology, commerce and finance, military studies, art, music, linguistics, gender and architecture. As western and eastern schools struggle to bring global perspective to their students, we will actively promote this content to teachers as an ongoing resource, so they can assign our articles or printed anthologies to their classes.
We are seeking collaboration with universities on all continents. We don’t need funding: becoming a sponsor university means you will encourage your faculty to use JES as a classroom resource.