The Blacksmith and the Bookkeeper, Part 1
The Evolving Modalities of Human Missions
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bandsÉ
- From "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When Longfellow first published his tribute to the Blacksmith in
1841, the vocation of "smithy" was then quite ubiquitous, necessary and well-entrenched in
economies around the world, having evolved over epochs of human
experience. The role of the "bookkeeper" was likewise ubiquitous,
necessary and well-entrenched. Today,
bookkeeping has adapted and still thrives in the
21st Century, while
blacksmithing is practically extinct. This series of articles explores
the role of each in 19th Century economies, the blacksmith and the
bookkeeper, explains the extinction of the one and the growth of the
other, and compares the post-modern role of "programmer" to both,
culminating in forecasts for the likely evolution of software
programming as a viable future profession.
The Essential Fitscape
Any occupation exists within an economic sphere that is constantly
changing. I've used the term "fitscape" to describe such systems, to
"From a Darwinian perspective, a complex adaptive system harboring
autonomous agents competing for resources can be called a "fitness
landscape." As these agents [evolve and] become more fit for the
landscape over successive generations, the landscape itself is modified
in the process. I use the term 'fitscape' to refer to any complex
system incorporating such competitive, adaptive agents -- for example,
an economy at any level, a biosphere at any level, a community of
interest ... a fitscape ... is always in flux. It does not represent a
delicate balance requiring husbandry but rather is a system in which
change, based on adaptive fitness, is applauded."
(From Network Distributed Computing: Fitscapes and Fallacies, Max K.
Goff Prentice Hall PTR, April 2004; ISBN: 0131001523)
The fitscape from which both the blacksmith and the bookkeeper hail
has evolved quite dramatically since both of these ancient vocations
emerged to serve our species. It is important to note that autonomous
agents compete to "make a living" in a fitscape, and as such tend to
fill all possible "life sustaining" niches such as to provide for their
specific "needs." It is also important to note that the activities of
those autonomous agents impact the fitscape in which they compete, thus
ensuring that the fitscape itself evolves even as do the agents.
While this may seem painfully obvious, when it comes to the study of
economics, that feedback mechanism (i.e., the fitscape evolves as a
result of agent activities) is often dismissed; a function of exogenous
variables which are outside the scope
of consideration for the problem in question. But as we will see, the impact on the
exogenous environment of remittable activities of autonomous agents can
be profound indeed. Bearing in mind the concept of the evolving fitscape in the discussion
of the role of the blacksmith and the bookkeeper in human activities,
the application of the concept to software engineer as vocation should
be clear when discussed later in this series.
The History of Blacksmithing
Blacksmithing is one of the most important vocations in human
history. It began with the Iron Age, when primitive man first began
making tools from abundant iron ore. Virtually all world cultures
entered their own Iron Age, each on their own timetable; but the
utilization of iron as tools and weapons was a vital step in the
progress of world civilizations. When Pythagoras observed that a
blacksmith striking his anvil produced different notes according to the
weight of the hammer (circa 500 BC) , the aboriginal theory of Western
music was born; the blacksmith, as essential vocation, was then already well established in Ancient
Grecian economies. By the time Longfellow got around to singing the
smithy's praises in the mid-19th century A.D., the profession had
enjoyed steady, growing demand for millennia, with no end in sight.
Indeed, the then nascent Industrial Age meant overtime for the smithy's
shop; lots of new factories needing lots of specialized tools meant
lots of hammering for decades to come.
Imagine the laughter in Longfellow's smithy shop that would have
inevitably followed the suggestion that the blacksmith's days were soon
numbered. But that very Industrial Age demand carried within it the
seeds of the demise for a once indispensable occupation.
At first, the smithy was not aware that his hammer would soon ring
no more, that machines would take the place of hammer and anvil, more
efficiently creating the tools and weapons for an increasingly
sophisticated cultural milieu. In essence, the smithy, unaware, created
the tools which would lead to the closure of his own shop, which is to
say that by making a living, the smithy was instrumental in the
evolution of the greater fitscape in which he served; were it not for
the smithy, there would have been no Industrial Age, which in turn
ultimately gave rise to the extinction of the smithy.
The Importance of the Blacksmith
Today it is difficult to imagine how pervasive and important
Longfellow's smithy was to a well-functioning society in mid-19th
century America (as well as economies in other locales around the
world). Blacksmiths worked with iron to make or repair the tools that
were necessary for farming (including horse and oxen shoes) and for the
myriad enterprises in the shops of the villages and towns. Smithy's
also made the tools that were necessary for the daily household chores,
such as pots and pans for the fireplace.
When roads were first built in America the blacksmith repaired
wagons. In order for the villages to grow a wide diversity of skills
and talents we needed, which the blacksmiths not only represented but
also enabled. At that time in America no village could have continued
to exist without a working blacksmith. Many other trades could not
exist until the blacksmith fired up his forge because the smithy
repaired the tools for all other professionals. When blacksmithing
began, it was the master of all trades, but became very specialized
over time due to the increase in the need for blacksmith services.
So what do blacksmiths have to do with software? The analogy is
simply this: we can posit that software developers are the
post-modernist version of the blacksmith. However unthinkable as the
almost complete disappearance of the smithy trade may have been to 19th
Century sensibilities, obviously the realities of the Industrial Age
decimated a linchpin occupation that had been central to world
economies for some three thousand years. In a relatively short period
of time, the blacksmith went from essential to superfluous, existing
today only as an artifact in a cultural museum. Could the same fate
await the role of "software developer" ... at least insofar as
programming skills are concerned?
Before more fully exploring the thesis of software developer as
reified smithy, an examination of the role of the bookkeeper would be
prudent, for the sake of juxtaposition, comparison, forecasting and
The History of Bookkeeping
The preponderance of archeological evidence indicates that the
Sumerians were the first to develop writing, circa 3300 B.C., give or take a century or so.
These are the estimated creation dates for the oldest clay tablets
found at the site of the ancient city of Uruk, located in the southern
part of modern day Iraq. Pictorial symbols for the names of people,
places and things regarding governance and commerce were carefully
carved on the ancient tablets. Most of the tablets discovered during
excavation in Uruk were documents about property, inventory and, even
then, taxes. We can, therefore, reasonably conclude that the function
of bookkeeping was essential well prior to the invention of books.
Indeed, keeping track of assets and exchanges of property predates the
Iron Age and the birth of the blacksmith as well.
Modern day bookkeeping (or more accurately, accounting) traces its
roots to the debits and credits of an Italian Renaissance colleague of
Leonardo da Vinci name Fra Luca Pacioli. After the European dark ages, business boomed and it
is believed that merchants started using a double-entry bookkeeping
system--or something similar--to cope with the growing volume and
complexity of transactions. While several systems were developed to
summarize and communicate the essence of business transactions, only
one survived and evolved to become the standard system in use today.
But unlike our friend the blacksmith who seems to have disappeared, the
bookkeeper is doing quite well, thank you very much, having today
evolved into accountant, CPA, auditor, banker, financial advisor,
finance professor, et al, the advent of Industrial Age cum Network Age
Pacioli did not invent double-entry bookkeeping. But in 1494 he
published the first complete textbook, "Summma de Arithmetica, Geometria: Proportioni
et Proportionalita" which described the system with such detail and
clarity that it became the standard system for keeping accounts around
the world, a status still enjoyed today relatively intact.
According to accounting scholar A. C. Littleton, there were seven "key ingredients" which ultimately led to the creation of the
Renaissance bookkeeping standard:
- Private property: The power to change ownership, because
bookkeeping is concerned with recording the facts about property and
- Capital: Wealth productively employed, because otherwise
commerce would be trivial and credit would not exist.
- Commerce: The interchange of goods on a widespread level,
because purely local trading in small volume would not create the sort
of press of business needed to spur the creation of an organized system
to replace the existing hodgepodge of record-keeping.
- Credit: The present use of future goods, because there would
have been little impetus to record transactions completed on the spot.
- Writing: A mechanism for making a permanent record in a common
language, given the limits of human memory.
- Money: The "common denominator" for exchanges, since there is no
need for bookkeeping except as it reduces transactions to a set of
- Arithmetic: A method of computing the monetary details of the
Note that these ingredients were not entirely absent from Ancient
Greece, for example, or the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization. But it
wasn't until the European experience in the mid-15th century that all
seven ingredients approached ubiquity across the continent, thus giving
rise to a standard for accounts that has proved to be resilient even
into the Network Age.
As for the importance of the bookkeeper, the overwhelming
preponderance of evidence suggests that the very genesis and purpose of
written communication was to facilitate the recording of transactions.
Just as the smithy was the hands-on enabler of commerce, the bookkeeper
was its historian, without whom the concept of private property could
not uniformly be implemented. We got to and through the Industrial Age
because of these two juxtaposed missions.
Blacksmith and Bookkeeper
Both legendary smithy and aboriginal accountant were historically
vital, centrally necessary vocations, enabling social and technological
innovation which goaded cultural fitscape evolution over the course of
human experience. Since at least the 1st century B.C., the yin-yang of
blacksmith and bookkeeper together served the evolving economic order
well, over waves of weighty changes and generations of learning and
growth. No matter the fashion, the ascendancy or decline of a
particular belief system, the state of technology or the demographic
mix, both professions flourished over about a three thousand year
period, leading players in the unfolding drama of human civilization.
So why did one profession continue to grow throughout the Industrial
Age, adapting magnificently into the Network Age, while the other has
become an artifact of another era ... Industrial Age road-kill which we
have now long ago forgotten? The answer to that question, and the
relationship of both blacksmith and bookkeeper to the post-modern
software programmer is the topic of the next installment in this series.