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The history of nerds

From an old advertisement

It occurred to me recently that, by now, somehow had probably written a history of nerds. I Googled. Indeed, someone has: American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent.

I have not read this book, though I’m considering buying the eBook version for my Sony Reader. I am curious to know when Nugent begins his history. As I reflect on the history of nerds (they’re my people, too), it seems to me that nerds have always been with us. It’s just a matter of figuring out who they were and what they were drawn to at any particular point in history.

American nerds, it would seem to me, burst onto the scene fully liberated and empowered when amateur radio got its start around 1900. When computers became available, ham radio ceased to be cool, though there are still plenty of hams. About 650,000 people hold amateur radio licenses in the United States, though not all of them are active. Most people have no idea how cool ham radio was, once upon a time. Just the word itself, radio, used to express the cutting edge of human progress and ambition. They named those wagons Radio Flyers because radio was cool.

Times change. Now we have digital nerds. They rule. They are highly paid. No one kicks sand in their faces.

In a sense, it seems to me, ham radio might be considered the first real democratization of nerdness. Scientists have always been nerds, but most scientists had educations and equipment that was far beyond the average person. Orville and Wilbur Wright certainly must have been nerds, as were other people who worked on inventing flying machines. But working out the science of aerodynamics, and building flying machines, was way beyond the means of most people, intellectually and financially. Thomas Edison was a nerd. Nikola Tesla was a nerd. But Edison and Tesla were uber-nerds, with tremendous resources at their disposal.

Because nerds have always been a common human type, and because the equipment and knowledge for actualizing one’s nerdness have not always been available, I have to suppose that, in the past, many nerds lived and died with no means of exploring and exercising their nerdness. They could only read books, and dream.

I find that very, very sad.

One Comment

  1. Quetal wrote:

    In your estimation with todays technology devouring our youth – will we have any Ham nerds apart from the techie side in our future?

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

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