Numbered Lives: The Life and Death of Quantum Media

February 15, 2020

Did you know that pedometers were a thing during the 18th century? Neither did I until I attended “Early Data Bodies and Anglo-American Empire,” a talk by Jacqueline Wernimont of Dartmouth College which took place on Monday night in LC 28. The room hosted around 30-45 Drew students and visitors who wanted to learn more about the history and usage of the pedometer. 


The talk was drawing from Wernimont’s most recent book “Numbered Lives: The Life and Death of Quantum Media.” Wernimont is a professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Inaugural Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Engagement. Her talk was co-sponsored by Drew’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department as well as the Mellon Digital Humanities Grant. 


Wernimont described how Leonardo Di Vinci was the first person to envision the pedometer, although he was not the first to create it. She noted that the Incas were, in fact, the first to successfully create a tracking device for mining and inventory, but historians have yet to decipher the correct way to use the original invention. 


Before their use of step tracking, pedometers were first used as cartographic measurements in the production of maps. This is how the land was surveyed for maps, war and royal needs. 


After being used for maps, the pedometer was designed for individual usage, although at first it was only for men. Usually issued by a doctor, men (especially royalty) used the pedometer to track their steps. William Fraser of London, according to Wernimont, advertised his style of pedometer as a “companion to gentlemen who walk much and are fond of shooting...[to] assure them of the distance [they had] passed over.” 


Soon after, the pedometer was being sold to women as well. Women were given pedometers to show off to their dates on how much they danced, so much that it basically turned into a competition, even though the device was not very accurate.


My favorite anecdote of the night was when Wernimont detailed a story of a very sickly daughter who was sent to a ball by her father, he also sent along security to keep her safe. The daughter was so sick she could hardly get out of bed. However, she was given a pedometer for the dance, as many women had during the time, and when she returned home, her father saw she had danced numerous miles worth at the ball.



The pedometer is still used in a similar manner today. Wernimont asked the audience which of them used health tracking devices such as Fitbits or smartwatches in their daily lives. Nearly half the audience raised their hands. Wernimont explained how, even today, with modern technologies, the devices purposely show incorrect information unbeknown by the user for the company to make more money.


Wernimont described a time when she researched a pedometer product called Jawbone, which is now discontinued. She placed one on each wrist and set one to be for a male wearer and the other to be for a female wearer. While wearing both at the same time and walking to utilize them both, each pedometer came up with different data for step tracking. She stated how the male wearer pedometer gave more encouraging feedback, the female wearer one said “stop watching Dancing with the Stars” along with other negative feedback. 


“What I found to be really interesting,” said Olivia Thompson (‘22) a member of the audience, “Was the part about gender and how pedometers treat customers differently based on their gender identity; It’s so weird.”


After the talk, Wernimont went into detail, with a small group of students who stayed, about how the FDA does not regulate pedometer-based products and warned people to be wary of hackings on the devices. She also had a preview of different pedometers over the centuries out for viewing. The one everyone enjoyed the most from the 19th century and styled by Tiffany & Co.  


Elsa Nygard (’21) stated, “I only came here for the extra credit, but I’m glad I stayed! I learned so much about something that I never gave a second thought to.” 


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