One of the unsung heroes of Google’s bevy of reference tools is the Google Books Ngram Viewer. As Google has scanned millions of dead-tree books, it’s indexed the terms referenced in them, and the Ngram Viewer lets you graph how many times one or more of those terms pops up over a given period of time. It may be the closest thing we have to a record of what the world has cared about over the past few centuries.
Among the terms it tracks are ones that relate to technology. I started plugging some of them in, and got fascinated by the results, some of which you’ll find below.
Some terms, such as “TV,” are steady eddies — always popular, without any sharp upticks or nosedives in usage. Others come out of nowhere, or crash into nothingness, or just wobble about. There are more complex ways to tell the story of tech’s ebbs and flows, but I’m not sure if there any that are clearer.
(The Ngram Viewer only returns results through 2008, so there are plenty of terms it only just barely captures or misses altogether, such as iPad, Android, Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs and Instagram. In fact, performing this exercise reminded me how much of the tech world circa 2014 simply didn’t exist six years ago.)
The numbers on each Y-axis below represent the percentage of references to each term from among all terms Google has indexed. You don’t really need to pay attention to those figures, just the trajectory of each line. And part of the beauty of these graphs is that their gist is largely self-explanatory — so without any further ado, here you go.