n-gram history

ngram bolts rivets welds

Speaking of “texts” vs. “stuff”…

My morning routine involves a dose of Paul Krugman’s blog, and the other day he wrote about playing with Google’s ngram feature.  This is the metadata part of the Google Books project, which has digitized thousands of volumes and converted them to electronic text.

ngram lets you find out the frequency of words across books at given points in time, so you can basically see whether a phrase was trending or not.  And, as you can see here, you can compare phrases, too.

This gives you a neat little capsule history.  Above is a comparison of “welded connection,” “bolted connection,” and “riveted connection.”  You can see that rivets (green line) were hot stuff (sorry) up through the mid-1950s, after which interest dropped off.  By 2000, they were interesting only to historians.  Meanwhile, welding (red) took off in the late 1910s and soon surpassed riveting, which was becoming obsolete as labor costs rose.  Bolted connections (blue) slowly grew in popularity as precision and technique were refined, and today they surpassed welding in the late 1970s.

Hardly scientific, but not at all inaccurate.  And a fantastic time-waster.

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