While everything old is new again, today’s word has been recurring in different iterations for virtually as long as written communication has existed. Starting with Sumerian cuneiform in clay and evolving from the Roman and Medieval wax versions to the technological marvels that we use today, the word has always revolved around portable and accessible communication – it’s even the medium God used for the Israelites (which is quite an endorsement). So, from the past to now and with a look to the not-too-distant future, let’s take a look at the word tablet.
Coming originally from the diminutive Medieval form of the Latin tabula, meaning ‘slab or board (typically for writing)’, our word tablet comes to us via the Old French tablete, meaning ‘small table’. The first known usage of the term can be found in a copy of the Middle English Evangelie (Gospels) that dates from around 1300, where it is written: “He a tablet soon sought and there on the name of John he wrote.”
From the original idea of a surface covered with a pliable material, such as clay or wax, the term soon started to morph into the concept of a thin, hard surface specifically shaped and used to display something upon it. A short 3 to 5 decades after being introduced into English, poet William of Shoreham, writing about the inscription of the Ten Commandments, mentions: “Upon two tablets of stone..He has [sc. them] wrote, Moyses betoken.” By the end of the 1300s (1395, to be exact), likely describing a wooden votive, The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, edited by Frederick James Furnivall, notes a will mentioning: “To the same Joanne my daughter I bequeath..a sacring belle, and all of silver; Also a tablet depicting a tree.”
It would be another several centuries before the next innovation of our term, occurring with the advent of cheap and relatively affordable paper, which was bound in books for writing (aka a notebook) and first mentioned by Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith in She Stoops to Conquer from 1773, with a line reading: “Taking out his tablets, and perusing.”
Still, for many of us reading this, the perception of the tablet that we are most aware of from our childhoods was a product of science fiction. While the RAND (graphic) Tablet was actually invented in the early 1960s, its bulky desk-sized console couldn’t compare to the ultra-futuristic depictions of flat surface minicomputers we were accustomed to seeing on TV shows, like on the original Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, or in movies, like Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of technology (ironically) gone haywire, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Only a half century later, science fiction has, at least for tablets, become a technological reality. Beyond simply creating a functional electronic version of the Roman wax tablet, ever-increasing capabilities are enabling us to do, create, and share more using tablets than ever before; however, we’re far from being out of the innovative woods yet.
In addition to being more powerful, the next generation of tablet promises to be more portable, but not through mere size differences. This month, premium mobile device manufacturer is going to release its first foldable device, the Samsung Galaxy Fold. Competing with Huawei’s Mate X and Motorola’s foldable Razr, the Galaxy Fold boasts 6 cameras, a 4.6” screen (when folded) as well as a 7.3” screen (when opened), and, among other things, a new type of Android support from Google. Moreover, while industry analysts predict foldable smartphones and tablets will become a significant part of the market, there’s no plan of stopping there: the next step is rollable and stretchable displays.