The Modernisation of the Discworld

In our journey through the Discworld series, from The Colour of Magic to The Shepherd’s Crown, we see huge progress on the Disc as it journeys from the Century of the Fruitbat into the Century of the Anchovy. Our first glimpse of technological invention could be considered to be the creation of cinema in Moving Pictures. However, for reasons which will become apparent upon reading the novel, this cannot truly be classified as real and lasting progress.

The next major development is the invention of the newspaper by William de Worde1 in partnership with Gunilla Goodmountain2, creator of a press which operates using moveable type. De Worde sets up the Ankh-Morpork Times, becoming its senior editor and chief reporter, and inspiring a tabloid rival in the form of the low-brow Ankh-Morpork Inquirer. Other presses have since sprung up in the city, printing everything from Dwarfish fashion magazines to magical tomes.3

A clacks tower by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

In a world where the only form of instant communication is conducted by highly trained witches and wizards, and messages take weeks to travel to their destinations via messenger or postal carriages, a fast mode of communication is long overdue. In The Fifth Elephant, we get our first look at the Clacks4 through the eyes of Sam Vimes. Robert Dearheart’s invention of this network of semaphore towers, running from Ankh-Morpork to Genua, has made speedy communication available to all. Unfortunately, as a result of financial skulduggery by his bankers and accountants, the Clacks was stolen from Dearheart, renamed The Grand Trunk Semaphore Company, and began operating for maximum profit, ignoring the degrading condition of the towers and wellbeing of the workers…

The cover art for Going Postal by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

When conman Moist von Lipwig was given a second chance at life by Lord Vetinari, he became a key actor in the modernization of Ankh-Morpork. In Going Postal, the postal system undergoes complete redevelopment under his leadership. Through the invention of the stamp, and fast postal runs between the city and neighbours such as Sto Lat, the postal service becomes a real competitor to the overworked and poorly maintained Grand Trunk, resulting in a reckoning which eventually leads to much needed reinvigoration and reinvention of the Clacks.

The cover art for Making Money by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

In Making Money, Moist’s next appointment is as the Master of the Royal Mint where, backed by something rather surprising and far more valuable than gold, he invents the bank note. Within the bank he is introduced to the Glooper5, a water-based analogue computer which replicates the current economics and circulation of money within Ankh-Morpork. The machine operates all too effectively, showing what is happening and what can happen when the bank makes adjustments to the flow of the city’s finances. Disturbingly, the Glooper itself can actually impact the city’s economics rather than just simulating them, and concerns have been raised that destroying it could result in a catastrophic financial crash.

The cover for Raising Steam by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

With goblins now operating Clacks towers, and tireless golem horses pulling mail-coaches, Disc-wide communication has never been faster. In Raising Steam, an invention that does the same for travel becomes a reality – the railway. Dick Simnel, creator of the Disc’s very first steam locomotive, Iron Girder, is a young, talented mechanical engineer from the rural town of Sheepridge. His plan for a railway reaching right the way across the continent is realized through investment by businessman, Harry King, and pragmatic support from Lord Vetinari and Moist von Lipwig. The Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway not only facilitates fast transport of fresh goods, fuel and raw materials, but has even created a tourism industry and brought countries closer together than ever before.

The wizards of the Unseen University are also responsible for a degree of modernization through technomancy. Most innovations occur within the High Energy Magic Building, or the Thaumatological Business Park, which is where the university capitalizes on the results of its magical research, its most notable product being the Dis-organizer – an imp-powered personal organizer. The High Energy Magic Building houses Hex, an intuitive magical super-computer, which eventually develops a degree of sentience. It contains a number of organic components, including a colony of ants, a beehive and a mouse. Between its first appearance in Interesting Times, and its last, it goes from being little more than a huge calculator to the equivalent of a modem through integration with the Clacks.

The golem Anghammarad by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

It is interesting to see golems feature heavily in a number of Discworld novels that have become accepted as an Industrial Revolution series within the larger series. Golems appear to reflect a number of aspects of industrialization, such as machinery that can replace several men through an ability to work continuously without sustenance or pay, but also an outside labour-force willing to accept poor working conditions and lower pay than humanoid workers. We see a great deal of distrust, fear and anger towards golems when they first appear, and a changing attitude towards them as they evolve from mere tools to freethinking individuals who achieve emancipation through the actions of Captain Carrot in Feet of Clay and Adora Belle Dearheart across Going Postal and Making Money.

Many aspects of modernization are seen throughout the Discworld series, from industrial and technological advances, to increasing acceptance and integration of different cultures, beliefs and species. The opportunity to witness a whole world evolving and changing in so many myriad ways, experiencing developments through the eyes of its people, is just one of the reasons why Discworld is so compelling.

  1. A combination of the names William Caxton, the person who first brought the printing press to England, and Wynkyn de Worde, a colleague of Caxton and the first printer to set up business in London’s Fleet Street.
  2. The German translation of which is Gutenberg. Johannes Gutenberg being the Roundworld inventor of the printing machine – the Gutenberg Press.
  3. The Unseen University Press sprang up as wizards were concerned that moveable type could carry residual magic from magical tomes to whatever is printed next, which could cause particularly nasty surprises for readers of gentle fiction printed with type formerly used to print incantations for summoning demons.
  4. The Clacks is based on the Roundworld Optical Telegraph system which was invented in France in 1792 by Claude Chappe, though significantly fewer goblins were involved in the operation of Chappe’s towers.
  5. The Disc version of Roundworld’s Monetary National Income Analogue Computer – the MONIAC – created in 1949 by New Zealand economist Bill Phillips to simulate the workings of an economy with purely fluidic logic.