Tabula rasa

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Write your name on this tablet, please! Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, 838

The smart tablet may be smart, but it’s a tablet after all. The ancients and the medievals also used tablets, which were often the size of an iPad mini. The wax tablets were also pretty smart. They were not powered, except by human energy, but they packed some impressive technology: erasable wax, which is to say that the hard drive was hard only for a while as the scribe inscribed letters with a metal pointed tool called a stylus. Once the wax surface was completely covered with the traces of letters, the tablet’s memory reached maximum capacity and had to be transferred unto another surface. The tablet’s mobility was high, but its memory was fairly low. In some cases, multiple tablets were attached together like the pages of a book and thus the memory was extended. Most surviving tablets are foldable. 

It is unclear when wax tablets were invented and who first had the idea of writing on erasable wax. That wax may be written on is not a huge leap of imagination. After all, wax seals were used in the earliest civilisations. The plasticity of warm wax and the solidity of it when cooled down make it perfect for impressions. If writing can be engraved in stone, it can certainly be impressed in wax as well. It is when we move from the permanence of a writing medium – like writing in clay, stone, or on softer material like papyrus – to the ephemerality of reheated wax that we see the genius of the wax tablet invention. Tablets such as these could be reused by warming up the wax surface and rearranging the wax using a spatula-like tool. Once the text had been copied onto a more solid medium, then the tablet could be reheated, smoothed, erased and reused. The tablet, tabula in Latin, was made rasa, meaning blank. A reused wax tablet was a tabula rasa as it preserved no memory of its earlier ridges. 

 

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