When I read Steven Berlin Johnson's incredible book, The Invention of Air, I was struck by his depiction of the 18th century coffeehouses as the social network grease of science, philososphy, and the Enlightenment. Here's what I wrote when I read it in March 2009:
"As an historian, I am trying to understand some of the roots of these various practices of information development and sharing so that I can think about where we might try to head in the future. I finished Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air" in one sitting - gleefully inhaling this well-told story of Joseph Priestly, 18th century scientist and theologian. Among other insights, Johnson shares Priestly's prescient approach to open sharing of scientific discoveries, hails the cafe society which made it possible, and notes that Priestly offered an alternative to corporate and academic bureaucracies as funders of innovation. (pp 143-146) While transatlantic letter carriers and amateur societies such as The Lunar Society (whose members were the original lunaticks (sp)) were the email and online networks of Priestly's day it was the iterative, open sharing of ideas, and reliance on diverse networks of thinkers from many disciplines that bear the most resemblance to the issues of innovation in the 21st century."Here are some technology-enhanced revisits to that time and those tools, courtesy of Brain Pickings, a wonderfully curated treasure trove of information.
Mapping the Republic of Letters -- social network analysis of Englightenment era letters.
The E-englightenment - an internet of letters, notes, and writing from European enlightenment thinkers, connecting physical collections from libraries through electronic networks. For fun and scholarship.
London Lives - another database of archival documents, allowing historians to view old crime patterns, poverty records, and other historical documents in new ways.
All of these tools change how we can see and think about the past. They make data out of singlular objects by allowing us to see them in broader contexts, query complete sets of similar items, and wonder anew at the relationships and dynamics of the past.