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Sherlock And The Smartphone

31/12/2016 11:56

In anticipation of the launch of the new BBC series of Sherlock on New Year's Day, I've been thinking back to 2010, when Benedict Cumberbatch's incarnation first graced our screens. But rather than unveil a man wearing a hat with earflaps and holding a convex lens to his face, our initial encounter with the twenty-first century detective was through the medium of text message. In 'A Study in Pink', we find Detective Inspector Lestrade speaking to journalists at a Scotland Yard press conference. 'You're wrong', Sherlock messages Lestrade - and everyone else in the room - the words appearing as floating text on our screens. It's a device that the producers have finessed throughout the three series to date, and when Sherlock and John drink themselves stupid in 'The Sign of Three', the text matches its owners: somewhat out of focus. Sherlock has embraced the digital interface and is full of twitter hashtags, phone hacking and GPS. And this approach clearly has appeal: publishers reported a 180% increase in sales of Holmes-related material during Series 1 - and this is for a fictional work that has never gone out of print.

So our contemporary Sherlock has swapped his magnifying glass for a mobile. But as co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss point out, this smartphone-savvy approach is not out of keeping with Arthur Conan Doyle's original creation. Holmes has always been technologically adept. In fact, 'A Study in Scarlet' was the first work of fiction ever to represent the iconic magnifying glass as a tool for detection. Throughout the fifty-six stories, Holmes uses other optical devices - including a telescope in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' and a microscope in 'The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place' - to reveal clues otherwise hidden to the human eye. According to security specialist Robert Ing, this microscope would have been a cutting-edge Powell & Lealand No. 1, demonstrating Holmes's inclination towards new-fangled forensics. Another notable development was the typewriter, manufactured by Remington for commercial use from 1873. This machine is central to solving 'A Case of Identity', where Holmes identifies the criminal from the idiosyncrasies of his typed letter. In fact, Doyle is well ahead of his time here. FBI typewriter analysis only took off in 1933, when it led to the capture of a woman who had poisoned a batch of fudge.

Changes in transport during the Victorian era had a huge impact on mobility, and Holmes makes extensive use of Britain's railway network; in 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans', for instance, a body is discovered by Aldgate Station. The bicycle was popular, and the invention of a 'safety' model for female riders was crucial to the development of the New Woman. Indeed, in 'The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist', Miss Violet Smith cycles from the railway station to her mother's home on a regular basis. But Holmes's knowledge goes far beyond female emancipation, and in 'The Adventure of the Priory School' he is able to identify a bicycle tyre as manufactured by Dunlop from its tracks.

Clattering hansom cabs are abundant in the mysteries, but an automobile eventually makes an appearance. In 'His Last Bow', a secretary reclines in a 'luxurious Limousine' which passes 'a little Ford coming in the opposite direction'. Admittedly, the authorship of this particular story is subject to debate, but it is the car itself that appears to have stumped critics, who have been arguing as to whether it is a Model T Ford or a three-wheeled Morgan ever since.

Perhaps it was the rapid advancement in communication technologies, however, that had the most profound impact on Victorian life. In the 1830s, Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph and in 1866 a transatlantic cable was successfully put into service. By the time Holmes arrived on the scene, the telegraph network was global. Transatlantic telegrams provide the answer in 'The Five Orange Pips', and Holmes himself 'never wrote a letter when a telegram would suffice'. In 'The Adventure of the Retired Colourman', Holmes even picks up the phone - perhaps an Ericsson No.6 magneto model - telling Watson: 'Thanks to the telephone and the help of the Yard, I can usually get my essentials without leaving this room.'

From the telegram to the telephone, Holmes exists at the centre of a vast information network. It should come as no surprise then that the contemporary Sherlock is a technology geek. He has simply swapped his magnifying glass for his mobile. In Sherlock's 'The Great Game' he describes his own brain as a computer, pointing to his head and telling Watson, 'Look - this is my hard drive'. The original Watson would agree; he admits that many think of Holmes as 'a machine rather than a man'. Drawing attention to the strange ways in which the human and the non-human are intertwined, and asking us to think about how our lives are mediated by machines, both the original stories and the BBC series reveal that while the gadgets might be faster and flashier, nothing much has changed: from the wheel to wireless, from the magnifying glass to the mobile, there is a certain technicity to the human condition.

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