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Data Compression: The Complete Reference

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Giambattista della Porta, a Renaissance scientist, was the author in 1558 of Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), a book in which he discusses many subjects, including demonology, magnetism, and the camera obscura. The book mentions an imaginary device that has since become known as the “sympathetic telegraph.” This device was to have consisted of two circular boxes, similar to compasses, each with a magnetic needle. Each box was to be labeled with the 26 letters, instead of the usual directions, and the main point was that the two needles were supposed to be magnetized by the same lodestone. Porta assumed that this would somehow coordinate the needles such that when a letter was dialed in one box, the needle in the other box would swing to point to the same letter.

Needless to say, such a device does not work (this, after all, was about 300 years before Samuel Morse), but in 1711 a worried wife wrote to the Spectator, a London periodical, asking for advice on how to bear the long absences of her beloved husband. The adviser, Joseph Addison, offered some practical ideas, then mentioned Porta’s device, adding that a pair of such boxes might enable her and her husband to communicate with each other even when they “were guarded by spies and watches, or separated by castles and adventures.” Mr. Addison then added that, in addition to the 26 letters, the sympathetic telegraph dials should contain, when used by lovers, “several entire words which always have a place in passionate epistles.” The message “I love you,” for example, would, in such a case, require sending just three symbols instead of ten.

Data compression is the process of converting an input data stream (the source stream or the original raw data) into another data stream (the output, or the compressed, stream) that has a smaller size. A stream is either a file or a buffer in memory. Data compression is popular for two reasons: (1) People like to accumulate data and hate to throw anything away. No matter how big a storage device one has, sooner or later it is going to overflow. Data compression seems useful because it delays this inevitability. (2) People hate to wait a long time for data transfers. When sitting at the computer, waiting for a Web page to come in or for a file to download, we naturally feel that anything longer than a few seconds is a long time to wait.
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