Author Archives: Richard Romano

About Richard Romano

Richard Romano has been involved in the graphic arts since before birth. He is a writer and analyst for the graphic communications industry and a regular contributor to WhatTheyThink.com, for which he oversees the Wide-Format and Production Inkjet special topic areas. For eight years, he was the senior analyst for The Industry Measure (formerly TrendWatch Graphic Arts), until its demise in March 2008. He has also worked on consulting and market research projects for many other organizations and companies and has contributed to such magazines as Graphic Arts Monthly, GATFWorld, Printing News, and HOW; is the former executive editor of, CrossMedia magazine; and is the former managing editor of Micro Publishing News and Digital Imaging magazines. As if that weren’t enough, he is also the author or coauthor of more than a half dozen or so books, the last three with WhatTheyThink’s Dr. Joe Webb, including Disrupting the Future, which has been translated into Japanese and Portuguese. Their most recent title is "The Home Office That Works! Make Working At Home a Success—A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters." He has vague recollections of having graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1989, and has a 1994 certificate in Multimedia Production from New York University. He is currently in the final throes of a Masters program at the University at Buffalo, which he really does need to wrap up at some point. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

A Turkish Get-Up

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As drupa looms on the horizon, vendors large and small are announcing new printing equipment with amazing new capabilities. In a weird way, I am reminded of an episode of the original Mission: Impossible called “The Money Machine” (1967) which featured a machine that ostensibly went from white-paper-in to green-money-out. However, the machine was actually a ruse to catch a counterfeiter. Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and his IM force presented the counterfeiter with the titular machine that supposedly printed real money. However, it was not a real printing press, and instead of an imaging system, it had Barney Collier (Greg Morris) crouching inside feeding preprinted banknotes through the output slot. Whenever I see a demo of a new press, I am always tempted to check to see if there isn’t just someone inside sliding preprinted sheets out. I suspect this is just me.

Secreting people inside machines is actually a not unknown ploy; conversely, the idea of making machines look and behave like people goes back millennia.

The word “robot” was coined in 1920 by—as any crossword puzzle aficionado can tell you—Czech playwright and novelist Karel Čapek in his science-fiction play R.U.R., an acronym for “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Čapek took the word from the Czech robotnik which means “slave.” Although we may think that robots and automatons are a product of relatively recent science fiction, they actually date as far back as ancient China.

King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty, who ruled from 976 to 922 B.C., one day found himself in the presence of Yan Shi, referred to as an “artificer,” although “mechanical engineer” is closer to what he’d be called today. This artificer demonstrated to the emperor what was essentially a life-size humanoid automaton. According to an account described in the Liezi, a collection of writings of 5th-century B.C. Taoist philosopher Lie Yukou, this automaton could walk, move its head, and even sing. The king was impressed. However, the machine supposedly began winking and leering at the young ladies in attendance, and the emperor threatened to have Yan Shi executed. Oopsie. Panicked, the artificer is said to have disassembled the automaton to show the king what it was made of.

[I]t turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously colored white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial… The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion (Liezie, via Cox, 2014).

One wonders if the story wasn’t embellished just a tad, but in any event, it does sound like something we’d like to do to people who get similarly out of hand at parties.

Anyway, kidneys intact, we’re able to walk on to ancient Greece, where the 4th-century B.C. mathematician Archytas of Tarentum invented a wooden, steam-powered bird he called “The Pigeon.” It was said to be able to fly as far as 200 feet before (literally) running out of steam. (Fortunately, The Pigeon never went into mass production or all those Greek statues may not have survived the centuries so pristine and intact.) A couple hundred years later, inventor and mathematician Ctesibius (285–222 B.C.) drew on his study of pneumatics and hydraulics to invent a water clock that featured moving figures. Another couple centuries later, Hero of Alexandria (10–70 A.D.) made a variety of automated machines powered by air pressure, steam, and water.

The rediscovery and dissemination of ancient Greek texts during the European Renaissance—thanks largely to the invention of the printing press—kicked off a lot interest in automata of various kinds. In the 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for a humanoid robot derived from his studies and drawings of Vitruvian Man, although there is no evidence he tried to actually build it. In the 1730s, French inventor and artist Jacques de Vaucanson demonstrated several automatons: a flute player, a pipe player, and a duck (sing along now, “one of these things is not like the other…”).

About the mechanical duck (aka the “Canard Digérateur” or “Digesting Duck”): it could flap its wings and move its neck. More remarkably, it could eat food from its exhibitor’s hand and swallow it, and, even more remarkably—if disgustingly—could excrete it. Remarked Voltaire sarcastically (his language, not mine), “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France” (Santoso, 2012).

Yes, it was a bit gross (and preceded the equally disturbing Betsy-Wetsy doll by about two centuries), but was pretty complicated for the 18th century:

Vaucanson gave details of the duck’s insides: not only was the grain, once swallowed, conducted via tubes to the animal’s stomach, but Vaucanson had also had to install a “chemical laboratory” to decompose it. It passed from there into the “bowels, then to the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to emerge” (Wood, 2002).

The Digesting Duck certainly appealed to novelist Thomas Pynchon, who made it (or an exaggerated version of it) a character in his historical novel Mason & Dixon.

(By the way, Vaucanson also invented the first automated loom which, in 1801, would be improved upon by Joseph Marie Jacquard, whose Jacquard loom used “punch cards” to control the pattern the machine wove. Herman Hollerith would later borrow the principle of these punch cards to store and tabulate data for the 1890 U.S. Census. Charles Babbage also adapted the Jacquard punch cards for his Analytical engine. It will not come as a surprise that modern computing perhaps owes its existence to a defecating duck. Some days, that just seems apt.)

In 1836, in an article for the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe discussed at length such automata as Vaucanson’s duck, as well as another “automaton” that he had recently seen demonstrated: the Chess-Player of Maelzel. As he remarks in a sentence that makes the head spin a bit:

[A] machine such as we have described [Vaucanson’s duck] is altogether above comparison with the Chess-Player of Maelzel. By no means—it is altogether beneath it—that is to say provided we assume (what should never for a moment be assumed) that the Chess-Player is a pure machine, and performs its operations without any immediate human agency (Poe, 1836).

Let’s back up a second. The Chess-Player of Maelzel to which Poe is referring was called The Turk (or The Mechanical Turk, not to be confused with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “marketplace for work”). It was invented in 1770 by Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) and was a mechanical chess-playing machine, sort of the Deep Blue of its day. It had a chessboard atop a large wooden cabinet—which was filled with gears and other mechanical contrivances—and seated behind the chessboard was an intimidating, be-turbaned, Turkish-looking mannequin which also had working arms that moved the chess pieces. Invented to “impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria” (says Wikipedia, with a little bit of what I imagine is inadvertent wordplay), the Turk was toured around Europe and the Americas for 80-plus years, beating nearly all of its challengers, including a 1783 Paris match with Benjamin Franklin, who had been serving as U.S. Minister to France. Franklin lost.

The Turk, a copper engraving believed to have been made by Kempelen himself.

The Turk, a copper engraving believed to have been made by Kempelen himself.

Kempelen died in 1804, and his son sold The Turk to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a Bavarian musician and machine tinkerer; Maelzel fixed up the Turk and took it back on the road for a sort of “world tour.”

In 1809, the Turk played and beat Napoléon Bonaparte. According to reports—many of which are contradictory—Napoléon tried to cheat repeatedly, and the Turk ended up getting annoyed and sweeping all the pieces off the board. Odd behavior for a machine…

Or is it? In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Turk won so many of its matches: it wasn’t actually a machine at all. The Turk’s big secret—and it was an amazingly well-kept secret for decades—was that, hidden inside it, was an actual human chess master. In fact, over the years, more than half a dozen world chess masters secretly kept up The Turk’s façade as a chess-playing machine. In other words, the Turk was hoax. This is why all the attempts to explain how it worked—including Poe’s, although he kind of hinted at it—were inevitably wrong.

Alas, The Turk “died” in a fire in 1850 (no, there was no one in it at the time) and its owner felt that there was no longer any reason to keep the secret, so let the cat out of the bag (or the chess master out of the Turk, perhaps) in a series of articles in The Chess Monthly.

So perhaps when we see new machines and technologies in action, it might be worth a look inside. Just in case.

 

References:

Gunther Cox, “A History of Robotics: Yan Shi the Artificer,” Salvius, January 20, 2014, http://blog.salvius.org/2014/01/a-history-of-robotics-yan-shi-artificer.html.

Daven Hiskey, “The First Robot, Created in 400 BCE, Was A Steam-Powered Pigeon,” Mental Floss, November 14, 2012, http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/151575.

Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” The Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836, via The Portable Poe, New York: Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 508–537.

Alex Santoso, “The Pooping Duck Automaton,” Neatorama, Tuesday, August 7, 2012, http://www.neatorama.com/2012/08/07/The-Pooping-Duck-Automaton/.

Gaby Wood, “Living Dolls: A Magical History Of The Quest For Mechanical Life,” The Guardian, February 15, 2002, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/feb/16/extract.gabywood.

“Robot,” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=robot.

“Robot,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 5, 2016, retrieved March 9, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot.

“The Turk,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 12, 2016, retrieved March 9, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk.

Code Comfort

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Here’s one for Inspector Morse, perhaps: what does this mean in Morse code?

· – – · – ·

I’ll tell you later.

Today, everyone talks about the importance of “multichannel marketing,” but as far as I know, in only one case has Morse code actually been one of those channels.

One of the iconic structures in downtown Los Angeles is the Capitol Records Building, constructed to look somewhat like a stack of LPs, albeit made of white vinyl. On the roof of the building is a tall spire with a blinking light at the top. Since the building opened in 1956, the light has flashed HOLLYWOOD in Morse code—and in fact, the light was first switched on by Leila Morse, granddaughter of old Samuel himself. The coded message has only been changed twice in the history of the building: once in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Capitol Records (where the light flashed CAPITOL 50), and again as part of a summer 2013 multichannel marketing program launched to promote Katy Perry’s then-forthcoming album Prism, where the light flashed KATY PERRY PRISM OCTOBER 22ND 2013.

You can probably see the problem. I would imagine that if you drew a Venn diagram of Katy Perry fans and Morse code aficionados, it would probably resemble two circles separated by about 50 miles of blank paper. As a result, no one actually noticed the message. Commented Ms. Perry:

“[N]o one reads Morse code anymore besides that guy, like, in the (Hollywood) Hills that doesn’t wear any pants (Carroll, 2013).”

(To prove that theory, maybe they should have the light flash PANTS SALE OCTOBER 22ND 2016. Just a thought.)

Although Morse code has been superseded as a way of transmitting messages, particularly by those in distress, there are still some users of it. The U.S. Air Force still trains a few people each year in Morse code, amateur radio operators—be they pants-wearing or not—still communicate using it, and museum ships, as befits their nature as preservers of history, transmit Morse code.

Speaking of which, the word museum—from the Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion) “seat or shrine of the Muses”—was first coined in 1610 and was initially used to refer to a library, specifically the original library at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy I circa 250 B.C. Eventually the term came to encompass institutions dedicated to displaying art and artifacts, which had originally been referred to as “cabinets of curiosities.” These were more often than not wealthy individuals’ private collections of random objects that were opened to the public. (If you have ever been to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, you get the idea.)

The oldest known museum in this context is believed, albeit not unanimously, to be Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum, founded in 530 B.C. by Princess Ennigaldi in what is now southern Iraq. Princess Ennigaldi was the daughter of Nabonidus, the last Neo-Babylonian king and ruler of the city of Ur. She was high priestess to the god Nanna, and her worship space was in a small room at the top of the Ziggurat of Ur. She was also an administrator of a school for priestesses, and the curator of the first museum dedicated to the display of antiquities, although, this being the 6th century B.C., there weren’t a whole lot of antiquities to choose from. (It’s like when you walked into your grandmother’s house and would say, “Look at all the antiques!” to which she would respond, “They weren’t antiques when I bought them!” We continue.) But, yes, various centuries-old Mesopotamian artifacts were on display, accompanied by clay cylinders on which were etched descriptions of the exhibits, or what we would call “museum labels,” in three languages.

Sadly, admission to these early museums was limited to “respectable” people (i.e., the wealthy elite), and the display of private collections became a way for social climbers to ascend a few rungs higher. I don’t imagine that has changed all that much.

The first of what we might call a “natural history museum” was a cabinet of curiosities collected by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). Linnaeus, among others, called Aldrovandi “the father of natural history studies,” although he got into the subject in a roundabout way. In 1549, Aldrovandi was arrested for heresy and while under house arrest, he befriended various scholars and became interested in botany, geology, and zoology (he is acknowledged as having coined the word “geology”) and after his release in 1550 he mounted various collecting expeditions throughout Italy. Aldrovandi would amass in excess of 7,000 specimens to add to his cabinet of curiosities, and he was also instrumental in establishing Bologna’s botanical gardens, one of the first in Europe.

It was during the Renaissance that the majority of museums began to spring up, at least in Italy, although it would take until the Enlightenment in the 18th century for museums to proliferate throughout most of the rest of the world.

The first art museums were generally religious institutions, which amassed and commissioned great numbers of original works. Many of these collections were private, or only on display in the temples and churches themselves, so the audience was fairly limited. In the Middle Ages, royal palaces like the one at Versailles opened their collections to the public, at least part of the time (to get into Versailles, attendees needed to wear silver shoe buckles and a sword—although one hopes that wasn’t all they were required to wear).

The great public art museum boom began in earnest in the 18th century, and the Musée du Louvre in Paris—which opened in 1793 during the French Revolution—was one of the first state-owned art museums that was open to the unwashed masses.

The art museum was slow to make it across the Atlantic, and there was actually no art museum in the United States until the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1872. As a result, the only Americans who were aware of the great works of art of the European masters were those who had studied abroad, or had gotten hold of any of the bad copies of European masterpieces that made it to the States.

One of these art students was an American painter, born in Massachusetts in 1791. A Yale graduate (class of 1810), he went on to study art in Boston with painter Washington Allston and then went to London to attend the Royal Academy of Arts. While overseas, he completed a large painting called Dying Hercules, which got good reviews in Europe, but was generally panned by the public back in the States. Indeed, this painter found Americans’ taste in art fairly uncultured, so he set about trying to rectify that. First, he helped found the National Academy of Design in New York City and then he embarked upon a massive painting eventually called Gallery of the Louvre, which he began in 1831 and finished in 1833. It was six by nine feet, and painstakingly reproduced in miniature 38 great works of art found in the Louvre’s Salon Carré, including the Mona Lisa. It was not an original idea, but rather is an example of what is known as the “Kunstkammer tradition of paintings,” which “shows people studying a collection of artwork hanging in a known architectural space” (Gambino, 2011). Alas, Gallery of the Louvre was about as well-received as Dying Hercules had been, and was panned by critics and the public alike.

Still, our guy was a successful and in-demand portrait painter—until a family tragedy sent his career on a different course. In 1825, he had been hired by the City of New York to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, the great French ami of the American Revolution, and thus he journeyed to Washington, DC. While he was in DC working on the portrait, he received a letter informing him that back home in New Haven, Conn., his wife was very ill. The next day, a second letter informed him that she had died. He dropped the Lafayette portrait and rushed home, but by the time he arrived, she had already been buried.

Distraught that he had not had any word of her condition all through her illness—thanks to the pokey communications at the time—he virtually dropped everything to devote his energies to developing a faster means of communication. On a transatlantic journey in 1835, he met an American expert in electromagnetism, and after witnessing various experiments with electromagnets, developed an early prototype of the invention he would be famous for.

So it was that Samuel Morse gave up his career as a painter to develop the telegraph, which, in 1844, was demonstrated as a practical system. His 1849 patent now resides in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The telegraph changed the way people communicate and laid the groundwork for all the developments in communication in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Getting back to the beginning: any idea what · – – · – · stands for?

Well, on May 24, 2004, to mark the 160th anniversary of the first telegraph transmission, the Radiocommunication Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITUR) added the @ sign to the official Morse character set. So if you have ever needed to send your email address in Morse code, now you can. Alas, if you need to send Twitter messages by Morse code—which would be a damn strange thing to do—the hashtag (#) has yet to be given a Morse code equivalent.

Contact the author at · – ·   · ·   – · – ·   · · · ·   · –   · – ·   – · ·   · – – · – ·   · – –   · · · ·   · –   –   –   · · · ·   ·   – · – –   –   · · · ·   · ·   – ·   – · –   · – · – · –   – · – ·   – – –   – –

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.

 

References:

Sarah Carroll, “Katy Perry Used Morse Code Months Ago To Reveal ‘Prism’ Album Release Atop Capitol Records Building,” AMP Radio/Los Anegles, October 15, 2013,   http://amp.cbslocal.com/2013/10/15/katyperrymorsecodeprismcapitolrecords/

Megan Gambino, “Samuel Morse’s Other Masterpiece,” Smithsonian.com, August 16, 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/samuel-morses-other-masterpiece-52822904/?no-ist.

“The Morse Telegraph,” History Wired, Smithsonian Institution, http://historywired.si.edu/object.cfm?ID=306.

“Art Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 27, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_museum.

“Capitol Records Building,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 13, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitol_Records_Building.

“Ennigaldi (Ennigaldi-Nanna),” Wikipedia, last modified on January 31, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennigaldi_(Ennigaldi-Nanna).

“Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 1, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennigaldi-Nanna%27s_museum.

“Morse Code,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 27, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morse_code.

“Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 2, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum.

“Samuel Morse,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 23, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse.

“Ulisse Aldrovandi,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 11, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulisse_Aldrovandi.

29 Days a-Leaping

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Monday is February 29, leap day, and while I understand why leap year exists, it always bugged me that the extra day is added to February—the one month of the year that we don’t want to make longer, at least here in the Northeast. Why not put it in a summer month, when we can have an extra day of nice weather? Or is this some kind of Southern Hemisphere conspiracy?

So, what to do with the extra day? I guess I could read the phone book, as I see from the week-old stack in the lobby of my apartment building that the new one is out. Or, at least, a new phone book is out. There was a time, back in the 2000s, when I used to routinely get four or five of them, all with different listings, which made looking for specific people or businesses a bit of a chore. No wonder we all just started Googling for the number we wanted—assuming we even want a number anymore. There are municipalities, like San Francisco, that have tried to ban phone books outright. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do like the idea of an opt-in/out ability. After all, there are still people who use them, if only for a practical joke.

If Edgar Allan Poe had worked for the phone company, “A Cask of Amontillado” might have gone something like this. (Photo by Scott Ehardt)

If Edgar Allan Poe had worked for the phone company, “A Cask of Amontillado” might have gone something like this. (Photo by Scott Ehardt)

Apparently, it is not unheard of for some merry college prankster to fill his roommate’s room full of torn-out pages from the phone book, or even to brick up someone’s doorway with phone books. It’s something to do with those unwanted stacks of them, I guess.

The idea of the practical joke is probably as old as humanity, but some of the oldest on record were pulled by Roman Emperor Elagabalus (c. 203–222). Born Varius Avitus Bassianus, as emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; he was named Elagabalus posthumously after the Syrian sun-god Elagabal, which was essentially a black rock. Elagabalus was a high priest of Elagabal and it was his attempt to replace Jupiter in the Roman pantheon with his name-sake/rock, among other things, that led to his assassination at age 18.

Elagabalus was a bit “out there” even by Roman Emperor standards. Ascending the throne at age 15 (so right there you know there’s gonna be trouble), he was married as many as five times, although he was known to swing both ways. He had a thing for charioteers and tried to appoint several of them to high positions, and his habit of prostituting himself in the palace did not go over well with the Praetorian Guard—or with just about anyone else. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon remarked that Elagabalus “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments” (Gibbon, 1782).

He was also fond of practical jokes. Here’s one laugh riot:

[Elagabalus] would often shut his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let in lions and leopards and bears—rendered harmless—so that when they woke up they would find at dawn, or what is worse, at night, lions, bears and panthers in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died as a result of this (Icks, 2012).

Waka waka!

He also invented a sort of whoopee cushion; he would have dinner guests sit on air cushions and then, over the course of the meal, he would have slave boys surreptitiously and slowly let the air out until the diners found themselves under the table—and not because of too much wine. This was when Elagabalus actually served proper food, rather than bits of glass or, on occasion, pictures of food rather than actual food. Fun-ny.

Needless to say, he did not last long as emperor; after a mere three years, members of the Praetorian Guard finally had enough of him, so they killed him, cut off his head, dragged his body around Rome, then dumped it in the Tiber. Now that’s a practical joke!

Practical jokes can be taken to other kinds of extremes, even when they don’t involve large, feral mammals. One of the most famous practical jokes in history, the “Berners Street Hoax,” was perpetrated by Theodore Hook (1788–1841), a British man of letters and inveterate practical joker. He was only 22 at the time, so perhaps he could be excused (or not), but as the story goes, Hook had made a bet with a friend of his that he could make any house in London the most famous address in the city in less than a week. The home, chosen at random (or because Hook and his friend happened to be walking past it at the time the bet was made), was 54 Berners Street, the home of an unwitting Mrs. Tottenham, who had no connection whatsoever to Hook.

On the morning of November 27, 1810, she suddenly found all kinds of tradespeople and deliverymen arriving at her front door with items they had been instructed to deliver: coal, furniture, pianos (several of them), organs (musical, not human, although I wouldn’t put that past Hook), clothing, jewelry, wine, wigs—you name it. The delivery people all claimed they had received letters to deliver the items to that address, which the Tottenham household quite strenuously denied. The letters had been sent by Hook of course, and by mid-day, 54 Berners Street was a mob scene of angry, shouting merchants. And then the Lord Mayor of London showed up, having received a letter requesting his presence at Mrs. Tottenham’s. This is about when the joke jumped the shark, and the Mayor stalked off in a huff, if not a minute and a huff.

There was much media coverage (such as existed in 1810) but at any rate, Hook won his bet: it did become the most famous address in London for a short period.

Hook was well-known for all kinds of japery. However, he also leads into the last chapter of our story because Hook is also regarded as having received the oldest known printed picture postcard. Sent in 1840, the belief is that Hook mailed it to himself as a practical joke—although that’s pretty weak tea compared to his earlier jokes; I guess he started slipping in his old age. Of course, the card may have appealed to Hook because the image is a caricature of postal service workers. (This postcard was only found as recently as 2001, when it was uncovered in a stamp collection. A year later it sold at auction for £31,750.)

There is a lot to be said about postcards and the history thereof, but in the States, the picture postcard didn’t get going in earnest until the 1870s, and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the “Golden Age of the American Postcard” had reached its peak. Indeed, postcards were almost like the text messages of the day—people sent jokes or other short messages back and forth on postcards, helped by the fact that mail delivery was twice a day.

In 1908, leap year-related postcards were all the rage. Here’s why. At the time, there was a tradition or belief—of uncertain origin, perhaps Irish and/or Scottish—that only on leap years was it socially acceptable for women to propose marriage to men, rather than vice versa. (This would also inspire Al Capp’s “Sadie Hawkins Day” in L’il Abner when girls are allowed to ask boys out.)

PostcardLeapYearBeCarefulClara1908Lest this sound like female empowerment at a time when there was precious little of it, it tended to manifest itself in a slew of humorous and not always kind picture postcards that depicted overweight harridans and desperate spinsters chasing scrawny men with butterfly nets and the like. Not exactly subtle, but the caricature of the desperate spinster would continue in cartoons, movies, and sitcoms.

Maybe this year I’ll have some leap year postcards of my own made up. Hmm…where to find a postcard printer. I know: I’ll consult the phone book. I’ve got enough of ’em.

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.

 

References:

L.V. Anderson, “Get a Hustle On—It’s Leap Year,” Slate, February 28, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/02/leap_year_postcards_from_the_early_20th_century_showing_women_proposing_to_men_.html.

“Oldest postcard sells for £31,750,” BBC, March, 8, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1862284.stm.

Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LXXX, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/80*.html#79-20.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume I, Chapter VI: Death Of Severus, Tyranny Of Caracalla, Usurpation Of Marcinus.—Part III, 1782 (rev. 1845), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/731/731-h/731-h.htm#link6note-56.

Martjin Icks, The Crimes Of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012, via Literary Review, September 2011, http://focreviews.blogspot.com/2011/09/crimes-of-elagabalus-by-martjin-icks.html.

Elagabal, Livius.org, http://www.livius.org/articles/religion/elagabal/.

“The Berners Street Hoax,” Museum of Hoaxes, http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_berners_street_hoax/.

Julie Winterbottom, “4 of the Oldest Pranks in the Book,” Mental Floss, April 1, 2013, http://mentalfloss.com/article/49682/4-oldest-pranks-book.

“Elagabalus,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 30, 2016, retrieved February 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elagabalus.

“Leap Year,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 4, 2016, retrieved February 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leap_year.

“Post card,” Wikipedia, January 28, 2016, retrieved February 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postcard.

“Practical Joke,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 31, 2016, retrieved February 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practical_joke.

“Theodore Hook,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 3, 2016, retrieved February 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Hook.

 

 

My Funny Valentine

By

Last month, WhatTheyThink Grand Overlord Eric Vessels and Frank Romano chatted about Chatbooks, a new service that allows users to upload digital photos from Instagram, Facebook, or their phones and print a custom photobook. The name of the company reminded me—at least for the purpose of this essay—of what was once called a chapbook, which was a roughly similar kind of publication that dates back to the 16th century. The chapbook is also related to something you may be giving or receiving (ideally both) sometime this weekend. And the chapbook itself arose thanks to perhaps the earliest music distribution system.

Five hundred years before Spotify—or the compact disc or even the vinyl record—songs were distributed on paper. No, not like output from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph; rather, the lyrics to a song would be printed and distributed as “broadside ballads.” Also called “broadsheet ballads,” they were little ditties on such disparate topics as love, religion, drinking, wars, current events, and so on, that were printed on a single sheet of paper. At the time, just after the invention of the printing press, you could print a single-sided sheet (aka a broadsheet) pretty inexpensively, so people would compose ballads or other bits of doggerel, have them printed, and then sell them for a penny or halfpenny. They usually included just the lyrics, and specified a pre-existing tune to which the words would be sung. (If “Weird Al” Yankovic had been around in the 16th century, this is probably how he’d have distributed his song parodies.) One broadside ballad from circa 1660 called “A Constant wife and a kind wife,/A loving wife and a fine wife,/Which gives content unto mans life” begins, to the tune of “Locks and Bolts Do Hinder”:

YOng-men and Maids lend me your aids

to speak of my dear sweeting,

It shews how fortune hath betrayd,

and often spoyld our meeting

She likely was for to be rich,

and I a man but meanly,

Wherefore her friends at me do grudge,

and use me most unkindly.

It gets better after that.

For those who are less romantically inclined, there is one from 1681 called “A Congratulation on the Happy Discovery of the Hellish Fanatick Plot,” and I think we’ve all had at least one Valentine’s Day like that.

It’s been estimated that as many as 400,000 broadsides were printed each year, until they declined in popularity after their peak in the mid-17th century (the Bodleian Library at Oxford University has a collection of about 30,000 of them). They were often sold by itinerant chapmen or hawkers, who sang the songs to attract the attention of potential customers. (Etymological note: “chap” as in “chapman” came from the Old English céap, or “deal,” from which also came the word “cheap,” as in the phrase “a good cheap,” which meant “a good deal.” It means a good deal more than that today.)

Pardon the imposition, but it was soon discovered that a single broadsheet could have a number of pages printed on it, and then be folded into booklets of anywhere from eight to 24 pages. These were called chapbooks, and although the word itself was not coined until the 19th century, it came from the “chapman” who sold these publications (be he named Graham or not).

By the 17th century, chapbooks had become a popular form of literature (although one uses that word advisedly when talking about chapbooks), and virtually any kind of content was published—songs, children’s literature, folk stories, poetry, political and religious treatises, you name it—and they were often illustrated with crudely rendered woodcuts. They were cheap, which was the point, so the printing and paper—like the content—were not exactly of the highest grade. Indeed, there is evidence that chapbooks, presumably after they were read, came in handy during a trip to the loo.

Only a small fraction of all the chapbooks ever produced have survived (after the previous sentence, perhaps we should be glad), and the majority of those were thanks to diarist and essayist Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps,” although there is no evidence that he was filled with marshmallow), who amassed a large collection of them between 1661 and 1688. The National Library of Scotland has an archive of about 4,000 Scottish chapbooks out of the approximately 50,000 that were produced.

Between the 1790s and 1850s, one of the biggest printers/publishers of chapbooks in Britain was John Fairburn. He also produced prints, pamphlets, maps, and other items and, in fact, there was a dynasty of Fairburns—many named John—who opened multiple print shops around London. Chapbook content in general was not exactly highbrow, and an example of one that Fairburn printed was a cheery little 1817 true crime story called Horrible Rape and Murder!! The Affecting case of Mary Ashford, A beautiful young Virgin, who was diabolically Ravished, Murdered, and thrown into a Pit… Fairburn’s press was notorious for churning out that kind of thing, as well as politically rabble-rousing tracts, but he also published children’s chapbooks and other more upmarket titles. (At the time, most commercial printing—chapbooks especially—was produced via letterpress because it was the cheapest printing method, but when Fairburn printed a copy of the Ten Commandments, the word of God demanded intaglio.)

But it wasn’t all ravishing, murdering, and being thrown into a pit. In 1787, Fairburn produced what is believed to be the oldest printed Valentine’s Day card. (We think of Valentine’s Day as a modern “Hallmark holiday,” but the association with St. Valentine, his feast day, and the celebration of romantic love dates back to Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages.) Fairburn’s printed Valentine was hand-illustrated and colored, and perforated to simulate lace. He likely printed many of them, but the one that survived was sent from Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown in London, and included a boilerplate verse:

Since on this ever Happy day,

All Nature’s full of Love and Play

Yet harmless still if my design,

‘Tis but to be your Valentine.

Miss Mossday also personalized it with a handwritten note:

Mr Brown,

As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.

Catherine Mossday.

Sounds like Mr. Brown had less of a Valentine and more of a stalker.

Today’s photobooks—and indeed Chatbooks—are the modern digital equivalent of the chapbooks of yore. How many will end up in the library collections of the future? And if Catherine Mossday were around today, would her photobooks consist entirely of photos of Mr. Brown?

 
References:

“John Fairburn: A Regency Era Publisher and Printer,” Bishopsgate Institute, http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/gallery_album.aspx?albumid=34.

Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/ballads.htm.

Castle Museum York, “World’s first printed Valentine’s Card,” A History of the World, British Museum/BBC, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/L1NM_6mWRymAMKXcRDlXJA.

Ken Giese, “High and Low: John Fairburn’s Curious Printing of The Ten Commandments,” Between the Covers, June 18, 2010, https://betweenthecoversblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/high-and-low-john-fairburn’s-curious-printing-of-the-ten-commandments/.

Nicholas Hausman, “Chapbooks: Definitions and Origins,” MIT, http://web.mit.edu/21h.418/www/nhausman/chap1.html.

“Chapbooks,” The National Library of Scotland, http://www.nls.uk/collections/rarebooks/collections/chapbooks.

English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California, Santa Barbara, http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu.

“Broadside (music),” Wikipedia, last modified on July 18, 2015, retrieved January 25, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadside_(music).

“Chapbook,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 23, 2015, retrieved January 25, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapbook

 

To Dye For

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For a while at my gym, we used to have “Tie-Dye Fridays,” where in our small group workouts we would all sport some kind of tie-dyed apparel. My own attire was a tie-dyed shirt that had screen-printed on it a stylized version of the “prism” cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Spinning the CD not long ago while I was working on a story about fabric and textile printing, it came to the song “Brain Damage” and the opening line “The lunatic is on the grass” (when listened to in 5.1 surround sound, the stoned laughter featured in the song flies around the room). As I went off on one of my historical tangents searching for related Digital Nirvana post fodder, I found a story that combines garment printing, prisms, and lunatics.

We begin with the latter. Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) may not be a household name today, but in the 17th century, he had quite the reputation, although it wasn’t always a good one. A German Jesuit scholar and polymath, he gave himself the nickname “Master of a Hundred Arts,” perhaps not knowing that it’s a no-no to give yourself a nickname. Anyway, he wrote long, scholarly dissertations on, indeed, hundreds of different topics. In some, he was right on the money, if not way ahead of his time. He believed that the Plague was caused by a microorganism which, at the time, was thought far more implausible than witchcraft. On the other hand, fascinated by Egypt, his attempted translations of hieroglyphics were found to be, in the words of Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “utter nonsense.” Ouch.

And he was certainly very hands-on. In 1638, as Mt. Vesuvius was about to erupt, he had himself lowered down into the crater to have a look at what was going on. He was insatiably curious about almost everything, but had some pretty lunatic notions by today’s standards. He was among the first to study fossils, but assumed that they were the remains of a race of immense humans. He studied geology, optics, and medicine, and also designed a staggering number of inventions, including an Aeolian harp, a talking statue, and, unfortunately, what he called a Katzenklavier, or “cat piano.” You may want to skip to the next paragraph, but the Katzenklavier featured a row of cats in a box, and, when the player pressed a key, a spike would be driven into the tail of a cat which would yowl at a particular note. The cats were arranged in the box by the tone of their voice, so the Katzenklavier could be played like a proper keyboard. Yes, it sounds horrifying, but on the plus side, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone ever actually built such an instrument.

One of the other many things that Kircher studied and wrote about was optics. His 1646 thousand-page tome Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) was intended as an encyclopedic work on virtually every aspect of light, with an attempt to explain things such as “why is the sky blue?” (answer: “to provide a proper visual background for everything” [Glassie, 2012]). He did come up with one of the first descriptions of a microscope, which was really little more than a telescope turned the wrong way round. Kircher also played around with prisms and wrote in his own uniquely discursive way about spectroscopy.

For a long time, Kircher was read by virtually every intellectual in Europe, and there is little doubt that Kircher’s works were familiar to Sir Isaac Newton, who entered university while Kircher was still alive. Voltaire once commented that Newton got some of his ideas about color and sound from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, although there is little evidence to support it (Glassie, 2012).

We all know about Newton’s contributions to science, and there is scant space here to detail all his discoveries. One thing Newton proposed but did not himself empirically demonstrate was that the Earth was not a perfect sphere, instead (like many of its inhabitants) bulging around the middle whilst being flattened at the poles. This was a controversial notion amongst scientists—especially French scientists­—and phalanxes of them were dispatched to the Arctic Circle (the closest anyone could get to a pole in the 18th century) to make measurements. Another group was sent to South America and the equator, among them one Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774), a French mathematician, geographer, and explorer. He and his colleagues traveled south to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and ended up in the Pacific coast town of Manta.

The expedition—like many in those days—was not a happy one, beset with many problems, and La Condamine left the group in a huff (although maybe it was more like a minute and a huff), ending up in Quito, Ecuador. He would soon bounce back to his colleagues, but not before discovering something that makes things bounce: rubber. La Condamine was the first European to encounter rubber (via South American rubber trees), and in 1736 he sent the first samples of the substance back to the Académie Royale des Sciences of France. Later, in 1751, he would present the first scientific paper (written by François Fresneau) on the properties of rubber. Later still, in 1770, British scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that the material was good for “rubbing off” pencil marks, whence the term “rubber.”

The commercial potential of rubber was recognized early on, and by the middle of the 19th century it was a hot commodity. The trouble that the nations of Europe were having, though, was finding a place that was conducive to growing rubber trees, at least on a commercial scale. Combine that with political problems—especially during World War I—that led to shortages and high prices, as well as certain limitations of natural rubber (namely thermal stability and its ability to “play nice” with petroleum products), and the fact that the explosion of the automobile industry was creating a high demand for tires, and the search was on for some kind of synthetic rubber.

Throughout the 1920s, the French, Germans, Russians, and Americans were all beavering away in their rubber rooms. We’ll leave them to their beavering, but want to zoom in on Wallace Carrothers (1896–1937), an American chemist working for DuPont. In 1930, Carrothers’ team, working on the synthetic rubber project, developed Neoprene, which is today widely acknowledged as the first successful synthetic rubber.

The discovery of Neoprene made Carrothers something of a star in the chemical world, but he suffered from an often crippling depression, and many of the requirements that came along with his professional ascendency—public speaking among them—worsened his moroseness, which led to a drinking problem. (And this was before video…) Complicating matters was the affair he was having with a married woman, as well as a strained relationship with his parents. In 1934, even as he was experiencing a highly fertile research period, he fell depressed enough to check into a psychiatric clinic.

A year later, he checked out and went back to work. At the time, DuPont gave researchers like Carrothers carte blanche to follow their chemical muse wherever it might lead. In Carrothers’ case, in 1936, research on polyamides led Carrothers’ team to invent what became known and commercialized as nylon, a successful artificial silk. First used for toothbrush bristles, it later became synonymous with ladies’ stockings and eventually turned out to have many many many other uses. The wide-scale development of plastics ensued.

Alas, in 1937, Carrothers—no better emotionally—committed suicide.

Before long, the search was on for a material to rival nylon, a task which fell to British chemist John Rex Whinfield (1901–1966) who, working on polyesters with James Tennant Dickson, patented, in 1941, the first polyester fiber, which they called Terylene and which later became popularly known as dacron.

By the 1950s, polyester-based textiles were becoming popular, and a lot of work was being done to try to decorate them. (Here is where things get a little difficult to verify.) In 1957, Noël de Plasse, a researcher working for Lainière de Roubaix, a French textile company (founded 1912), was mucking about with dyes, and what he found—or what he thought he found—was that, under high temperature, certain solid dyes could pass directly to the gaseous phase without first becoming a liquid. This is the physical process called sublimation, the same process that causes chunks of solid carbon dioxide (aka dry ice) to turn directly into the billowing clouds you would have seen at a Pink Floyd concert back in the day (sans pig). What de Plasse had discovered was eventually termed dye-sublimation, although it was later discovered that his dyes didn’t really sublimate, that it was more of a dye-diffusion process.

The idea languished for about 30 years until 1982 when Nobutoshi Kihara, an engineer working for Sony, adapted dye diffusion into a proper dye-sublimation process to print video stills taken with a Sony Mavica videocamera. Four years later, the first dye-sublimation printer, the Sony Mavigraph, hit the market.

Today, dye-sublimation printing on textiles and other materials is starting to take the specialty graphics industry by storm.

And maybe someday at my gym we’ll have tie-dye-sublimation Fridays.

 

References:

John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.

Contributions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, http://www.mjt.org/exhibits/kircher.html.

“Athanasius Kircher,” Wikipedia, last modified November 1, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_Kircher.

“Cat organ,” Wikipedia, last modified October 27, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_organ.

“Charles Marie de La Condamine,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 21, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Marie_de_La_Condamine.

“Wallace Carrothers,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 13, 2015, retrieved January 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallace_Carothers.

Because It’s There

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As I have on many occasions, over the holiday hiatus I was binge-watching the British quiz show Q.I. (Quite Interesting)—Stephen Fry (although, as of next series, Sandy Toksvig) hosts four British comedians who answer extremely obscure questions, make jokes (often bawdy), and offer their own “quite interesting” factual tidbits. My favorite question from the “E” series (each season of the show corresponds to a letter of the alphabet; they are currently up to “M”) was from a show called “Exploration” and was: “Who was the first person to put two feet on top of Mount Everest?”

The answer to this question is not Sir Edmund Hillary, or even Tenzing Norgay. As we begin our exploration of who this could be, our point of departure will be…the decimal point.

Our old friend the decimal point—the dot that separates the integer from the fractional part of a number (as in 198.57)—was actually necessitated by the advent of printing. Before the printing press, medieval mathematicians and others needing to write decimal numbers would use the tradition descended from Indian mathematics and popularized by the Persian Al-Khwarizmi: place a bar over the rightmost integer, which indicated that all the numbers to the right of it were the fractional part of the number. So:

9995

would correspond to 99.95 in today’s decimal notation. (Man, it has become impossible to set a macron or overbar over a numeral in any modern word processing program.)

Al-Khwarizmi was a 12th-century mathematician who is called “the father of algebra” (that word comes from al-jabr, one of the operations used to solve quadratic equations). He introduced the notion of decimal numbers to the West, as well as another convention we still often use today, often with prices: setting the fractional part of a number in superscript with an underbar, as in $1995 for $19.95.

Another convention that was often used when writing decimals was to place a small vertical line between the integers and the tenths; once typesetting and printing were invented, the comma served this purpose admirably, and we still often see the comma used in place of a decimal point (99,95), especially in Europe. Around the same time, it began to be customary to use the full-stop (aka the period) as a decimal mark. The reason was that the comma and the period already existed in font collections, while other obscure math-specific characters did not.

The person who is often credited with first using the decimal point is Bartholomaeus Pitiscus (1561–1613), a 16th-century German mathematician, astronomer, and theologian. He used the decimal point in his highly influential 1595 book Trigonometria: sive de solutione triangulorum tractatus brevis et perspicuous. Although Pitiscus first used the decimal point, it wasn’t until John Napier—the inventor of logarithms—following Pitiscus, used it in his 1614 tome Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio. Then everyone, it could be said, got the point.

It was in his book that Pitiscus also coined the word “trigonometry,” but although he named and popularized the subject, he didn’t actually invent it. Trigonometry—essentially the study of triangles (from the Greek τριγωνομετρία, or “trigonometria,” meaning “triangle measuring”)—can be traced back to 2nd millennium Egypt and Babylon, where it was used for such things as building pyramids (“If a pyramid is 250 cubits high and the side of its base 360 cubits long, what is its seked?” would have appeared in your average Egyptian SAT) as well as making astronomical observations and measurements. It was the ancient Greeks who took trigonometry to the next level, and Hipparchus of Nicaea (180–125 BCE) is considered “the father of trigonometry.”

So what is trigonometry anyway? For those who don’t recall high school math, it is the study of the relationships of the lengths and angles of triangles. All the angles of a triangle add up to 180°, so if you know that one angle of a triangle is 90° (that is, it’s a right triangle) and you know the value of one of the other angles, then it’s easy to find the value of the third angle. Using known values of angles, and the length of one of the sides of a triangle, the lengths of the other sides can be calculated using the trigonometric functions sine, cosine, and tangent, which describe ratios of the lengths of various combinations of sides for a given angle. There are also the reciprocal functions of sine, cosine, and tangent, which are, respectively, cosecant, secant, and cotangent, and inverse functions arcsine, arccosine, and arctangent.

Now, I mentioned earlier that trigonometry was used in pyramid building, but what else might it be used for? Think large structures…like mountains. Where do you find large mountains? The Himalayas, of course. And this is just where the Great Trigonometrical Survey was conducted. Launched in 1802 and spearheaded by British soldier, surveyor, and geographer William Lambton, its goals were to a) demarcate British holdings in India and b) determine the locations and heights of the great Himalayan peaks.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey was no easy feat, and took decades to complete. Lambton was replaced as head of the project in 1823 by Welsh surveyor George Everest, and in 1831, Everest hired a brilliant 19-year-old Indian mathematician named Radhanath Sikdar (1813–1870). Sikdar and Everest worked closely for many years, Everest calling Sikdar a “mathematical genius.” In 1851, Sikdar was promoted to Chief Computer and was tasked by Everest’s successor, Andrew Waugh, to calculate the height of one particular mountain, variously called Peak XV (the British), Sagarmāthā (the Nepalese), and Chomolungma (the Tibetans). Using theodolites located 150 miles away from his target, and laboring and crunching data, and using no small amount of trigonometry, Sikdar finally announced, in 1852, not only the height of this peak, but also that it had the highest elevation above sea level: 29,002 feet.

Here’s the thing, though. After all the measurements and number crunching and double-checking, what Sikdar really came up with was 29,000 feet exactly. Well, he must have thought, no one is going to believe that. So to avoid the illusion that he just merely came up with a rounded guesstimate, he added an arbitrary two feet. So, at the beginning, when I (or Stephen Fry) asked, who was the first person to put two feet on top of Mount Everest? Yep: Radhanath Sikdar.

Over the years, the elevation of the mountain has been refined and its official height now is 29,029 feet. (It’s those last 10 yards that’ll get you.)

Sikdar was soon appointed Superintendent of the Meteorological Office and revolutionized weather forecasting. He died in 1870, and in 2004, an Indian postage stamp was issued in his honor. Sikdar is considered the “first scientist of modern India.”

One sticky wicket that remained was what to actually call the mountain, since it had a variety of local names. In 1865, Waugh decided to solve the problem by naming it after his predecessor as Surveyor General of India, George Everest. Everest objected, to no avail, claiming that his name could not be written in Hindi or pronounced by the local peoples. Or even by English-speaking folk, it would seem. While we pronounce the mountain “Eh-verest,” old George actually pronounced his name with a long e, “Ee-verest.”

“Mount Sikdar” would have been far more appropriate.

 

Resources:

Soutik Biswas, “The man who ‘discovered’ Everest,” BBC News Online, October 20, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3193576.stm.

Utpal Mukhopadhyay, “Radhanath Sikdar: First Scientist Of Modern India,” Science and Culture, May–June, 2014, http://www.scienceandculture-isna.org/may-june-2014/05%20Art_Radhanath%20Sikdar%20First%20Scientist…by_Utpal%20Mukhopadhyay_Pg.142.pdf.

“Mount Everest,” Q.I., http://qi.com/infocloud/mount-everest.

“Barthomeaus Pitiscus,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 2, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartholomaeus_Pitiscus.

“Decimal Mark,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 27, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decimal_mark.

“Great Trigonometrical Survey,” Wikipedia, last modified November 22, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Trigonometrical_Survey.

“History of Trigonometry,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 4, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_trigonometry.

“John Napier,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 1, 2016, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Napier.

“Mount Everest,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 30, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Everest.

“Radhanath Sikdar,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 28, 2015, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radhanath_Sikdar.

“Trigonometry,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 4, 2016, retrieved January 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trigonometry#Overview.

 

 

Troy Story 2: Over the River

By

Last year at this time, I wrote about how Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published in a Troy, N.Y. newspaper. The final chapter of this year’s Christmas story will take us across the Hudson River to Albany.

A few weeks ago, like many of you, I was out doing my Christmas shopping. I don’t recall if it was always this way, but it was easier to find decent Christmas cards anywhere other than one of the scant few Hallmark stores left in my geographical area.

I have to admit, I do find that Christmas carols are pleasant background music that gets me into the holiday spirit while shopping. Although, if you know anyone who works in retail, by about mid-December they have been so pummeled by more than a month’s worth of non-stop recorded caroling that, for his own protection, the Little Drummer Boy had best enter the Witness Protection Program.

Along with caroling, advertising is another ubiquitous feature of the holiday season. In my youth, the Christmas season officially began when Norelco’s “Noëlco” ad featuring Santa riding in an electric razor started airing, although I have no idea if it still exists. As we all know, advertising jingles—whether specific to Christmas or not—are just as catchy as noels.

When do you think the first commercial jingle was written? If you said “ancient China” you would be essentially correct. The Chinese Classic of Poetry—a compendium of more than 300 poems compiled between the 11th and 7th centuries B.C., supposedly by Confucius—notes that music played on bamboo flutes was used to sell candy. The first printed advertisement is believed to date from the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1276) and was a handbill for Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop, located in Shandong Province. It depicted a rabbit holding a sewing needle and bore the slogan “We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine-quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.” Don Draper, eat your heart out.

Advertising also took the form of signage, typically used to identify a particular vendor’s wares in a public market. Simple visuals or pictographs that depicted the type of goods sold was important at the time for a very simple reason: many people couldn’t read. That situation continued.

In Medieval Europe, in the days before the printing press, the primary mass communication medium was the town crier. No, not the saddest person in town, but rather (usually) an officer of the Court who rang a bell and shouted the news of the day, important proclamations from the government, and, of course, ads. In Goslar, Germany, home of a brewery that used the local river as a water source, one particular town crier was tasked with announcing, “Hiermit ward bekannt gemaket, dat kaaner in die Gose kaket, denn morgen wird gebraut” (“Let it be known, that nobody should take a dump in the Gose [river], because tomorrow we will be brewing”) (Brown, 2013). (Crudely put, but it got the message across.)

After the advent of printing, one of the most common forms of advertising was the “trade card,” a professional version of the personal calling card that was used to announce the arrival of a guest to someone’s home. The trade card was also the precursor of the business card. One of the oldest extant trade cards was printed in 1622 for Paris marchand maître chapellier (merchant master hatter) George Marceau. It featured a woodcut image of Marceau’s shop sign and a scarf and hats above letterpress-printed text. Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, UK, a former weekend residence for the Rothschilds and now run by the National Trust, has a collection of 700 or so trade cards that were acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1891. They represent a cross-section of European businesses from the 17th to the 19th century, such as stationers, goldsmiths, printmakers, art dealers, embroiderers, confectioners, and even the owner of a tennis court.

Trade cards evolved into business cards, yes, but also trading cards, which became collectible items for enthusiasts of various subjects, such as sports. Indeed, as both baseball and photography grew in popularity during the 19th century, baseball cards began to be included in packs of cigarettes (called cigarette cards) before becoming a commodity unto themselves. (What is the world’s most valuable baseball card? Well, last April a 1909 card depicting Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Honus Wagner sold for $1.3 million. I hope the buyer at least got a stick of gum with it.)

Trade cards also led to another type of card.

In the mid-1800s, residents of Albany could do their Christmas shopping at Pease’s Great Variety Store, aka “The Temple of Fancy,” located at 518 Broadway. It was sort of an upmarket five-and-dime that sold books, toys, games, and other items. The store was founded in the 1840s by Robert Pease, who was some time later joined by his brother Harry. Not only were they the proprietors of the great variety store, they were also prominent printers, specializing in books, especially children’s books. Pease is believed to have run the first ad—which appeared in the Albany Evening Journal in 1841—that featured Santa Claus. The image isn’t quite the Santa we know—that would come later in Thomas Nast’s 1881 illustration—but the jolly old elf is carrying a sack of toys and is about to descend a chimney, so you do the math.

The Pease brothers would make another Christmas first a decade later. In 1851, they printed a holiday-themed trade card for their store which would go down in history as the first printed Christmas card. (There is only one surviving example left, in a collection at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.)

Pease’s shut its doors in 1860s, but the building still exists. It is said that Pease’s print shop is being converted to condos (that’s progress for you, I guess), but the Christmas card had a long and healthy life throughout the 20th century. Under pressure from, what else, e-cards and social media, the printed Christmas card still hangs on—and still hangs on the mantel.

Merry Christmas from The Digital Nirvana.

If you enjoy these historical essays, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, defiantly available only in print from Amazon.

 

References:

“Temple of Fancy: Pease’s Great Variety Store,” Albany Institute of History & Art, 2011, http://www.albanyinstitute.org/temple-of-fancy.html.

“Printed in Albany: The first Christmas card and the first Santa ad,” All Over Albany, December 21, 2012, http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2012/12/21/printed-in-albany-the-first-christmas-card-and-the.

Chris Brown, “Twin Town Crier helps keep the beer flowing,” Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier, April 19, 2013, http://www.windsortowncrier.com/twin-town-crier/.

Zhongguo lishi bowu guan, ed., Zhongguo godai shi cankao tulu: Song Yuan shiqi, Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1991, via http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/graph/tcommain.htm.

“Introduction to the Trade Cards collection at Waddesdon Manor,” Waddeson Manor, http://www.waddesdon.org.uk/collection/special-projects/trade-cards.

“Advertising,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 9, 2015, retrieved December 10, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advertising.

“Trade card,” Wikipedia, last modified on September 19, 2015, retrieved December 10, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_card.

Patently Obvious

By

If I were to stand on stage in front of a crowded audience and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen: Amos Dolbear,” I would probably hear crickets chirping—figuratively, if not literally. And, because of Amos Dolbear, I could use that chirping to figure out the temperature of the room.

Dolbear (1837–1910), nicknamed “Dolly”—I’ll bet he loved that—was one of those great polymaths who dabbled in many different areas far afield of each other. He was a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and later a professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He bounced around a bit but finally ended up as a professor at Tufts College in Massachusetts, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was a physicist and inventor and, among other things investigated the relationship between sound waves and electrical impulses. Oh, and he invented the telephone 11 years before Alexander Graham Bell.

One thing Dolbear was not an expert in, however, was patent law, and he had neglected to patent his invention. So when Bell received a patent for his telephone, Dolbear challenged him, and even though the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, Dolbear ultimately couldn’t prove his claims.

Poor Dolbear, but the guy you really have to feel sorry for is Elisha Gray. Gray (1835–1901) was born in Barnesville, Ohio, and dabbled with electrical devices from a very early age. One of his early claims to fame was an improvement on the telegraph, which would be the first of more than 70 patents he would receive. Gray and his partner founded Gray and Barton, a company that supplied equipment to Western Union. Gray would later become interested in transmitting music over telegraph wires, one of the first electric musical instruments, a path that—were we to take it—would lead us to the modern digital synthesizer.

A critical date in the history of modern communication is February 14, 1876—but there would be no love between Gray and Alexander Graham Bell. Bell had been working away on his own telephone for years, whilst Gray had been working on his own. Gray was close to a patentable invention, and filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office on that fateful February 14. (A “caveat” is a provisional patent application that describes an invention, with diagrams and everything, but is not yet ready for examination. It’s kind of a placeholder until a proper application is filed.) Anyway, it turned out that Bell had filed his application for the telephone a few hours before the Patent Office got Gray’s caveat. “Missed it by that much,” as Maxwell Smart would say. Gray wasn’t going to give up without a fight, and he claimed that his caveat actually got to the Patent Office before Bell’s application but sat in the bottom of the in-basket until the afternoon, while Bell’s patent attorney insisted the filing fee be charged immediately and Bell’s patent taken straight to the examiner.

It would be a moot point, because the patent examiner ultimately examined both Bell’s application and Gray’s caveat, noticed the similarities between the two, and suspended Bell’s patent to give Gray time to prepare a full application and request for examination. Alas, Gray’s patent attorney pointed out to Gray that Bell’s application had been notarized as early as January 20, 1876, and persuaded Gray to drop the matter (there’s an attorney you want on your side). And thus Bell got the patent for the telephone, and he has become known as “the inventor of the telephone” and for years the phone company was referred to as “Ma Bell,” and not “Ma Gray” (let alone “Ma Dolbear”).

Sniffed Gray in June, “As to Bell’s talking telegraph, it only creates interest in scientific circles…its commercial value will be limited” (Flatow, 1992). The grapes, they are sour.

The controversy wouldn’t end there, and over the following decade various conspiracy theories would emerge, most of which centered around a supposedly corrupt and alcoholic patent examiner who was alleged to have leaked secret information from Gray’s applications and patents to Bell. It would remain ugly as various lawsuits pinged around the courts.

Not that Gray would languish in obscurity or penury. In 1888, he patented the telautograph, a system for transmitting handwriting over telegraph wires. (He was obsessed with telegraph wires, but then who wasn’t back then?) The system used two pencils, one at the sender’s location, one at a receiver’s. If the sender starts writing or drawing with the pencil, the receiver’s pencil starts moving and a copy is made. Said Gray in an interview:

By my invention you can sit down in your office in Chicago, take a pencil in your hand, write a message to me, and as your pencil moves, a pencil here in my laboratory moves simultaneously, and forms the same letters and words in the same way. What you write in Chicago is instantly reproduced here in fac-simile (The Manufacturer & Builder, 1888).

Note Gray’s use of the term “fac-simile.” It is, after all, not far removed from what we know (or knew) as a fax (facsimile) machine. The telautograph was publicly unveiled at 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was an immediate success. Gray National and Gray Electric companies, manufacturers of the telautograph, merged in 1915 to become the Telautograph Corporation. In 1971, the Telautograph Corporation was acquired by Arden/Mayfair, and in 1993 by Danka Industries, who renamed it Danka/Omnifax. Danka/Omnifax was acquired by Xerox in 1999.

Gray had moved beyond telautography (and vice versa) and spent the remainder of his life working on underwater signaling systems for submarines.

Gray’s legacy also lives on in the company he co-founded in 1858 with Enos Barton, Graybar, which today remains a Fortune 500 company.

But what about the other inventor of the telephone, Amos Dolbear? Does he have a legacy?

Remember how I opened this post with a mention of the ability to use the chirping of crickets to figure out the temperature of the room? He is perhaps most famous for “Dolbear’s Law,” first described in an article he wrote for The American Naturalist magazine in 1897 called “The Cricket as a Thermometer.” Essentially, you can determine the temperature in Fahrenheit (TF) using the formula

TF = 50 + [(N60 – 40)/4]

where N60 is the number of chirps per minute. Dolbear, however, neglected to specify which cricket (there are more than 900 species of them), but it has since been determined that it is the snowy tree cricket, Oecanthus niveus.

Fortunately, Dolbear knew his crickets better than his patent law.

 

References:

Dolbear, Amos (1897). “The cricket as a thermometer”. The American Naturalist 31: 970–971. doi:10.1086/276739

Flatow, Ira, They All Laughed, New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 71.

Tunney, Glenn, “Elisha Gray Deserves Top Billing In Brownsville History,” Saturday Uniontown Herald-Standard, October 23, 2004, http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~glenntunneycolumn/column309.htm.

The Manufacturer & Builder, 1888, (Vol. 24: No. 4: pages 85–86).

“Amos Dolbear,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 17, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_Dolbear.

“Dolbear’s Law,” Wikipedia, last modified on July 5, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolbear%27s_law.

“Elisha Gray,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 23, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Gray.

“Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell telephone controversy,” last modified on August 25, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Gray_and_Alexander_Bell_telephone_controversy.

 

Night Writer

By

One of my favorite stories from printing history—and a great example of historical irony, as well as how we are sometimes forced to adapt to new technology—concerns Johannes Trithemius, a German monk who had been born about a decade after the invention of the printing press. As we all know, the printing press was a disruptive technology that displaced the older “technology” by which books and other documents were reproduced: monks hand-copying manuscripts. For a monk at the time, it was about more than just document reproduction; it was part of his covenant with God. After all, the process of hand-copying offers ample time for prayer, especially when writer’s cramp sets in. This became one of Trithemius’ obsessions. “[T]he meditation of Scripture burns in the heart and produces the ardor of mind that becomes the most devout prayer,” he wrote. As a result, Trithemius was not a big fan of the printing press. “He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures,” he also wrote (Brann, 1981). Them’s fightin’ words ’round these parts.

In 1492, Trithemius wrote a treatise called In Praise of Scribes (De Laude Scriptorum manualium), in which he exhorted monks not to abandon the art of manuscript copying. He also had all sorts of bad things to say about the quality of printing paper compared to scribes’ parchment, that printed books weren’t permanent, and other complaints that remind me of the arguments we always hear about new printing technologies, or even the Internet. But, he had a problem. He had to get copies of the treatise produced quickly.

So, yes, Trithemius had a treatise called In Praise of Scribes printed on a printing press. The crow, it is eaten.

He was a bit of a colorful figure. Trithemius (1462–1516) was born Johannes Heidenberg (he took his monkular name from his hometown of Trittenheim) and like many folks of his time was a polymath, dabbling in all sorts of things like lexicography, cryptography, and even occultism. He had a thirst for learning at an early age, but his stepfather—for whatever reason—was adamantly opposed to education, and thus Johannes had to read and study in secret. He ran away from home at 17 in search of a formal education and ended up at the University of Heidelberg. It was in 1482 that he became what you might call an “accidental monk.” He was headed back home from Heidelberg with a fellow student and they stopped for the night at Sponheim, a Benedictine monastery near Bad Kreuznach. The monks were known for their hospitality and let the two students crash for the night. The following morning, they continued on their way, but before they could get very far, they were caught in a fierce snowstorm. They decided to return to the abbey until the storm passed, and were welcomed back. No sooner had the monks displayed their compassion to the two lads then the storm ended abruptly. Trithemius saw this as some kind of divine manifestation, and decided to stay and become a monk. (His fellow student, not surprisingly, declined.)

Trithemius was later elected abbot of Sponheim and it was there that he did most of his writing, including In Praise of Scribes. Not everyone was a fan of his writing (he had a tendency to add fictional accounts to some of his historical treatises) and his interest in the occult gave him a reputation as a magician, which did not go over especially well in a Medieval monastery, so he resigned in 1503.

Trithemius’ most famous work—outside the printing industry—was a 1499 three-volume book called Steganographia. When the first two volumes appeared, they seemed to be about using magic spirits to send messages over long distances. (If Trithemius were abruptly transported to the 21st century, this is probably what he would think about the telephone or Internet.) It wasn’t until the third volume that people realized that the book was actually about cryptography and steganography.

I suspect everyone knows what cryptography is (codes and ciphers), but steganography—a term which Trithemius coined—is “the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video.” (Think of what Trithemius would make of video, given how much he freaked out about printing.) Basically, steganography refers to secret or hidden messages. Think of invisible ink and things like that.

A pioneer of cryptography and steganography had been an ancient Greek named Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 B.C.). Although primarily a historian (he documented the rise of the Roman Republic and witnessed firsthand the sack of Carthage in 146 B.C.), Polybius also dabbled in other areas, such as government (his work on the separation of powers was an influence on the U.S. Founding Fathers) and cryptography. He developed what is known as a “Polybius square,” a 5×5 matrix with the numbers 1–5 along the top and down the left, and the letters of the alphabet placed in the grid. He used Greek, but any letters and numbers will work. The Polybius square was used to represent words via numeric code:

1 2 3 4 5
1 A B C D E
2 F G H I/J K
3 L M N O P
4 Q R S T U
5 V W X Y Z

Since 26 letters don’t fit evenly into a 5×5 grid, it became customary to combine some letters, usually I and J. (Although if you were trying to decode “HIJACK” or “HIJINKS” there might be some confusion.) So the word “PRINT” would be encoded as “35 42 24 33 44”. The grid can be expanded by adding additional numbers and characters, which is exactly what later cryptographers did, such as Charles Barbier de la Serre.

Barbier was a captain in Napoléon’s army and Napoléon was looking for a way to send coded messages at night without using light. So Barbier developed a system that was based on the Polybius square. He used a 6×6 grid and some common French letter combinations. Voici:

1 2 3 4 5 6
1 a i o u é è
2 an n on un eu ou
3 b d g j v z
4 p t q ch f s
5 l m n r gn ll
6 oi oin ian ien ion ieu

Then, he created a second 6×6 matrix that consisted of an array of dots. Each cell in the grid contained two columns of up to six dots. Which dots were active—and thus corresponded to a given letter—was determined by which row (the leftmost column of dots) and column (the rightmost) the cell was in:

DigNirv-112715-Dot Matrices-Sonography

So, to represent “A,” which was numerically encoded “11” you would have a simple “• •”. To represent “S,” numerically encoded as “46” you would have a more complex matrix of dots:

DigNirv-112715-Dot Matrices-Dots

Four dots on the left indicates fourth row of the matrix, and six dots on the right indicates sixth column.

Simple, n’est-ce pas? OK, so, that’s all well and good, but how did you work all that out in the dark? Well, the dots were embossed on a card, and you read it with your finger.

Poor Barbier. Called “night writing,” it was a great idea—but it proved to be too difficult for soldiers to use and the idea was rejected.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the concept was introduced to a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris (later renamed the National Institute for Blind Youth). Accounts vary; either the student heard about night writing through a newspaper article read to him by a friend or Barbier visited the Institute himself. Either way, this student liked the idea, but recognized its chief flaw: the matrix of dots needed to represent a character was too large for a finger to read easily. So he simplified and modified Barbier’s night writing, and by 1824—at the age of 15—he had a workable tactile reading system for the blind. He would tweak it some more, and published his system in 1829. As you may have guessed by now, that student’s name was Louis Braille and the system he had developed from Barbier’s military encryption scheme was the Braille alphabet.

Braille lettering can be created—as Braille himself used—an awl or a stylus, and later mechanical devices included a kind of Braille typewriter and, eventually, a computer printer that could output Braille. Braille signage—mandated in public spaces by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—can be produced in a variety of ways: Esko has a Braille tool for its Kongsberg series of cutting tables, and many of today’s flatbed UV printers can layer the ink into three-dimensional dots and print Braille.

One wonders, though, if there is a modern-day Johannes Trithemius out there, insisting that printing Braille is inferior to hand-punching it.

 

References:

Noel L. Brann, The Abbot Trithemius (1462–1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981, http://bit.ly/1Xbz4bt.

David Malki, “True Stuff: Monk vs. the Printing Press,” Wondermark, January 31, 2011, http://wondermark.com/true-stuff-monk-vs-press.

Mike Masnick, “A Fifteenth Century Technopanic About The Horrors Of The Printing Press,” TechDirt, February 25, 2011, https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110119/05022912725/fifteenth-century-technopanic-about-horrors-printing-press.shtml.

“Braille,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 8, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braille.

“Charles Barbier,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 9, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Barbier.

“Johannes Trithemius,” Wikipedia, last modified November 13, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Trithemius.

“Louis Braille,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 4, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Braille.

“Night Writing,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 23, 2014, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_writing.

“Polybius,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 16, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polybius.

Of Fonts and Fears

By

After glancing at the calendar this morning, I decided that for the rest of the day, I’m going to set everything I type in 13-point Helvetica. Why? It’s a long story, as I imagine you have come to expect by now, that takes us through Medieval Switzerland and the world of opera.

Helvetica is one of the most famous typefaces in the world. Designed in 1957 by Swiss type designer Max Miedinger, with a little help from Eduard Hoffmann, it was intended to be a neutral typeface suitable for a wide variety of signage. It was originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, and Mergenthaler Linotype licensed it almost immediately. However, they (actually German Linotype in particular) didn’t like the name, and one could hardly blame them. Heinz Eul, a sales manager at D. Stempel AG—a type foundry that made matrices for the Linotype—suggested calling it Helvetia, which means “Switzerland” in Latin, as a tribute to the nationality of its designer. Unfortunately, the name Helvetia was not a unique one; a sewing machine and an insurance company, for example, were also named Helvetia. So Eduard Hoffmann went through his Latin cases and declensions and suggested “Helvetica,” as Switzerland is called, in Latin, Confoederatio Helvetica.

Helvetia is also the name of the female figure that serves as the national personification of Switzerland, and the name derives from the Helvetii, a marauding tribe of typesetters— No, sorry, check that…. The Helvetii were a Gaulish tribe that lived in the region now known as Switzerland around the time of the Roman Empire (they had a run-in with Julius Caesar, which many people did around that time). In the Middle Ages, an Old Swiss Confederacy emerged that consisted of a loose affiliation of cantons that survived until the late 18th century, when France invaded the region and created, for a brief time (1798–1803), the Helvetic Republic.

The “mascot” of the Helvetic Republic was a Swiss folk hero named William Tell, who was said to have lived during the 14th century. An expert marksman, he was adept at the crossbow, and in perhaps the most famous episode in Tell’s story, he was commanded to shoot an apple off the head of the son of Albrecht Gessler, a tyrannical Austrian reeve assigned to Tell’s canton (called, as any crossword puzzle fan can tell you, Uri). In the folklore, Tell eventually (spoiler alert) assassinates Gessler, and has thus been revered as a conqueror of tyrants, especially by the French during the period of the Helvetic Republic.

William Tell was the subject of an 1804 play by Friedrich Schiller. A historian by trade, Schiller had never actually been to Switzerland, but his wife Lotte was Swiss and was thus very familiar with the story, and Schiller also drew upon other historical and folkloric sources. The play was first staged on March 17, 1804, under the direction of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (of Faust fame), who was a good friend of Schiller’s. It was a hit, and has been translated into many languages.

One of those languages was French, which was the version that composer Gioachino Rossini used to write his opera Guillaume Tell. (It used to be said that you could tell that someone was an intellectual if they could listen to “The William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger was a bit before my time, but in my day, you could tell an intellectual if they could listen to “The Barber of Seville” without thinking of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, which I am unable to do. Either way, both pieces of music were composed by Rossini. He had a flair.)

Guillaume Tell was first performed by the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829, and one of the problems was that it was long—four hours long. Its immense cast and very high tenor part have also made it a very difficult opera to stage in its entirety. Guillaume Tell was Rossini’s last opera, although he would live another 40 years.

Rossini (1792–1868) was born in Pesaro, Italy, and his father was—get this—a horn player and an inspector of slaughterhouses. I suspect one was his day job, the other what he moonlighted as, but one doesn’t want to jump to conclusions as to which was which. His mother was a singer, and his parents were often away playing and singing in various orchestras and theaters around Italy. Young Gioachino learned to play the harpsichord from a narcoleptic beer seller named Prinetti, and although apprenticed to a blacksmith, Rossini continued to learn and write music (his earliest scores date from age 12, and showed the influence of Haydn and Mozart), and he later enrolled at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. After graduation, he landed a commission by the Venetian Teatro San Moise to compose La cambiale di matrimonio, a one-act comedy. And his career was off to the races. He would go on to compose 39 operas—in his lifetime he was the most successful opera composer of all time—as well as a smattering of sacred music, chamber music, and songs. He once joked “Give me the laundress’ bill and I will even set that to music” (Montanelli, 1972).

In 1869, a year after Rossini’s death on Friday, November 13, 1868, British journalist Henry Sutherland Edwards wrote a biography of Rossini that included this passage:

He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November he passed away (Edwards, 1869).

This is one of the first documented references to “Friday the 13th” in English, although the “fear” of this particular day and date is believed to date from the Middle Ages. The number 13 was said to be unlucky—because of the 13 people at the Last Supper—and Friday was also unlucky—Jesus was crucified on a Friday—but it seems that no one ever put them together into one mega-fear until the 19th century.

Different countries and cultures have their own unlucky days. In some Spanish and Greek countries, Tuesday the 13th is a bad one, and in Italy Friday the 17th is especially inauspicious. (And Richard Benjamin had the bad luck to have starred in the staggeringly unfunny spoof Saturday the 14th.)

We all know that the fear of the number 13 is called “triskaidekaphobia,” but the fear of Friday the 13th is called “paraskevidekatriaphobia,” from the Greek Paraskeví (Παρασκευή, “Friday”) and dekatreís (δεκατρείς, “thirteen”). If you do suffer from this fear, you’re—well—out of luck: it has been worked out that Friday is actually the most common weekday on which the 13th of a month can fall.

One wonders, though: is there a word for the fear of the typeface Helvetica? Helveticaphobia? I hope not; like Friday the 13th, we should have nothing to fear from Helvetica. Fear of Comic Sans, though, is perfectly rational.

At any rate, The Digital Nirvana wishes you a happy and fear-free Friday the 13th.

 

References:

“Gioachino Rossini,” All Music, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/gioachino-rossini-mn0000678420/biography.

Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, Blackett, 1869, p. 340, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45705/45705-h/45705-h.htm#page_332.

Indro Montanelli, L’Italia giacobina e carbonara (1789–1831), Milan: Rizzoli, 1972, p. 612.

Paul Shaw, “From the Archives no. 26—Helvetica and Univers addendum,” Paul Shaw Letter Design, December 1, 2011, http://www.paulshawletterdesign.com/2011/12/from-the-archives-no-26—helvetica-and-univers-addendum.

“Triskaidekaphobia,” Wolfram Mathworld, http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Triskaidekaphobia.html.

“Friday the 13th,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 31, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friday_the_13th.

“Gioachino Rossini,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 25, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gioachino_Rossini.

“Helvetica,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 1, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica.

“Helvetia,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 2, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetia.

“William Tell (opera),” Wikipedia, last modified on November 4, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tell_(opera).