I'm in Slate this week with an article and slide show remembering the giddy futurism of Omni magazine:
The piece began after I found a stash at a junk store, and was hit by a shock of recognition of a 1979 cover -- I actually remembered getting that issue as a kid. And inside the issues, the ads of long-lost firms -- DAK, Fidelity Chess, Infocom games, Commodore 64! -- were as weirdly evocative as the articles. Leafing through pages I last read 25 to 30 years ago, I found myself remembering them. A lot of them, in fact. I've become so used to the ephemeral nature of magazines that I've forgotten how some reading experiences -- especially at the age of 10 -- can still deeply, subtly imprint themselves.
Among the many riches I found in a junk-shop stash of Omnis -- (Yonkers spaceport! A 1984 account of telecommuting! An Italian atomic bomb!) -- I also came across this astounding ad from the final days in 1995, long after I and just about everyone else had stopped reading. No matter how hard up times may be for science magazines today, just remember: nobody's asking their editorial assistants to staff a 900-number.
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I'm in Slate this week with an article and slide show remembering the giddy futurism of Omni magazine:
Not Even Wrong just ran in Hong Kong in a Cantonese stage version -- ! -- here's actor KC Li as "Paul Collins."
I'm in this week's New Scientist with a brief history of aquatic pedestrianism:
The first well-documented walk on water came in 1844, when Robert Kjellberg and Tonnes Balcken glided through Hanover on pontoon shoes made of thinly beaten metal. They showed that it was possible to carry a heavy knapsack and fire a rifle without sinking and taught the local army garrison how to use their invention. While no water-walking army materialised, Kjellberg was soon touring England as the "Water King". His exhibitions captured the Victorian imagination, and imitators around the world followed in his sloshing footsteps.
"Anybody can do it. It may be, that before long... the shining path marked out upon the waters by the silvery beams of the moon will become a fashionable promenade," declared the Toronto Globe after witnessing a local water-walker striding the Don River in 1854. "No stones will be there to vex those troubled with tender feet, no bruises can result from a fall, no danger is to be apprehended from carelessly driven cabs, or viciously given dogs."
Yet the idea of waterborne warfare was never far away. The same account foresaw "the crossing of armies over rivers", and in 1910 inventor Luigi Rissi taught an Italian soldier to fire a rifle from "hydro skis". Oldrieve's contribution was perhaps more fanciful than practical: during his  walk in New York harbour he calmly lit sticks of dynamite with his cigar and tossed them into the East river, where they sent spectacular fountains shooting 20 metres into the air.
"Professor" Charles W. Oldreive was one of the most popular water-walkers, and eventually capped off his exploits by winning a $5000 bet in 1907 to walk down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, from Cincinatti to New Orleans.
From the New York Journal of 16 January 1898, here's Oldrieve engaged in the highly professorial act of blowing shit up in New York Harbor:
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I wrote a New Scientist piece earlier this year on the nearly criminal foot-dragging by Detroit over safety advances made by pioneering engineers in the 1950s and 60s, and that sad pattern seems to have been repeated... with cell phone companies.
An excellent piece of historical digging by Matt Richtel in today's Times:
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Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable cellphone, recalled testifying before a Michigan state commission about the risks of talking on a phone while driving. Common sense, said Mr. Cooper, a Motorola engineer, dictated that drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
Commission members asked Mr. Cooper what could be done about risks posed by these early mobile phones. “There should be a lock on the dial,” he said he had testified, “so that you couldn’t dial while driving.”
It was the early 1960s.
I'm on a NPR Weekend Edition segment about Shakespeare's First Folio this weekend; Scott Simon and I ventured into the vault of the Folger with library director Gail Paster. It's very rare that they let anyone into the underground vault -- it literally has a giant time-lock door -- so we were lucky indeed to have a look at such treasures as this Folio cheerily defaced by a girl in the 1720s.
This was still before critics like Theobald and Johnson had made it clear why perhaps you might not want to use old Folios as scratch-pads for your kids.
One neat detail that didn't make it into the finished piece: Scott asking Gail if it wasn't perilous to have all these valuable books in one place, because what if there was a fire?
"Well," Gail smiled, "in a fire the oxygen is evacuated from the room and replaced with halocarbon gas. We'd have about five minutes to get out."
Which, I suppose, is why you don't want to fall asleep in the vault. Oh, and also because you could end up like this guy:
I love that a book like this needed to exist in the first place -- an 1859 guide to creating architect's models out of paper:
There's a full text at Google Books...
Last year I noted the UK publication of Madeleine Goold's Mr Langshaw's Square Piano, which follows the social history of a single Broadwood square piano -- and I lamented at the time that there was no sign of a US publisher. Well, now it has one!
Friday's Wall Street Journal lauds the book:
The author has a gift for gathering charming and peculiar historical details, from the niceties of producing ornate copperplate handwriting to the trained bear who guarded Broadwood's premises... Ms. Goold's researches take her from graveyards in Lancashire to archives at Emory University in Atlanta, and her narrative touches on the American and French revolutions, the British diaspora in India and Australia, and the Victorian-era Age of Mahogany. But no matter how far afield the author's interests take her, she maintains her focus on one culture-changing development that has only in recent decades lost is force: the piano in the parlor.
Here's an 1822 Bradshaw square piano at work:
After last week's post, I belatedly came across this extraordinary story: player piano rolls were still being manufactured in Buffalo, NY for the old instruments, right up until last year. (!)
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Until Thursday, QRS was the only continuously operating mass producer of piano rolls in the world. The only other company, in Australia, stopped earlier this decade. Sales dropped about 80 percent from 15 years ago to around 50,000 annually, Berkman estimated...
Berkman said reassembling the piano roll factory elsewhere will be difficult.
One machine dates back to the 1880s when it was used to make shoes, and for the past 100 years has made the tabs with brass eyelets used to hook the roll into a piano. There are also aging machines to perforate and punch the holes, to cut the stencils to print the lyrics, to spool the rolls and to glue the roll boxes together.
“There are so many facets of it. The perforating machines are old and cantankerous, and they’re one star in a constellation of machines that all have to be functioning,” Berkman said.
For Halloween, Abebooks had up a "Top Ten Ghostwritten Books" list. My favorite: a tennis guide ghosted by Sinclair Lewis.
Lately my son Morgan has become fixated on Youtube videos of old player pianos in use. He loves the whole thing, from feeding the cylinder into the machine to final flap-flap-click-click of the rewinding piano roll: he's particularly fond of this 1927 foxtrot "Changes."
This is sometimes the first thing I hear in the morning, which makes me feel like I'm waking up in the middle of a Wodehouse story. Add a Comment
A charming find on eBay: a 1927 guide on How to Play the Cinema Organ published at the exact moment that talkies were about to rub out the profession. The Jazz Singer came out in October of that very year.
Teen hysteria, courtesy of the February 14, 1925 issue of the New York Evening Journal:
...con-men have thought of first.
Wandering through Old Bailey records, I found an 1889 investor scam worthy of a dot-com:
BONIFACE KNAPP:For anticipating ad-supported e-mail by over a century, Mssrs. Henri Boegaerts and Bruno Krantz were made guests of Her Majesty and awarded twelve months hard labor. Add a Comment
I live at 3, Maidment Road, Burdett Road, Bow—four years ago Krantz called on my father, a schoolmaster, and stayed to tea—that was the first introduction—he was not a man of means then—on 7th September this year I went with my father to an office in Leaden hall Buildings, where I saw him—he took us into a private office, and explained a scheme he had for buying a building near the Mansion House for the purpose of displaying advertisements, which were to continually revolve on a sheet inside the building; as I understood—by the side of it was to be a free correspondence company, where anybody could write a letter free—there were also to be tables for eating purposes, with an invention by Krantz by which you touched a knob, and a dinner would appear under a desk—you touched different knobs for different dishes—this was all under Bogaerts Free Correspondence Company—I went to Leadenhall Buildings every morning—I saw Bogaerts there—he and Krantz had meetings and conferences there, sometimes for many hours, in another room—he mentioned to me the Bogaerts Reunited Developing Company, to assist other people in bringing forward their patents—he said the capital was £3,000, which was subscribed abroad, and that the company was very vast in its extent...
An 1905 Edison short I stumbled across on Youtube:
Also, via Daily Dish, an amazing hand-tinted 1899 Lumiere film of a Serpentine dance:
Research from psychologists at the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia claims to show that exposure to surrealism enhances the cognitive mechanisms which oversee implicit learning functions. The psychologists showed a group of subjects Kafka's story The Country Doctor, a disturbing and surreal tale... A second group were shown the same story, but rewritten so the plot made more sense. Both groups were then asked to complete an artificial grammar learning task which saw them exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings, and then asked to copy the strings and mark those which followed a similar pattern.
"People who read the nonsensical story... were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did. Proulx said that the thinking behind the research was that when we are exposed to something which "fundamentally does not make sense", our brains will respond by "looking for some other kind of structure" within our environment.
Wiley's got the article behind a subscription wall, but happily, one of the study's researchers put up a pdf download of the article. So brace yourself for a chart:
I'm in the latest New Scientist (full text!) with the Victorian equivalent of the jetpack: the trottoir roulant of the 1900 Paris Exposition, a 3 km moving sidewalk for crosstown mass-transit, which one enraptured reporter described as "gliding around like a wooden serpent with its tail in its mouth."
Here's a hauntingly beautiful Edison silent film taken from atop it:
It was such a success that one was proposed to run across the Brooklyn Bridge...
The first moving walkway had been unveiled eight years earlier at the Chicago World's Fair and had proved a huge success at subsequent expositions in Berlin and Paris. Chicago's walkway, the brainchild of engineer Max Schmidt, consisted of three rings, the first stationary, the second moving at 4 kilometres per hour and the third at 8 km/h, an arrangement that allowed walkers to adjust to each speed before moving to the next. With the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, Schmidt upped the ante. This time he envisaged a loop system at each end of the bridge, with a series of four ever-faster walkways. Passengers moved from one to another until finally taking a seat on the benches aboard the fastest, which whisked them across the bridge at 16 km/h...There were also proposals right up through the 1930s for systems across in LA, Detroit, Paris, you name it -- as well as along Wall Street, Grand Central Station, and Times Square.
One newspaper suggested that getting trapped with interminable bores would be a thing of the past: one "has only to suddenly step on the passing sidewalk to be carried rapidly beyond sight or hearing of his tormentor"... The New York Tribune called for "a moving sidewalk from Texas to New York to bring up cotton and those cheap winter strawberries", while another newspaper jokingly suggested that city buildings be placed on moving walkways so that people could simply stand around and wait for the right one to arrive.
Check out this amazing 1924 proposal for a "ring" system underneath downtown Atlanta:
The future, alas, has not yet arrived... Add a Comment
(From Time Out Dubai)
The first Arabic manga, The Gold Ring, is a tale involving falconry -- and a quote by author Qais Sedkis in the UAE National notes that it's not as odd a fit as one might think:
“I grew up watching a lot of Arabic-dubbed Japanese animation,” Sedki says. “At the time I just assumed they were all Arabic cartoons. I think it was actually a Jordanian company that did a lot of the dubbing and made [the programmes] available to other TV stations.Add a Comment
“When I learnt the truth, it sparked an interest in all things Japanese for me,” he says.... Certain practicalities have also helped. “As far as the literature goes,” Sedki says. “We both turn pages in the same direction, right to left.” This has meant that Gold Ring could be presented in the traditional tankobon format.
The Times carries an obituary to spelling reformer Ed Rondthaler, who passed away at age 104. He's the man I described in a Believer piece last year as the last living link to the movement's Edwardian zenith.
From his obituary:
Such [orthographic] anarchy, Mr. Rondthaler came to believe, helped cause illiteracy and with it, a web of social ills. Among them, as he wrote in the 1977 profile in The Times, were “jooveniel delinquensy, criem-in-th-streets, hard cor unemploiment and poverty.”
...He wrote a song honoring the 100th anniversary of the Croton Dam. He invented things, including a slide rule that calculated currency-exchange rates and another slide rule that computed cooking times of foods based on weight...
In 1920, at 15, young Mr. Rondthaler bought a 2-cent card and addressed it to a classmate. Inside, he wrote, “The bluebirds are flying from my heart to you.” His message was written in standard orthography.
Reader, she married him.
With Labor Day coming up, I've had to think about how to keep the kids occupied on some long trips -- which why I'm on NPR Weekend Edition today to talk about Yes & Know invisible ink books...
They still look and work the same today as when I was a kid, and I became intrigued: where did these books come from, anyway? I tracked them down to a 1974 patent by Leon Lenkoff of Louisville, Kentucky. (His company, Lee Publications, continues making Yes & Know to this day.) But what struck me was that he cited a 1968 patent by a "Burrhus Frederic Skinner."
B... F... Skinner?
Skinner's invention was part of his interest in automating learning; a handwriting worksheet that turned red when drew outside the dotted lines would save teacher labor for more personalized tasks. It was Lenkoff's bright idea to take this idea of defined areas of invisible ink and apply them to tic-tac-toe, 20 Questions, and a Battleship knockoff called "Fleet."
Skinner himself notes an older patent by an Antioch College chemistry instructor for a self-correcting quiz (e.g. fill in the wrong bubble and it turns red, while the correct answer bubble turns green). Skinner was so fond of that idea that he patented an anti-cheating version.
It's a charmingly retro technology. But it turns out that cheatproof decoder pen idea is making a comeback in polling booths this year with a vote confirmation system called Scantegrity.
So all those games of Decoder Pen Baseball on the airplane and in the car? Training for secure voting...
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