Archive for August, 2010

Here At Last Is The Arctic Auto-Sleigh

From August 28, 1910

HERE AT LAST IS THE ARCTIC AUTO-SLEIGH

HERE AT LAST IS THE ARCTIC AUTO-SLEIGH: Alaskan Gold Hunter, After Nine Years’ Work, Invents a Machine for Speeding Over Snow-Clad Passes (PDF)

Inventor Charles E. S. Burch was one of the lucky few people who actually struck it rich in the northwestern Gold Rush of 1896. He spent nine years using his wealth to develop a vehicle to carry people across the snow, and finally came up with this design, using threaded wheels on the engine, and sled rails on the passenger car.

Here’s a video of an awesome Russian off-road and snow vehicle that uses a similar threaded propulsion system. Seriously, it’s awesome. Go watch it.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 27th, 2010 at 10:00 am

Pitiful Medicant Gives Way To The Cunning Beggar

From August 28, 1910

PITIFUL MEDICANT GIVES WAY TO THE CUNNING BEGGAR

PITIFUL MEDICANT GIVES WAY TO THE CUNNING BEGGAR: A Special “Slanguage” Used in the New Fraternity and the Old Threadbare Wiles Are Displaced These Days by Ingenious Trickery to Get Alms. (PDF)

This article is about the specialized vocabulary of beggars, and the scams beggars pull.

Each decade since begging in the United States became a popular calling has been productive of its own form of deception. There have been ingenious variations, but not very many different schemes, as many think. Old “Philly Pop” himself invented the “lye bug.” He was a Philadelphia veteran of the civil war anyway, and when he found that he could produce an ugly scar on his body by a lye burn which he could pass sometimes for an honorable wound received in the service of his country and at others as the result of a railway accident which incapacitated him for work, he thought himself fixed for life. He made an excellent living for many years, and passed the secret on to the “Erie Crip” and others until the game spread all over the country and was worked to death.

Mr. Forbes says there is hardly an old beggar in this country who has ever had the distinction of being a “burley” whose uprolled left sleeve does not reveal a series of lye-burn scars. In a short while, when “plinging” on that plan became unfruitful, a variation came in the production of scars and blisters by the application of cantharis, or blister beetle.

When this game got old and failed to work some ingenious “husky” invented the “throw-out,” which was popular for many years, and is yet to be met sometimes. In this the “burley” drops his left arm and hand out of joint and drags his left foot as if suffering from a severe form of paralysis. The simulation was well-nigh perfect, and it was a long time before the people discovered the deception. Some of the old-timers got so expert that though they have been taken to Bellevue Hospital and subjected to stiff electric currents to “shake them out,” have been able to lie crippled through it all.

Bonus fun fact: The word blend “slanguage” dates back to 1879. I would have guessed it was a more modern coinage. And some word blends were being used as far back as the 1400s. Here’s an in-depth history of word blends.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 27th, 2010 at 9:45 am

Posted in True Crime

How A Man With An Idea Made Millions In Twelve Years

From August 28, 1910

HOW A MAN WITH AN IDEA MADE MILLIONS IN TWELVE YEARS

HOW A MAN WITH AN IDEA MADE MILLIONS IN TWELVE YEARS: A Little One Room Shop Earning Ten Dollars a Week Becomes Fifteen Acres of Industry Earning $30,000,000 a Year. (PDF)

This is the story of Eldredge Reeves Johnson, the man who built the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of the most successful phonograph companies at the time. (The word “phonograph” there links to the wikipedia entry for “gramaphone record” for the young’uns.) The article tells not only the events of Johnson’s success story, but also explains how the phonograph records were made.

The Victor company is the largest buyer of shellac in the world — which is easily believed when one sees the yards and yards of doughy stuff being kneaded in the cauldrons. It is pliant and thick, and is passed over the rollers just exactly as if it were a particularly black sort of dough.

When it has been kneaded enough it is put through a machine which flattens it out and cuts it into squares just large enough to make a record disk. It lies, smoking and cooling, on a big rolling board for all the world like a singularly uninviting kind of cake. In a couple of minutes it has cooled enough to be touched and taken up to the room above.

There stand men before a heated copper table. The black cake is put on the table for a few seconds to get warm and pliant again, (it is as hard as a rock when cold); then it is folded into a mold and put in a hydraulic press, with a pressure of 3,000 pounds to the square inch. In half a minute it is taken out, all ready except for a little trimming of the edges.

We took the little square we had followed, slipped it into a talking machine, and the ugly black thing that five minutes before had been smoking in a cauldron had become “The Spring Song.” It takes about five minutes, not more, to work this modern miracle.

The article goes on to describe how these records are recorded to begin with, which is interesting to read.

Even if you never heard of Victor, you still might know the logo, which is based on a painting called His Master’s Voice. The Victor Talking Machine Company later became RCA Victor and then part of RCA Records, which now belongs to Sony Music Company.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 27th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Hackensack Meadows A Hiding Place For Fugitives

From August 28, 1910

HACKENSACK MEADOWS A HIDING PLACE FOR FUGITIVES

HACKENSACK MEADOWS A HIDING PLACE FOR FUGITIVES: Little Island, in the Tall Reeds a Safe Retreat for Those Who Are Hunted. Skeletons of Long Missing Outlaws Found in the Swamp Tell Stories of Starvation. (PDF)

The Meadowlands District of Northeastern New Jersey is known today as the home of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. But in 1910, the area’s swampy marshes were a great hiding place for fugitives:

The murderer, escaped convict, or thief who once starts from the shore line into the great stretch of marsh land can count on security as long as he can find food. Convicts familiar with the jungle facilities of the meadows have long made them their objective after an escape so that they might find a place of hiding until a change of clothes and a new growth of beard or hair might be acquired before venturing once more upon the open roads or streets.

The article goes into narrative detail describing a man hunt in and around the meadows as police hunted for a murderer named Bertrand Pond:

Night came. The man in the meadows must have been tortured with thirst, for the salt sticks to the skin with the rising tide that brings up the spill of the depths of the sea. Then, too, with the going down of the sun came the great swarms of mosquitos to sting and fasten upon anything fleshy. Almost as bad was the hunger that tore at the empty stomach of the murderer, for the salt air of the meadow puts an appetite in a man that would make the coursest food smack of ambrosia.

I’ll let you read the article to find out if they ever caught Bertrand Pond, but the article does tell some gruesome stories of people who were only found after they were dead:

“Some of ’em never got out,” said Danny Small in Cap’n Minnerly’s bunk. “Sometimes we turn up a skeleton while ducking. Then we get a suicide once and awhile, and in the Bergen County part of the meadows a murdered Italian shows up every now and then. One of the last murder cases was discovered through a letter sent to Police Headquarters. It was written in Italian, and said that a body would be found in a certain part of the meadows… We got out and hunted for the body. It showed up all right. The man was murdered. Another Black Hand case, I reckon.”

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 27th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in True Crime

The Man Who Found The Truth

From August 28, 1910

THE MAN WHO FOUND THE TRUTH

“THE MAN WHO FOUND THE TRUTH” By Leonid Andreyev: A Powerful Story of a Prisoner Unjustly Convicted of Murder, Written by the Author of “Anathema,” the Poe of Russia. (PDF)

Beginning this week in 1910, the New York Times Magazine began publishing this short story by Leonid Andreyev, considered the Edgar Allen Poe of Russia. It was published serially over four weeks. A reviewer of the print edition on Amazon says:

“The Man Who Found The Truth” (or “My Memoirs”) is a brilliant diamond that Andreyev purportedly said was his best work. An old man who had been sentenced to virtually a lifetime in prison narrates his experience of incarceration, his dependence upon the routine of prison life, the isolation, and the view of the world through his small cell window. Andreyev effectively captures the personality of a wise but vulnerable old man who comes up with a theory about infinity. When he is released, his theory makes him famous, but he cannot live without being institutionalized. He ends up rich enough to afford a wealthy home, [NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW] but instead has a custom jail cell built for himself and pays a servant to act like a jailor; although he is free, he chooses to live as if he is incarcerated. He even alludes to the fact that all of life is one gigantic prison cell.

The Times published it over four weeks, but since we’re in the future, we don’t need to wait to read the whole thing. Instead of doling it out piecemeal, I’m giving you the whole thing now.

If you’d like to read it, you have two options:

1) For the story as it originally appeared in the Sunday Magazine, complete with illustrations, you can download all four weeks in one big pdf. It’s seven broadsheet pages, approximately 20,000 words, and weighs in at around 8.5 megabytes.

2) If you’d rather read it in a mobile reading device, iPhone, nook, Kindle, or even your browser, you can download it for free in various formats from Project Gutenberg in an anthology called The Crushed Flower and Other Stories. It’s a much smaller download but with no illustrations.

One comment

Written by David

August 27th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Fiction

How Those Amusing Freak Moving Pictures Are Made

From August 21, 1910

HOW THOSE AMUSING FREAK MOVING PICTURES ARE MADE

HOW THOSE AMUSING FREAK MOVING PICTURES ARE MADE: Ingenious Devices Make It Easy for a Man Apparently to Walk on the Ceiling, Climb Up the Side of a House and Work Other Impossibilities. (PDF)

By 1910, jaded audiences were already tired of the primitive special effects in movies. They demanded more!

Tricks popular a few years ago are being abandoned. Sophisticated audiences demand that the ideas be worked out in a logical way. This forced the manufacturers to drop the obvious or merely ingenious… The result has been that the tricks of the moving picture man have progressed to a point of mechanical complexity that is amazing to the layman, and have developed ideas worthy of a skilled dramatist or novelist.

The article goes on to reveal several secrets of 1910 movie effects:

A French magician named Malies originated the so-called magical pictures, in which persons and objects appeared and disappeared in an instant. Of course, these were merely placed in or removed from the scene while the shutter of the camera was closed between the photographs.

Of course that refers to George Melies, whose “magical pictures” are worth looking up on YouTube. Here’s one example from 1898 showing how objects can appear and disappear as described above (for best effect, mute the music):

The article gives another example:

In the picture of the “Great Train Robbery,” for example, a dummy was substituted and thrown from a moving train in place of the living fireman who had been knocked on the head with a piece of coal.

I believe this must be the scene they refer to:

I can’t say I blame audiences for demanding more.

Amazingly, many of the tricks used back then are still used today. For example, the article describes a movie where a man crawls like a fly on the ceiling…

…head down, laughing and talking to an assistant who passes bits of paper to him from the floor beneath. On another picture a man, clinging to the ceiling as though glued there, goes through a series of antics and finally hangs suspended by his hands and his head.

The secret of these illusions is as simple as that of a conundrum — when you know it. The men walking head downward on the ceiling are actually performing on a floor. The walls and furniture in the room are suspended upside down, after being fastened to a framework of wooden strips.

A more sophisticated version of this same technique was used in this summer’s Inception. In a scene where two characters appear to be fighting on the walls and ceiling of a hotel hallway, the effect is in fact achieved by rotating the set along with the camera so that they end up fighting on an upside down set. You can read more about Inception‘s rotating set in this article at mtv.com.

While not mentioned in the article, I also recommend you watch Melies’ 1902 film A Trip To The Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), which is often considered the first sci-fi film.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 10:15 am

The New Wright Five-Passenger Biplane For Cross-Country Flights

From August 21, 1910

THE NEW WRIGHT FIVE-PASSENGER BIPLANE FOR CROSS-COUNTRY FLIGHTS

THE NEW WRIGHT FIVE-PASSENGER BIPLANE FOR CROSS-COUNTRY FLIGHTS (PDF)

The fact that a five-passenger flight will shortly become an accomplished fact has interested the aviation world. In the new craft there is nothing in front of the driver’s seat. The front elevating planes are gone, and the two main planes catch the air in initial contact, so far as the aeroplane is concerned. The elevating plane — there is only one — is behind the rear rudder, and thus one of the earliest features of the aeroplane passes out of existence in this new type.

Another first for the Wright Brothers!

2 comments

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 10:00 am

Will Vaccine Be The Greatest Cure In Medical Science?

From August 21, 1910

WILL VACCINE BE THE GREATEST CURE IN MEDICAL SCIENCE?

WILL VACCINE BE THE GREATEST CURE IN MEDICAL SCIENCE? Experimentation Proves That it Is Effective in Many Diseases Formerly Not Included Within its Scope. (PDF)

It’s exciting to read about scientists realizing that this great discovery is even more widely applicable than they realized. Vaccination for smallpox and a few other diseases were already around for 100 years or so before this article, but the next few decades would bring discovery of vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, and polio.

One comment

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 9:45 am

Posted in Life,Science

Sherlock Holmes Would Be Baffled By This Mystery

From August 21, 1910

SHERLOCK HOLMES WOULD BE BAFFLED BY THIS MYSTERY

SHERLOCK HOLMES WOULD BE BAFFLED BY THIS MYSTERY: A London Actor Is Found Murdered in a Battersea Garden, the Stage Setting Is Unusual, and Three Persons See the Murderer, Yet He Escapes and Scotland Yard Is Mystified. (PDF)

It’s bad enough to be murdered. But Thomas Anderson, a London actor who went by the stage name Thomas Weldon Atherston, had the bad luck to be murdered in the shadow of an even more sensational murder. At this time in 1910, the murder case du jour was that of Cora Crippen. Her husband Hawley Crippen was among those suspected of killing her, but there was no body. Well, the same week that Thomas Anderson was killed, Cora Crippen’s remains were found in the basement of her home. The hunt for Hawley Crippen was on! It was the murder case of the season. And poor Thomas Anderson was all but forgotten by the public.

To this day, Thomas Anderson’s murder remains unsolved. Hawley Crippen, meanwhile, was found guilty and sentenced to death for killing his wife.

This article presents the facts of the Anderson murder as they were known at the time. As the headline suggests, it’s a case that seems to be right out of a Sherlock Holmes story. Maybe you can find a clue where Scotland Yard did not.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime

Woman Meets Adventure In Motor Tour Of The World

From August 21, 1910

WOMAN MEETS ADVENTURE IN MOTOR TOUR OF THE WORLD

WOMAN MEETS ADVENTURE IN MOTOR TOUR OF THE WORLD: Mrs. Harriet Clark Fisher of Trenton, Iron Manufacturer and Social Leader, Has Many Adventures in Her Auto Among Strange Peoples. (PDF)

In 1902, Harriet Clark Fisher and her husband were in a terrible train wreck. They were both pinned under tons of debris. Her husband died, but Harriet survived. She took over management of his iron works company, becoming the only woman manufacturer in America. China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wu Ting-Fang, called Harriet “the most remarkable woman in America.”

Harriet decided she could use a vacation, and set out to become the first woman to tour the entire planet by car. Of course she needed a boat to get from one continent to the next, but still, that’s a pretty good road trip. This article explores some of her adventures along the way.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Adventure

By Separate Paths Four Brothers Win Millions

From August 21, 1910

BY SEPARATE PATHS FOUR BROTHERS WIN MILLIONS

BY SEPARATE PATHS FOUR BROTHERS WIN MILLIONS: Starting with $700 Each, the Miller Boys of Connecticut Weave an Amazing Modern Fairy Tale of Finance. (PDF)

It is well to begin a story at the beginning, and as the tale of the Miller family is interesting in every part, even before the brothers themselves come on the scene, there is no reason for slighting the opening. They were born in Middletown, Conn.; their forbears had been born there for 250 years. There is the Miller pond, Miller’s farms, and the old mill itself to remind later generations of the stalwart Tom, first of his name to come to this country, who settled in Middletown on the promise from the town that if he did all ther milling they would give him $700. The town never kept its word.

The Millers eventually made a good living as farmers, which brings us to the four brothers in this story. Their mother had urged their father to “Get them out into the world to see what they can do,” and so he gave them each $700 (approximately $16,000 in today’s dollar) and sent them on their way.

50 years later, all four sons were millionaires. On the occasion of one son’s golden wedding anniversary, they reunited, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine wrote this profile. You can read how each one managed to turn their father’s gift into a full fledged business.

But the brothers had a sister, too. What happened to her?

Kate Miller, who became Mrs. Strickland, was the only girl in the family, and did not get $700 and sent out, but she made her fortune just the same. She was left a widow some twenty or twenty-five years ago. She took her husband’s life insurance and without asking anybody’s advice proceeded to make the shrewdest investments. She has big profits on some of her stock, and all her purchases prove that she has just the same business acumen that marks her brothers.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 20th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Business

Unusual Snapshots Taken At Thrilling Moments

From August 14, 1910

UNUSUAL SNAPSHOTS TAKEN AT THRILLING MOMENTS

UNUSUAL SNAPSHOTS TAKEN AT THRILLING MOMENTS: Work of Camera Men with Presence of Mind to Press the Button at Critical Times (PDF)

This week in 1910, New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor was shot in a failed assassination attempt. Photographer William Warnecke was there to take the photo that captured the event.

So the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided to take a look at other photographers who managed to be in the right place at the right time with their cameras.

Such photographs were found in much greater variety than had been expected. The subjects were drawn from all parts of the world. Bombs were shown exploding in war, and a volcano at the moment of eruption. A big Japanese shell was divulged soaring in the air, plain in the picture, though invisible to those behind the gun that fired it. A steamship was caught at the moment it was submerged. A queen’s horses, which had plunged from the low parapet of a bridge, struggled wildly to keep afloat in a French lake. In many instances the photographs were taken as part of thrilling experience…

Those who have passed through such periods of excitement say that a man is likely to do one of three things. He will stand facing the danger, inert and with paralyzed faculties; he will lose his grip on his mind until a great fear seizes him which, in a crowd, means panic, or else he will face the crisis with faculties excited to abnormal acuteness.

The photographers who took the pictures mentioned belonged, almost without exception, to the last-named class. Accident may play a small part, but not a great one. The force of habit has a larger share in it. As an old fireman once described his dangerous duties, they “came naturally, because he had always done it.” In this spirit the photographer is impelled to press the lever of his camera. It requires much less force to do so than to fire an automatic revolver.

What follows then are stories behind those photos. The photographers in the article include Enrique Muller, Herbert Ponting, James Ricalton, Underwood & Underwood, and an anonymous passenger of a steamship who captured a photo of another steamship sinking (seen above). It reminds me of the Staten Island Ferry passenger who took the iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 after it landed in the Hudson River.

It’s worth pointing out an interesting paragraph towards the end of the article that describe the beginning of the stock footage industry, where outtakes from journalistic shoots were later used in fictional narrative works:

“Accidental” moving pictures are now usually held in reserve until a story is invented to fit them. Then they become a realistic scene in a series. A moving picture man, for instance, happened to be on the spot when a ship was wrecked off the coast of Florida recently. He obtained a film of the stormy sea, the wreck, Atlantic City. A fire horse collided with and the crew being rescued with a breeches buoy. A story of a castaway was built around it. Those who saw the film marveled at the realistic “faking” of the wreck. One New York manufacturer has a moving picture of a railroad crash on an up-State railroad in a snow storm last Winter. Obtained by accident, he is holding it until a story can be invented for it.”

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 13th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Art,Technology

To Lessen Crime In Children Through Medical Care

From August 14, 1910

TO LESSEN CRIME IN CHILDREN THROUGH MEDICAL CARE

TO LESSEN CRIME IN CHILDREN THROUGH MEDICAL CARE: The Work of Dr. M. G. Schlapp of Cornell University Medical School Among the Feeble Minded and Unfortunate Young in New York; Scientific Observations of the Environments and the Symptoms of Mentally Defective Children to be Collected and Recorded. (PDF)

The theory posed here by Dr. Schlapp of Cornell Med School is that kids who commit crimes are either normal kids who unfortunately live in abnormal environments, or they are themselves physically or mentally abnormal. In these cases, if we can cure the defect, the child should no longer have criminal tendencies. Easy enough.

In the furtherance of this effort to reclaim unfortunate boys and girls, every child that is arrested in the City of New York is taken to the Children’s Society, and, whether the offense be serious or trivial, an examination that is complete as medical science can make it is conducted, for the purpose of discovering whether or not the little one is mentally disturbed, and, if he is, whether that condition is due to defects in heredity or in environment.

After the examination of the child has indicated the nature of the moral or physical defect that has landed him in the clutches of the law, that child becomes a subject of observation on the part of the doctors and agents of the Children’s Society. if his predicament is the result of an inherited disease, the plan is to treat him medically until the last trace of that disease has been eradicated, and that accomplished, to judiciously train and look after him until he becomes his own master and is able to take his place in life as a useful member of society…

Here is an actual case that recently came to the attention of the Children’s Society.

A boy, 10 years old, was arrested by the police at a seaside resort. He had stolen about $20 from his father. He did not deny it, and when asked if he would do so again, answered, “Yes, if I get a chance.”

For several years the lad had been in the habit of running away from home. The laymen would call him an incorrigible. Apparently he was mentally normal, yet he had no feeling whatever for father, mother, or sister, or anybody else except himself. He was absolutely morally deficient. That boy needed, and he is getting, medical treatment and observation, and the chances are that he will be saved.

It’s unclear to me what kind of medical treatment would cure a boy of morally deficiency, and the article does not elaborate. But they’re going to have their work cut out for them, as one week earlier the Magazine noted that 11,000 kids were arrested last year alone.

One comment

Written by David

August 13th, 2010 at 9:15 am

The Unconscious Comedian In The Third Row

From August 14, 1910

THE UNCONSCIOUS COMEDIAN IN THE THIRD ROW

THE UNCONSCIOUS COMEDIAN IN THE THIRD ROW (PDF)

The story begins:

How would you like to go to the theatre expecting to sit next to a friend, find the seat occupied by a stranger whose face was oddly familiar, have your friends visit you between the acts, and gaze curiously at your companion, and then find out the next day that —

Well, the experience of no less a celebrated first nighter than [playwright] Paul M. Potter is the best answer to this hypothetical question. Furthermore, Mr. Potter, who admits the joke is on him, declares that the incident actually took place as described.

What follows is an anecdote that comments on class differences in 1910 as Potter tries to figure out who the fellow sitting next to him is, and how he knows him. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it did make me think about how differently this event would play out today.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 13th, 2010 at 9:00 am

From 1890: The First Text Messages

I’m trying something new today. Sometimes in my research I find an interesting old article that I wouldn’t normally post because it’s not from the Sunday Magazine section, or it’s from further than 100 years ago so I’ll never get to it. Instead of letting these go unused, I figure I’ll occasionally post them midweek during what would otherwise be slow weeks. Since this weekend I only have three articles to post, it seems like a good week to try it.

From November 30, 1890 (a Sunday, although not in the Magazine Section)

FRIENDS THEY NEVER MEET

FRIENDS THEY NEVER MEET: ACQUAINTANCES MADE BY THE TELEGRAPH KEY. CONFIDENCES EXCHANGED BETWEEN MEN WHO HAVE NEVER SEEN EACH OTHER — THEIR PECULIAR CONVERSATION ABBREVIATIONS (PDF)

Telegraph operators on opposite sides of the country had some time to get to know each other when they weren’t busy sending other people’s messages. “Metaphorically they shake hands cordially twice a day — when they begin work and when they end it. And when business is dull they hold long conversations, with hundreds of miles — perhaps thousands — separating them, as two friends might do over a dinner table.”

What really caught my eye, though, is that the abbreviations they used seem a lot like the abbreviations used in today’s text messages.

In their conversations telegraphers use a system of abbreviations which enables them to say considerably more in a certain period of time then they otherwise could. Their morning greeting to a friend in a distant city is usually “g. m.,” and the farewell for the evening, “g. n.,” the letters of course standing for good morning and good night. The salutation may be accompanied by an inquiry by one as to the health of the other, which would be expressed thus: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” or “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.”

By the time these courtesies have taken place some early messages have come from the receiving department or from some other wire, and the man before whom they are placed says to his friend many miles away: “Wl hrs a fu; Gol hang ts everlastin grind. I wish I ws rich.” And the other man says: “No rest fo t wickd, min pen,” the last two words indicating that he wants the sender to wait a minute while he adjusts and tests his pen. Presently he clicks out “g a,” meaning “go ahead,” and the day’s work has begun.

I’m not sure what “Wl hrs a fu” is supposed to mean. But it sounds like “min pen” is an 1890 equivalent of today’s instant messager’s “afk brb.”

A couple months ago (in this blog) but actually 20 years later (in real time), the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an article explaining that these conversations between telegraph operators were how jokes went viral in 1910. So surely there must have been a telegraph equivalent of LOL or ROFL, right?

Operators laugh over a wire, or rather, they convey the fact that they are amused. They do this by telegraphing “ha, ha.” Very great amusement is indicated by sending “ha” slowly and repeating it several times, and a smile is expressed by sending “ha” once or perhaps twice. Transmitting it slowly and repeating it tells the perpetrator of the joke at the other end of the wire that the listener is leaning back in his chair and laughing long and heartily.

So it looks like “ha” was the “LOL” of 1890. And it makes sense, when you consider how easy it is to telegraph “ha” compared to “LOL” or “ROFL” in Morse Code. “Ha” has a nice rhythm to it. Try tapping them out on your desk and see for yourself:

HA: •••• •−
LOL: •−•• −−− •−••
ROFL: •−• −−− ••−• •−••

I was also fascinated to discover that telegraph operators learned to identify each other by how the dots and dashes were transmitted across the wire, and could even distinguish a male operator from a female:

No two operators send alike. The click of the instrument is always the same to the ear of a man who does not understand it, but one operator recognizes the sending of another if he has ever heard it before for any length of time, just as a familiar face is recognized. Operator “Tommy” Snaggs leaves New-York, and, after roaming from one city to another, finally lands in the Galveston (Texas) office and goes to work. He is put down to work a wire running to Kansas City. The man in Kansas City begins to send. Mr. Snaggs pricks up his ears and interrupts the sender. “Ain’t tt u Billy Robinson?” he asks, and the other man says, “Yes, tts me, & ur ole Tommy Snaggs.” Mr. Snaggs returns, “tts wo I am, I thot I reconized ur sendin.” Then they devote a few moments to telling of their travels. The last time they worked on the same wire one was in Boston and the other in Montreal.

It is a peculiar fact also that an experienced operator can almost invariably distinguish a woman’s sending from a man’s. There is nearly always some peculiarity about a woman’s style of transmission. it is not necessarily a fault. Many women send very clearly and make their dots and dashes precisely as they were intended to be made. It is impossible to describe the peculiarity, but there is no doubt of its existence. Nearly all women have a habit of rattling off a lot of meaningless dots before they say anything. But some men do that too. A woman’s touch is lighter than a man’s, and her dots and dashes will not carry so well on a very long circuit. That is presumably the reason why in all large offices the women are usually assigned to work the wires running to various parts of the cities.

When two operators fight across the telegraph, it’s called a “fight circuit” and it’s pretty futile because it’s impossible for two operators tapping at once to tell what the other is saying. The article tells a humorous old story of one operator who set up a rudimentary chat bot to fight for him (possibly passing the Turing test 22 years before Alan Turing was even born):

They fought for some time. Neither would yield. The man at Albany, who was old and astute, saw that the man at Syracuse, who was young and stubborn, was in for an all-night struggle. The Albany man looked around for a proxy. He found it in the clock wire, which was a wire attached to the clock’s pendulum, the swaying of which acted to open and close the circuit. He connected the Syracuse wire with the clock wire and went home to bed, leaving the Syracuse man valorously battling with the tick-tick, tick-tick of the clock. The old story concludes with the veracious statement that when the Albany man reached the office the next morning he heard the Syracuse man still fighting the clock, and that when the former disconnected the clock wire and closed the circuit the latter snapped out triumphantly, “I downed you at last, did I?”

•••• •− •••• •−.

23 comments

Written by David

August 10th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Humor,Life,Technology

When Future Historian Comes To 1910

From August 7, 1910

WHEN FUTURE HISTORIAN COMES TO 1910

WHEN FUTURE HISTORIAN COMES TO 1910: Will He Look Us Up with Interest, or Pass Us by with a Grunt (PDF)

Back in 1910 the New York Times Sunday Magazine had a regular weekly column in which two characters known as the Office Radical and the Office Philosopher debate two sides of an issue. I’ve read a few of their debates while doing research for this blog, but I haven’t published any of their columns here so far. But this one was too good to pass up.

In this week’s column, they debate whether or not anything interesting has happened in 1910 that would be worth future historians looking at, especially as compared to all the interesting stuff their own historians have to look back on.

The Office Radical is sure that “some future historian will be ransacking the newspaper files and official records of 1910 the same way our present-day historians are ransacking those of, say, 1859 or 1770.”

The Office Philosopher says, “I’ll bet you 10 to 6 he doesn’t look at them for anything but Peary and the airships.”

I read this as I sat in the microforms room of the New York Public Library, doing research for this blog. I’d been researching the other 1910 articles I’ve posted over the last couple months, on topics that do indeed include Robert Peary and airships. And when I saw this discussion my eyes got wide and I thought, “They’re talking about me!”

I felt like Bastian in The NeverEnding Story when he realizes that the book he’s reading is talking specifically about him. Maybe this means I should write a post in which I wonder if future historians will ever look back at blogs of today with the same fascination I have in looking at newspapers of 1910.

So, obviously, I side with the Radical on this one.

One comment

Written by David

August 6th, 2010 at 9:45 am

Outbreak Of The “Gang” Terror In New York City

From August 6, 1910

OUTBREAK OF THE GANG TERROR IN NEW YORK CITY

OUTBREAK OF THE “GANG” TERROR IN NEW YORK CITY: Who Is Responsible for the Revival of Bands of Young Outlaws in This Town? (PDF)

I’m sure this was a real problem for folks back in 1910, but the pictures of young kids gathered around playing games make them seem so harmless compared to gangs of today. Even the gang names, like the Carpenter Gang and the Tanner Smith Terrors, seem so quaint.

The details are a little more gruesome. The kids weren’t just playing craps on the street corner. They were harassing people, verbally and physically. The article describes the dilemmas of the justice system in dealing with kids at the time. What’s a Judge to do when the number of cases before him means that he has less than five minutes to decide a kid’s fate, and he can’t tell if the kid is really penitent for his crimes or just putting on an act?

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 6th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime

A Transatlantic Chase Without The Wireless Or Cable

From August 7, 1910

A TRANSATLANTIC CHASE WITHOUT THE WIRELESS OR CABLE

A TRANSATLANTIC CHASE WITHOUT THE WIRELESS OR CABLE (PDF)

This article was written after British detectives solved a murder that would become one of Britain’s most famous criminal cases. The murder was solved with the help of the latest technology: radio communication.

This prompted the New York Times Sunday Magazine to look back at a case in the 1860s that was solved without any of these fancy luxuries. It just took old fashioned footwork and a bit of luck. The story starts on a train, where a first class compartment showed signs of a deadly struggle. Hours later, a body was found. The only clue was a hat that did not belong to the victim.

Read the article to find out how the case was solved.

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 6th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in True Crime

Grafting On The Indians And How It Is Done

From August 7, 1910

GRAFTING ON THE INDANS AND HOW IT IS DONE

GRAFTING ON THE INDIANS AND HOW IT IS DONE: How Our “Century of Dishonor” Has Been Replaced by an Era of Plain Swindling (PDF)

This is a somewhat depressing and startlingly frank look at how Americans were swindling native tribes out of their land. It is nice to know that even in 1910 people already realized that the Native Americans were not treated fairly. For some reason I had a notion that this sort of guilt was a more modern perspective on history. It turns out that a lot of eye-opening was due to a woman named Helen Hunt Jackson, whose book A Century of Dishonor, published 30 years earlier, brought a lot of moral injustice to light.

The article uses her book as a jumping off point and brings readers up to date on how the Native Americans were still being taken advantage of:

When the Five Nations were moved westward-ho, to make room for a civilization that had no particular use for them, they were paid for their lands and were given over 19,000,000 acres in what is now Oklahoma. Here they were to live as they wanted to live, and hunt or farm just as they liked, unmolested by the white man. It was a good theory, but it did not work. It was, in fact, about the most conspicuous failure the Nation ever made.

As we grew and waxed fat we extended anxious eyes toward Oklahoma. The Indian land was, unfortunately for them, very good land. No sooner did we grasp this fact than we felt we must take up the white man’s burden.

Should that land be unopened merely because the owners preferred it that way? Never. The march of civilization cannot be stopped. The Indian must be civilized, which meant he must let in the white man. It is a great saving of time to belong to a race made exactly right; whenever we meet people made differently it is proved, without any argument, that whatever they like or do is wrong. It was very simple in the case of the Indian.

It was done in this fashion. Beginning in 1887 certain severalty acts were passed conferring citizenship on any Indian who would give up tribal life and take up land individually. In 1891 this offer was extended to the Five Nations in Oklahoma…

It is not to be supposed that the Indians had anything to do with this arrangement. The white man took, along with his other burdens, that of deciding that the Indian should sell his land.

So it was sold.

It gets worse, detailing individual stories of Native Americans being taken advantage of. It’s probably an important read, but it might not leave you in the best mood. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find free eBook editions of A Century of Dishonor here

Leave a comment

Written by David

August 6th, 2010 at 9:00 am