Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

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)



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?”

•••• •− •••• •−.


Written by David

August 10th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Humor,Life,Technology

Freak Patents That Have Come In With The Aeroplane

From July 31, 1910


FREAK PATENTS THAT HAVE COME IN WITH THE AEROPLANE: Would-Be Inventors Keep the Department at Washington Busy With Schemes That Sound Flighty. (PDF)

The illustrations and descriptions of crazy flying contraptions that people applied for patents on (sometimes successfully) are fantastic. I managed to find one of the actual patents for a machine mentioned in the article that’s powered by birds. I think the technical drawings in the patent are even better than the illustrations shown here. Check it out. It’s powered by eagles!

Here’s how the article describes that invention:

From gay Paree comes Edouard Wulff, with a patented scheme for flying by means of “eagles, vultures, or condors.” True to the instincts of his native city, he fits out his birds with “corsets,” the specifications of which as to trimmings, binding, etc., are carefully set out.

By a strange oversight for one bred in the city of fashions, he fails to state what is the latest mode of wearing the feathers on his motors. With wise foresight he has provided for two aeronauts, one on top among the birds and the other below to steer the craft. This is sensible; a man busy prodding up a dozen uncouth and bewildered condors wouldn’t have much time for steering.

Not all of the inventions are outrageous in hindsight. The article takes a mocking tone at a proposed airship so big it has several floors and resembles a hotel, but of course we have multilevel jumbo jets today, some with luxury approaching that of hotels, so it wasn’t so far fetched.

Most of the invention descriptions in the article are too vague for me to find the original patents (if they truly even reached the application stage), but you can find a lot of this kind of thing using Google’s patent search engine. Here is a link to search “flying machine” or “airship” with results displayed visually in chronological order.

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Written by David

July 30th, 2010 at 10:15 am

If You Are Bald You’ll Stay Bald

From July 24, 1910


IF YOU ARE BALD YOU’LL STAY BALD: That’s What a Tonsorial Artist Says and He Always Has His Reasons Therefor (PDF)

The logic here seems to be: If there were a cure for baldness, barbers would know about it. Barbers don’t know about it. Therefore there is no cure for baldness. Modus tollens.

But the real gem is this quote: “Some are born bald. Some achieve baldness. Some have baldness thrust upon them… The born bald usually get over it and live to get it again.” Sage words.

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Written by David

July 23rd, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Humor,Life,Science

Strange Fashions In Burial Robes

From July 10, 1910


STRANGE FASHIONS IN BURIAL ROBES: How the Whims of Various Eccentric People as to How They Should Be Clothed in Death Are Carried Out (PDF)

Not surprisingly, a lot of women wanted to be buried in the wedding dresses. And one woman wanted to be buried in all her expensive furs so that none of her feuding relatives could have them. But this story is my favorite:

“One of the oddest whims I have ever been called upon to humor was that of the man who insisted on going to his grave wrapped in the traditional sheet. He sent for me several days before he died and explained his fancy.

“I misunderstood him at first. I thought he meant an ordinary white shroud… But he quickly corrected that impression.

“‘I don’t mean anything of the kind,’ he said. ‘I want to be buried in a sheet — a plain, every-day white sheet.’

“For once my curiosity got the better of my good manners.

“‘I will do as you ask, of course,’ I said, ‘but will you kindly tell me why you want to be dressed in that peculiar style?’

“The old fellow’s answer fairly staggered me.

“‘Because I am going to do a good deal of haunting when I’m through with the flesh,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to take the sheet along with me, so there will be no delay about getting down to business. I’m going to leave lots of people behind who have been playing me mean tricks all their lives. I have never been able to get back at them in my present state, but just wait till I get clear of these fetters, and if I don’t haunt them good and hard and make them wish they’d done the square thing by me when they had a chance it won’t be my fault.’

“I couldn’t make it out then, and I have not been able to make out since, whether the old chap was downright crazy or just eccentric,” concluded the undertaker. “Any way, it was not my business to investigate his mental condition. My business was to bury him in a sheet, so long as he asked me to and was willing to pay for it, and I performed my part of the transaction to the letter.”

I’m skeptical, though. The undertaker is never named, and being buried in a white sheet doesn’t seem like so outrageous a request that it would prompt such surprise. The more I come across articles like this, the more I think 1910 must have been a weird time to live.

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Written by David

July 9th, 2010 at 10:00 am

Posted in Humor,Life

O. Henry (Sidney Porter) As His Intimates Knew Him

From June 12, 1910


“O. HENRY” (SIDNEY PORTER) AS HIS INTIMATES KNEW HIM: Quiet, Modest, Reserved, He Avoided the Limelight and Found Happiness in Odd Corners of New York That Furnished Types and Plots for His Delightful Stories (PDF)

O. Henry, author of famous stories including The Gift of the Magi died on June 5, 1910. In this article, the New York Times Magazine writes a nice remembrance.

You can download several of his stories for free at Project Gutenberg.

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Written by David

June 11th, 2010 at 9:10 am

Posted in Humor,Literature

Passing A Good Joke Along The Wire

From June 12, 1910



Today viral jokes spread by email, Twitter, or blogs. But in 1910, jokes went viral by telegraph, and not how you might think:

[The reporter asks] “Do you mean to say that there are people so anxious to spring a new joke that they will go to the expense of telegraphing it to their friends?”

[The telegraph operator responds] “No; no one goes to the expense — that’s on the telegraph company. You see, it’s this way: The operators at all the big telegraph centres over the country have a speaking acquaintance with each other. They call each other by first names, though the chances are that they haven’t the slightest idea of each other’s appearance. During the night the wires are often quiet. Now, suppose a message has just been sent from New York to Buffalo; for the time being there is nothing more to be dispatched, and no other operator is trying to get the wire. In this case the telegraph instrument in Buffalo is very apt to click off, ‘Say, Jim, I just heard a new story. It’s a good one,’ and the story follows.

“When Jim at Buffalo gets Jack at Chicago or Pete at St. Louis on an idle wire, the new story is passed along. And so in a single night a cracking good story may be passed from New York to San Francisco.”

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Written by David

June 11th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Humor,Life,Technology

Circus Clown A Serious Person Out Of The Ring

From May 15, 1910


CIRCUS CLOWN A SERIOUS PERSON OUT OF THE RING: Yet People Refuse to Believe He Is Anything But a Buffoon Even in His Private Life (PDF)

The same week the Magazine published a boring article about what the Supreme Court Justices are really like out of the courtroom, it made up for it with this awesome article about what circus clowns are really like out of the ring. The highlight is this interview with a then-famous clown named Slivers:

“It’s funny,” said Slivers, his eyes resting thoughtfully on his circus feet: “it’s funny how people can’t understand that we clowns are fellow-human animals with just about the same outfit of feelings that the rest of ’em have. I suppose it’s because people have become so accustomed to seeing the clown always getting the worst end of it in the circus ring that they’ve come to think that he’s built to stand the same kind of a hand-out all along the line.

“Do you see that?” asked Slivers, pointing to a long white scar just below his right eyebrow.

“Now, you’d never guess how I picked that up. It’s a little souvenir of my last appearance in Chicago. I was just entering the ring when a young hopeful out with his dad for an afternoon’s amusement shied an old can at me. The ragged edges of the tin caught me. As I mopped the blood out of my eye I was comforted by this conversation:

“‘Say, Pa, did you see me hit that clown?’

“‘Yes, son.’

“‘It was a corking shot, wasn’t it, Pa?’

“‘It was, my son.’

“I couldn’t miss my cue to get busy in the ring. Otherwise that young hopeful’s trousers would have needed patching.”

The article is funny, quaint, and sad. But the story of Slivers the Clown was about to turn creepy and tragic.

Three years after this article (in 1913), Slivers — a.k.a. Frank Oakley — played a vaudeville show in Utica on the same bill as a pretty blonde 16 year old girl named Viola Stoll. Viola was sad one day because she lost her job, so Slivers, in his mid-40s, offered her a ticket to New York where she could get back on her feet. There they became friends and eventually she moved in with him.

At some point Viola got sick of living with an older man and ran away, taking some expensive jewelry with her that had belonged to Slivers’ deceased ex-wife (she later said she thought the jewelry was a gift). The police tracked her down, arrested her, and she was sentenced to three years in a reformatory.

Two and a half years later, Slivers happened to run into Viola’s mother in Chicago, and found out that Viola is doing much better now. So Slivers’ thoughts oddly turned to marriage. If Viola were to marry him, she would be let out of her sentence early, so why on Earth would she say no? He went to the reformatory, and told the superintendent Mrs. Moore that he wanted to marry Viola.

But, as the New York Times reported later:

Viola Stoll had come to look at things in a new light. She had had enough of the stage, she said; she wanted some quiet place to settle down. She was looking for a home, and partnership with a traveling clown didn’t appeal to her. Moreover, she had forgotten the man who had paid her railroad fare to New York when she was stranded in Utica, and remembered only the man thirty years older than herself who had taken her into an irregular household, and had finally accused her of stealing jewels that she had regarded as a gift. So she said she wouldn’t marry [him] under any circumstances; that she would serve her term, and she begged Mrs. Moore not to let the clown know of her whereabouts after she left the reformatory.

Mrs. Moore sent the message to Slivers, but before the letter arrived, Slivers the Clown had already committed suicide. Presumably, Viola’s rejection had reached him another way.

You can read the 1916 Times article about Slivers’ death here (pdf). And a much more detailed account can be found at comedy-film historian Anthony Balducci’s blog. There you can read the details that make the story even stranger, like the fact that Slivers’ comedy partner Marceline also committed suicide. I think it’s the only known clown team double suicide.


Written by David

May 14th, 2010 at 9:13 am

Rearing Babies By Scientific Methods

From May 8, 1910



A weird bit of humor. I’m not sure what movement in child care was happening at the time that prompted this piece, but I thought I’d post it anyway as an oddity.

At least, I think it’s supposed to be humor.

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Written by David

May 7th, 2010 at 9:03 am

Mark Twain — Philosopher Of Democracy

From April 24, 1910


MARK TWAIN — PHILOSOPHER OF DEMOCRACY: The Serious Side of the Famous Humorist Whose Dominant Note Was Love of Liberty and Hate of Shams (PDF)

Mark Twain died 100 years ago this week, on April 20, 1910. The following Sunday, the Times ran this remembrance of him on the front page of the Magazine Section.


Written by David

April 23rd, 2010 at 9:05 am

Scientific Play For Children

From April 3, 1910



This article outlines rules for playing tag, based upon rules adopted by the International Playtime Committee on Juvenile Sports. It took me a minute to realize that this article is not serious, but is an example of turn-of-the-last-century humor. Here are some of the rules:

I. — Tag is a game in which three or more players try to touch each other, not for money, but for fun, and with their hands.

II. — It may be played by any child over two and under ninety who is strong in wind and limb, and who has the time to devote to it.

III. — The player who is appointed by lot to touch the others is called “IT.” He should be able to stand on his feet and run if he is to be at all expert in the game.

It goes on to explain Rule XI, which describes the end of the game as “when all the players are out of breath.” Rule XII admonishes against playing in a parlor full of Chippendale furniture. And Rule XIII explains that there are no winners in tag, only a loser.

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Written by David

April 2nd, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Posted in Humor,Science