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Telephone 1876 lockyer detail
There are many facets in the history of the future that sound very familiar and true, making it shocking to realize what a long timeline some presumably modern things have. For example, take the issue of the superiority of children to understand newly-arrived technological innovations. It seems as though children need to be shown exactly once how to access a certain segment of a program or how to program the television. It is perhaps a modern conceit that this issue belongs with us in the present and to the children of these children, somewhere in unfolding technological future. But this was certainly the case in 1876, with the (very) new technological breakthrough, the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell was not the first to the invention of the telephone–this is one of those breakthroughs that was 'in the air" (like the electric telegraph, and the hypothesis on the background radiation of the creation of the universe, and television, and Cubism), and in several issues of the standard-keeper scientific journal Nature for 1876 there are several articles discussing the telephone which do not mention Bell. For example Antonio Meucci in 1849, Charles Bourseul in 1854, Johann Philipp Reis in 1860, Elisha Gray in 1874, and Thomas Edison in 1875, all came close to the practical application of the idea of the 'speaking telephone", but it was Bell who ruled the day with the superior design and the patent award. It was Gray who came closest of all to winning the future, beaten in the accounting department at the Patent Office by Bell by only a few hours, both his and Bell's patents received on 12 February 1876. (Gray's patent was actually received earlier in the morning than Bell's, but it was Bell's attorney who insisted on his patent being recorded immediately in the accounting ledger, with Gray's patent entered into the books two hours later, resulting in the awarding of the telephone patent to Bell. Ouch).

The August 24, 1876 issue of Nature contained a compact article (uncredited but written by the editor, the esteemed astronomer/astrophysicist Norman Lockyer) on the recent extravagances in electrical development, and included a long section on the telephone. Bell's name was not mentioned, and Lockyer concentrated on the work of Reuss and Gray. He also wrote about the use of the telephone, which does not yet involve the use of the instrument for voice communication. As in an earlier article in the same journal by J. Munro ("On the Telephone, an Instrument for Transmitting Musical Notes by Means of Electricity".London, Nature: May 11, 1876. Pp 30-32 and concentrating mostly on the Gray telephone), Lockyer discusses one application of the telephone in the transmission of music. (He does mention the remarkable experiments of Bourbouze, who in 1870 attempted to use the Seine as a conductor between two stations, those being two bridges, each outfitted with electric piles, enabling the transmission of information without wires–but that's for another post).

Lockyer writes about "the germ of notable improvements to be made on the electric telegraph", that

"in its present state, the invention is so complete that we can, at a distance, repeat one or more pianos the air played by a similar instrument at the point of departure. There is a possibility here, we must admit, of a curious use of electricity. When we are going to have a dinner party, there will be no need to provide a musician. By paying a subscription to some enterprising individual, who will, no doubt, come forward to work in this vein, we can have from him, a waltz, a quadrille, or a gallop, just as we may desire. Simply turn a bell handle, as we do a cock of a water or gas-pipe, and we shall be supplied with what we want".

Lockyer finishes with this great line: "Perhaps our children may find the thing simple enough".

My initial reaction is great surprise, that this feeling about children coming to understand a new technology quickly/instantly reaches (in evidence) back to 1876. How far back in time does this sentiment or realization reach? Is it ancient? I've never really thought about it, but now that I have, a little, and been presented with hard evidence that the sentiment reaches back into the 19th century, that it might as well reach all the way back, deep into dusty history–even pre-dusty. In any event, even though it is a little difficult for me to ascertain Lockyer's real feelings about the use of the new instrument, his reaction to children and technology seems to be an honest belief.

(I actually have a series of original early papers on the telephone (1876-1878) including the one below, offered on the bookstore section of this blog, here).

Telephone 1876 lockyer

Telephone 1876 munro

JF Ptak Science Books

Underground working steep102


Looking at these two images of the shirtless miner laying down and working on his side in the semi-dark way underground in what looks to be a tunnel about twice the width of his shoulders makes you wonder about how in the name of great bog could people have done this, day in and day out. The fact that the appearance of these images were both essential and mundane further tells us—as we sit here in a comfortable chair in the print’s future—that this is, simply, what people did, and what they had to do.

This was “holing”, as in working in a hole, and served to illustrate a point in Mr. M.G. Johnson’s paper “The Working of Steep Seams”, which I think appeared in a West Australian mining journal around 1900. So, it seems, the guy, the worker, in the picture would spend his day chunking coal from a hard vein, laying down, scrapping (I think) away at the coal in a too-tight tunnel. Did he do this for hours? Days? Weeks? I guess the bad answer is that he did this as long as the coal could be followed. (Also, it looks as though that the major tunnel in which the coal car is located may be 4 or 5 shoulders high—certainly not tall enough to walk in, which means that this guy could’ve crab-walked to this position for a half mile or more, just to get to work. The tenacity of this worker to do his work and collect his pay to feed his family was just incredible.

The first image really doesn't need much commentary, though calling the worker a "tugger boy" pulling up a "hudge" was probably a bit of sardonic camraderie–except that the doing of the job would distance you from its folksy name. Well, that, or the "tugger boy" really is referring to a boy, as we see in the followlign mining definition: "Tugger boy (Brist). One who draws small tubs or sleds underground by
means of a tugger. Called Tugger-work. (Gresley), 1883). The depiction of what seems to be a mature man in the image might be a piece of propaganda. In any event, the Tugger Boy carries his own flame on the top of his headgear, and the chain that attaches him to the heavy coal bucket runs from his waste down the front of his body and through his legs. Very hard work needless to say–harder yet done by a child.

George Orwell wrote perhaps one of the most brilliant descriptions of the mining environment in his superb The Road to Wigan Pier. (It is well worth reading all of Orwell’s books at this point—his insights almost never looked so fresh.)


He describes the crab-walk from the elevator to the place of work, telling how difficult and exhausting the process was of just getting to the place where you would then begin your difficult workday. Of the miners he says at one point: “Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above.” Read more here.

The next series of images come from the pen of W Heath Robinson (1872-1944) who was a lovely, quirky, charming, skewed, dark, stiff-bouncing and creative illustrator capable of considerable whimsy (light and complex) and deep skepticism. The images I’ve selected are from one of his three WWI books, Hunlikely, published in 1916 ( Some "Frightful" War Pictures (1915), and Flypapers (1919), were the other two) and depict scenes from the intra-trench tunnel wars, which were battles fought in the midst (or, actually, beneath) other battles. This was a savage, grueling, post-adjectival affair—exceedingly dangerous, difficult, awful. And it happened a lot during the war, given the experience of stalemates between vast armies sunk into mole city trenches, with no one going anywhere for long periods because there was nothing in between the two impervious lines but a death vacuum. So one of the solutions was to try and tunnel underneath the opposing army’s defenses, fill the far end with high explosives, and blow them up. The other side was doing it too, and in the middle of it all was the incorporation of newer/better listening devices to detect forces rummaging around underneath your position dozens of feet into the ground. It was a bad business. (One of the other means of breaching the trench lines was aerial combat, but bombers carrying tons of HE were still yet to be invented; poison gas was another. Most of the time the armies would just meet in the middle in wide plains of nothingness in a sea of hot, expanding metal, where to this day in many of those places nothing can live).


Robinson’s illustrations are odd, and oddly funny, the dark humor coming at the expense of both sides of the conflict, piercing

This puts me in mind of Tom Waits’ concrete-toothed “There’s A
World Going On Underground” (1983) song from the Swordfishtrombones album.

Rattle big black bones in the danger zone
There's a rumblin' groan down below
There's a big dark town, it's a place I've found
There's a world going on underground

They're alive, they're awake
While the rest of the world is asleep
Below the mine shaft roads, it will all unfold
There's a world going on underground

All the roots hang down, swing from town to town
They are marching around down under your boots
All the trucks unload beyond the gopher holes
There's a world going on underground


JF Ptak Science Books Post 1981

“The most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with little bodily labor, may write books in philosophy, poetry, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels (Actually, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships) . 1726.

I've produced the beginning of an alphabet of –Punkisms for variations of robot.machine/computer past and futures, science fiction indicators of possibility. Why should we stop at "Steampunk" when there's FuturePunk and DeadPunk and such to be had? So, please find folllowing a few possibilities, and accept them in the playful way in which they are offered–also, the very abbreviated descriptions of the science fiction works desscribed are open to interpretation. And please give this a "pass" for the over-abundance of hyphens.


ActorPunk: Walter Miller, 'The Darfsteller' (1954), human actors are replaced by robots on stage, as compared to being replaced by digital figures online. Some steps have been made with great care over the years by “perfecting” the imaging of women in magazine advertisement—in this way even the models who appear in the ad and are modified find it impossible to live up to the expectations of what their ads depict.

Anti-technologicalPunk-topia: Samuel Butler, Erewhon, (1872).

AutomatoPunk: Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1955), like Brazil and 1984, but with machines.


BiologoPunk: Philip K. Dick, 'Autofac' (1955), machines find that they can reproduce themselves in a '50's iron-bio kind of way.

BrainPunk: Miles J. Breuer, 'Paradise and Iron' (1930).


ConsciousnessPunk: Philip K. Dick, Vulcan's Hammer (1960) and the development of computer consciousness. Also David Gerrold, When Harlie Was One (1972);
Frank Herbert, Destination Void (1966); Harlan Ellison, 'I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream' (1967); Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and many others.

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For some reason this particular defensive utility of the binocular/rangefinder/"scherenfernohr" hadn't occurred to me before seeing this photograph (in the September 1915 issue of Himmel und Erde). Of course with the many billions of rounds of ammo that flew across open fields during the war, if it was your job to sight for artillery or what have you it would be better to do that from a trench (as this instrument was also known as a "trench periscope", as varieties of the binoculars could have vertical tubes) and behind cover, or if in the field to be able to find a defensive position for your work. I hadn't thought about standing behind a tree with the scope's optics wide enough to operate beyond the diameter of the trunk–seeing the picture made me think, "of course". On the other hand, this posture assumes that there's very little flank to that field…


JF Ptak Science Books Post 1979 Follow Me on Pinterest

Computer head089I'm unsure of when the first images appear representing the human mind as a sort of anthropomorphic filing system, utilizing a desk or filing cabinet or (later) a computer. From the early history of human memory-making mnemonic devices and memory palaces there are represnetations of where information in the brain could be stored for rapid access and retrieval, like memories being stored in rows of theater seating, or in the branches of complex trees, or in the buildings of a bird's eye street map. But these show where the memory "goes", and not where this memory set sits in the brain of the individual.

Memory palace
(An example of a memory palace, from Giulio Camillo, L'idea del Theatro, 1550, from Bourbakisme blog).

This came to mind seeing this odd little ad in the magazine Illustrated World for July 1919 seeing these fairly high-creep factor faces endowed with different sorts of cerebral applications. The top man is depicted with a messy desk and a hand-cranked calculator; at bottom we see the organized man, with papers sorted in their labeled places. (As it turns out, the image used for a company selling memory-improvement books).

Perhaps this image was in a small way a pre-historic insight to brain computer interface (the acquired, direct signal processing of the brain to a computer), in the same way, say, as Hans Berger's 1924 invention of the electroencephologram, where we can actually see electrical activity of the brain displayed on a piece of paper. Of course, one image is a simple semi-folly to help hawk a mostly-useless huckerter book on memory improvement, while the other is a bona fide medical breakthrough. But in similar ways they were insights into looking at the activity of the brain in connection to an external resource.

In 1944 there was something else, something quite different allocated to the Leonardo-like head, something far in advance of the filing system of 1919: the computer.

This may well be the first public, popular, report on the Harvard Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) (appearing in the American Weekly, 15 October 1944), the first automatic, general-purpose, digital calculator. Known as the MARK 1, it was the brainchild of Howard Aiken (1900-1973), a graduate student at Harvard, who started it all in 1937 by proposing a series of coordinated Monroe calculators to function as a unified whole that would cross the threshold of the physically-impossible calculation (though theoretically possible) to the eminently doable. The project was immeasurably aided by the input of Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley (who had earlier dealt with the enormously problematic aspects of the scale of the universe) who put Aiken in the hands of IBM at Endicott (NY). From there the building of the computer came under the supervision of Clair D. Lake, with the engineering and theoretical team of Francis Hamilton, Ben Durfee and Howard Aiken.

The machine was basically completed in 1943 and tested in Endicott for the better part of the year before it was shipped of to Harvard in February 1944, where it was put almost instantly to work on ballistic calculations (like its cousin ENIAC at the Moore School at U Penn), as well as naval engineering and design issues.

The author of this article, Gordind Bhari Lal (“noted science analyst”), actually does a pretty decent job describing the machine and its (1940’s) possibilities, noting at the end that “it may even unleash for Man’s Use the long-dreamed-of energy of the atom”. This part did come true, especially post-war, when the machine was put to fair use by the US Atomic Energy Commission.

The part I really don’t understand in this article is comparing the speed and function of the ASCC to two women working on calculators and Albert Einstein, working with a pencil, paper and pipe, none of whom look comfortable or happy. (Actually the dresses on the women look a little hiked-up to me, just a little too high.) Lal does make a decent comparative point (of uncertain veracity) about four generations of humans (the three above-mentioned calculators?) doing calculations that the ASCC could do in seconds. Right or wrong, it gave the crowds in 1944 a real something to think about.


And so at the end of this post I believe that the representation of the brain as a mechanical device is relatively new, and I wonder if it isn't a mostly-20th century creation. Finding images of SteamPunk humans and robots and such roaming their ways through the literature in the 1920's-1950's is fairly easy, but showing the stuff inside the head and representations of how the mechanical brain was functioning seems to be a different matter.

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The idea of creating an economy from a previously dead clientelle–the very after-market dead person–is relatively new. Once a middle class or lower working class with disposable income was created, celebrating the care of the dead was a paying option opened to the millions of families who were not the fastidious and celebratory wealthy. Once the notion of having other people take care of the dearly departed became a part of the popular ritual of dealing with the dead, an entire new industry was born–spawning other related and associated industries for supplying the dead-care-givers with amenities and notions and necessities of a previously unthunk and unthinkable nature. For example, the idea of needing to shave a corpse became an issue after it became fashionable to allow several days or more to pass between death and burial. Beards and hair grow in death, so the people caring for the body and its display now were ordained an issue of economy in nultiple shavings of a corpse. Now that may or may not have been an issue, but it was certainly presented as a possibility by the incredibly-named "Razorless Post- Mortem Shave Co."

Deadpunk shave

{Many thanks to reader Max W for providing the information for the correct information for the citation of the above image–the magazine is Casket & Sunnyside for January 1912, and there are ample references to it in Charles Addams and Jessica Mitford.] The worry for the consideration of the cost of a shave (15 cents) for a dead person seems quite an inescapable weirdness and luxury. The weirdness of the name of the company nearly obscures it common nature–it isn't exactly the Acme Corpse Company, but it is close to it, and it addresses just one small bit of minuatiae of deadness in the vast sea of Dead, Inc.

The sellers of the razorless post-mortem shave equipment didn't receive a patent for their process–nor did anyone else, for that matter, at least so far as I can determine.

Here are some further examples of Dead, Inc/DeadPunk patented death appliances:

Post-mortem skull examination facilitator:

Postmortem Underwear for the prevention of dead leakage and deodorization:

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1973 Follow Me on Pinterest

This ad appeared only 59 years ago–that's four generations in dog years, two human generations (or one for the more later-in-life crew, which is appealing as I knew a man whose grandfather was born in the 18th century), and 15 generations in managing data and communications. Perhaps more. It is difficult to imagine the intense surprise that attended this ad showing a practical and popular adaptation of a communications breakthrough.

Telephone future064

The electromagnetic telegraph, which is arguably the first electrically-powered iteration of the internet, was in the works from the 1820's until it was nailed by Samuel Morse in 1837. It was 40 years to the development of the Bell telephone (another dramatic example of an invention/technological idea/breakthrough that was "in the wind", a popular undiagnosed monumental meme, some decades in the making in the hands of Bell anbd Reiss and Meucci and Gray and even Edison). Two more decades (just past the turn of the century) until more-widespread wireless telegraphy, another two decades after that (1920's) for poular radio, and another two decades after that (post WWII/1950's) for popular television broadcating. 120 years between the patented invention of the Morse telegraph to 50 million Americans with televisions in 1955.

The "telephone" of 2013 is as removed as the telephone of 1955 as the telephone of 1955 was removed from the electromagnetic telegraph–we're not meeting half-way in the meeting of improbable impossible worlds, of worlds of the future unimagined in the past. That is what comes to mind when I see this add for the speaking telephone in 1954–the astounding, astonishing, speaking telephone, the phone that allowed you to not have the receiver to the ear, tht allowed you to do free-hand work and communicate at the same time. It was an ambitious improvement, and as soon as the phone appeared, it became a standard of necessity if that necessity was within budget.

It is the weight of surprise that is so abundant looking at pictures like this, giving us the opportunity to imagine the surprise elements of another time. It may well be that the new 1954 user of the speakerphone would have looked at the first telephone systems of 1894 as we look on that 1954 telephone today. Probably not so, though, probably it was much more imaginable to have forseen the 1954 possibilities in 1894 than for 1954 to have seen in the same amount of time to 2013: the technological pieces necessary for part of that imagination had not yet been invented, the science ahead of the scifi.

The other part of this surprise element is that 1954 is well within living memory, and that this combinaiton of technology and physics and mathematics has grown so incredibly from the speakerphone to the massive changes in 2013–it is as surprising to imagine this as to imagine the same scenario for what ahppened a year before in biology: it is difficult to grasp the sweeping changes in that field from the identification of DNA in 1953 and how far those fields have come since.

I think that if one could quantify this sort of "surprise" that the greatest amount of "Surprise Integers" (or whatever) ever recorded would have taken place within these past 50 or 60 years. Which makes me wonder–will people 59 years hence see the pictures of our fabulous accomplishments in 2013 as quaint reminders of how much things changed between 2013 and 2072? Will those "Surprise Integers" be as great for that period of time as the ("our") preceding period with concomitant revolutions in thought? My guess is "yes"–its just hard to imagine.

JF Ptak Science Books Daily Dose from Dr. Odd

Grazing the issues for 1920 in the Popular Mechanics-esque popular-techno-magazine, Illustrated World, I found this superb near-Dadaist photograph. The image is for a free weighing station, where people could come and have their stuff weighed, and weighed for free. This no doubt came into being to help protect consumers from being under-weighted and over-charged for their weighed goods like butter and whatever, where their good grocer might have had a thumb or more on the scale or even used a crooked/salted scale when selling their goods. What someone would do at the point of being told that their stuff was overweighed, I don't know–I mean these are people walking around in the street with things in their pockets or bags….its not exactly "evidence" showing up at the weigh station (staffed by "a woman") saying that the half-pound blob roll in their hand was sold them as a pound on their word of the purchaser probably wouldn't stand up in court. In any event, I like the idea of the story of the world being told from the viewpoint of the person weighing stuff for free, and the people who came to them, and the stuff brought to be weighed. Maybe there were weighing-in groupies; maybe there were old people who would just kick up a rock or something and take it to the weigh station for a bit of conversation and complaint on the over-weighted state of geology. Maybe between 12:00 and 1:00 the weighers weighed stuff out-back, sotto voce, for fun.

If only there was a sign for "no waiting" this photo would be complete.

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This thinking stick comes to us via the courtesy of the Scientific American Supplement (19 August 1876, page 542), and shows a lovely Victorian non-SteamPunk answer to on-the-run calculation. It is an almost-elegant device, and seems as though it should work just fine. Its utility as a writing instrument seems a bit limited, as seems the calculator part, but the whole of it seems to be full of possibility–and a very nice piece of dedicated thinking.

[Text describing the invention below.]

Other nice examples of adding/writing found in the U.S. Patent Office via GooglePatents are seen below:

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