(A great place to start if you're new here is my Wide Spacing Roadmap.)

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools' Day Origin Stories

A tale of rape and prostitution, religion and science, fish and birds.

Note: Even though I am publishing this on April Fools Day, and about April Fools Day, I swear it is all true.  Well, not so much true as accurate.  That is, stuff here may be made up, but it wasn't made up by me.  But, because I'm rushing to get this out today, I won't bother with adding any sources.  Or with things like poof-reading.

While some sources say that April Fools Day, sometimes also called All Fools Day, began around 1700, it's pretty clear that it's older than that.  But in the 1700s and 1800s April Fools Day was all about “making an April Fool”, that is turning a person into an April Fool.  One source bragged that someone had “made over a hundred April Fools” (not a direct quote, just from memory).    In other words, he tricked over a hundred people.  While today, the trick can be all sorts of things, at that time the focus seemed to be almost exclusively sending people on foolish errands (and may well be the origin of the “fool's errand” as a common idiom).  (Note: I just made up that connection about “fool's errand” and while it could well be true it does mean I lied up at the top there where I said I wouldn't make anything up.  Sorry.)

It was apparently such a big problem that some sources describe the difficulty in getting people to perform errands on April first, on the grounds that it was probably just an attempt to make them into an April Fool.

One claim I see in a few sources is that April Fool's Day came about because of the change in Europe from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar.  New Year's Day was apparently frequently celebrated on March 25th or thereabouts and somehow this means that people who were celebrating the New Year on this schedule were out-of-date, and therefore fools.  There's a few problems with this.  For one, there seem to be sources that refer to the April Fool custom before the Gregorian calendar was adopted (for example, a 1539 Flemish source that I read a convincing description of somewhere).  The other problem is that under the Julian Calendar, New Year's Day was actually January first also.  The practice of celebrating New Years Day in March was a local custom that was just as out-of-step with the real calendar before this change as it was after.

Clipped from Theorica Della Compositione Dell' Vniverso Et Delle Cavse Della Nvova Riforma Dell' Anno, 1582
It has something to do with the Gregorian calendar.
Just to confuse this issue, there is another holiday, called “The Feast of Fools”, which traditionally took place on January first.  And possibly before that on November first.  And then there's also a “Feast of the Ass” that existed at some point, perhaps on April 12th, but it doesn't seem to be connected.

The Rape of the Sabine Women, Sebastiano Ricci, ca. 1700
(There are a bajillion paintings of this event.  Seriously you say "rape" and painters are like "I'm there".)
A few different sources (which are not parallel and so it could be case of later sources all quoting one single earlier source) seem to say that this tradition arose in response to a bit of Roman history: the Rape of the Sabines.  (In which “rape” meant that they were abducted to be taken as wives, and some sources make a point of clarifying this different use of the word “rape”, but I'm figuring if they were abducted to be wives there was probably something happening that in modern terms we would still call rape.)  Apparently this is a real, true bit of Roman History (which could of course be a myth), in which some Romans convinced the Sabines that they were going to have a sort of Olympics for the god Neptune, and why don't you come here and compete and bring all your wives.  And they did, and the Romans killed the men and took the women.  And this occurred on April first, and today we celebrate the rape and kidnapping and murder by playing cruel jokes on each other.   For some reason this origin story doesn't seem to be very popular any more.

"Scomber Le Maquereau", Poissons de Mer, Aalbert Flamen, ca. 1660
The next one isn't so much an origin story, as a rambling study of French slang.  Apparently the expression in France for “April Fool” is “poisson d'Avril”, which literally means “April fish”.  It's pretty clear that the April Fool tradition has been in France for quite a while, and is one place to look for a real origin story.  Certainly we find this expression “poisson d'Avril” in sources going pretty far back pretty easily.  But this could be because the expression also means “pimp” (or as they said back then “bawd” or perhaps “pander” which allegedly comes from the Shakespeare character Pandarus, although as with any origin story it could be older than that and Shakespeare was referring to the word in the naming of the character.  Who knows, history is a mess.)  This connection could come about because another french slang word for pimp was mackerel (“maquereau” or “maquereaux”). And the same expression also seems to mean effeminate man (and in that old sense might have been a way of referring to gay men.  Yes this is me making stuff up again.)  This seems to be because mostly women ran brothels, not men.  At any rate, the jump from “mackerel” which was a fish caught in April to “April fish” as alternate terms for pimp is not so great.  None of which clarifies the connection to the tradition of foolish errands at all, although it certainly could be related to the ideas of tricks on April Fools Day, and the modern phrase “turning a trick” which is a term related to prostitution.  (I'm completely making this connection up though.)

From Histoire de France. Le Blog La France pittoresque (Not sure about actual origin.)
Despite that dual usage, it's still pretty clear from context that only some of the old usages are meant to be “pimp”, while others clearly refer to April Fools Day traditions.  So France remains in the running as a possible origin for this tradition.

At least one source says that “poisson” could be a confusion of the word “passion”.  Unfortunately this has nothing to do with the movie Passion Fish (as far as I know), so there's no excuse for me working that in here.  But the suggestion here, which actually does relate to April Fools Day, is that this is a reference to the Passion of Christ, with Jesus cast into the role of the fool, as he is bounced around Jerusalem from one authority to the next on a wild goose chase (or, one might say, a “fool's errand”.)  This of course all took place sometime in the vicinity of April first.  Being an old source, they naturally blames all this on the Jews rather than the Romans.  Therefore, April Fools day was cast as a Jewish celebration of the success in tricking Jesus.  In which case April Fool's Day is basically a leading cause of the Inquisition.  (Note: that last remark was 100% made up by me, and bears no relationship whatsoever to reality.)

In a similar vein, some have blamed April Fool's Day on the Jews by tying it to the fool's errand that Noah (you know, the one with the flood) sent that first dove on, before there was any land to find.  Which conveniently makes a nice segue between religion and birds.

One of many types of cuckoos
From Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d'Afrique, vol. 5, 1799, Le Vaillant, Fran├žois

Yet another story claims that April Fools Day can be blamed on the cuckoo (or cuckow) bird.  The cuckoo is a brood parasite — a bird which is too lazy to raise its own kids, so it lays them in the nest of some other bird, and lets that bird raise them.  Just to add weight to this theory, in some parts of England an April Fool was called an “April gowk”, where “gowk” is another word for the cuckoo.  The birds typically lay their eggs around April First, and so somehow (don't ask me how, I didn't make this part up), this leads to a holiday in their honor.  A holiday to celebrate child abandonment.  Which goes right along with the theories about rape and prostitution.

So the majority of these theories seem to be oppressive of women, either tying the holiday to rape, prostitution, or a mom abandoning her child.  And some of the other theories seem to be anti-semitic.  Does this mean that we should reject this holiday, as it is clearly about oppressing somebody?

Or does it just mean that people that invent stories to fill in missing history are jerks?

Maybe we're fools for falling for it.

[But seriously, that closing sentence was not some sort of “gotcha” admission of this all being a trick.  This stuff is all real, I swear.  Except for the parts that aren't that I mostly mentioned in there.  Mostly.  I really did look at a whole bunch of sources.  Here's one that's an excellent summary, just to make you feel better: Popular antiquities of Great Britain, 1877, sir Henry Ellis.]

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The First Car Advertisement?

This ad appeared in Scientific American, v79 No. 5, July 30, 1898; via Wikipedia

People absolutely love “firsts”.  The first man to walk on the moon.  The first women to swim the English Channel.  But history is rarely so convenient.  So when I see some historic “first” mentioned, I instincitvely look for some sources, because more often than not, it isn't the first.

The ad may have a slighlty legitimate claim, as long as we pile on a few caveats.  It may be the first car ad, selling a specific and real model of car that was in production, and had a set, advertised price, in the United States.  It is certainly the earliest one that has been widely reported.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company continued advertising in Scientific American throughout the rest of the year and (and onward).  They used very similar ads in every subsequent edition (published weekly) that year.   The following week, August 6, the same ad ran with the headline “Better than a Horse or Bicycle”.  Sometimes the ad reused headlines but mostly each week was a new headline on the same image: “The Luxury of Locomotion”, “The Winton Motor Carriage”, “A Delightful Drive”, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, “In Season and out of Season”, “Another Lot of New Ones”, “You Are Invited”, “The Other Fellow”, “Snow, Ice and Slush” [December 10, and don't blame me for the lack of an Oxford comma], “Wonderful Control”, “The Automobile”, and “The Proof of the Pudding” to close out that year's ads.

They were pretty small ads, appearing in the advertising section at the back of each Scientific American.  Here's the ad in context (if you can even spot it):

page 80 Sci Am v79 #5, via hathitrust
The car ad is second from the top in the first column.
The image was tiny, which partly explains why an engraving was used rather than a photograph.  Photographs were fully viable by this time, and if anything the 1890s were a boom period for photographs in print as much as they were automobiles.  This very Winton car image from the ad had already appeared as a photograph in Scientific American just a couple of months earlier:

Scientific American v78 No. 20, May 14 1898, via hathitrust.

The photo was much larger, covering nearly half the page, along with an article titled “The Winton Motor Carriage” that took up half the text in the remaining space.  “A ride in a motor carriage is a comparatively new and delightful sensation” the article begins.  It goes on to mention that Europe is ahead of the U.S. at this point in the car game, with the “motor wagon” being common in France and Germany.

This was not the first coverage of the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Scientific American.  In July 1897 another article described the first car they built, along with another large photograph:

Scientific American v77 No. 4, July 24 1897, via hathitrust
In the story attached to that photo, it also states that “several firms in the United States are now really in a position to make and deliver motor carriages”.  But even this wasn't the first published photograph of a Winton motor carriage.  The Horseless Age, a monthly journal, published this photo in Novermber 1896, of Winton's earlier first car ever built:

The Horseless Age, v. II No. 1, via Google Books
To clarify, this was the first car built by Alexander Winton, owner of the Winton Bicycle Company, prior to creating the Winton Motor Carriage Company.  The car shown in Scientific American was the first car his new car company.  (It's hard to keep track of all these “firsts” sometimes.)

Let's pause here and try to get some context for this car company.  The Horseless Age where the earliest Winton photo was published was one of several trade magazines in print in 1896 (along with “The Hub” which previously covered traditional carriages and was later renamed “The Automotive Manufacturer”, “The Autocar”, “The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal”, and probably others).  And Winton was just one of what were most likely hundreds of tinkerers that year.  Winton hadn't yet formed his car company in 1896 but there were apparently dozens of car manufacturers in business, including Haynes & Apperson, Duryea Motor Wagon Company, Studebaker Bros. (who as far as I can tell started out making horseshoes), the New York Motor Company, The Reeves Pully Company, P. B. Whitney Motor Carriage Company, and the Elliott Motor Carriage, just to name a few (most names here are from The Horseless Age, volume 2).

An article in The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal from April 1896 mentions that Scientific American had received hundreds of letters in the past year “anxiously inquiring” about buying automobiles, and goes on to say that New York City had already introduced a fleet of horseless taxi cabs.  The article also mentions that a few motor carriages were available for purchase in the United States at this time.

The same magazine (published in London) makes it clear that the U.S. was lagging behind, and indeed The Horseless Age tells us that  England had motor vehicle laws on the books by 1896, and Paris by 1893.  If this seems too early, keep in mind that a steam engine had been attached to a set of wheels to make a vehicle was all the way back in 1769 or so, more than 125 years earlier.  Motorized vehicles were seen zooming up and down city streets fairly regularly by the 1890s, particularly various trucks.  In order to make the transition from trucks to personal vehicles, cars needed refinement, not invention.  They had to become cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, more reliable, and easier to operate before they were attractive to the average consumer.  The above article from The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal also mentioned that “In its present state of development the horseless carriage can hardly be trusted in the hands of those who have not some acquaintance with machinery”.

One of the companies I left out of the list above, Daimler Motors, was primarily a motor manufacturer, but was also an important manufacturer of motor carriages (as well as boats, which were already commonly motorized).  Take a look at this ad from April 1897:

The Horseless Age, Volume II, No. 6, April 1897, via Google Books
This is not specifically a car ad.  Daimler's biggest business was selling motors to other car companies, and while they did sell motor carriages (at least in Europe), it wasn't their primary business.  But it's certainly an ad in a world where cars were already commonplace in the mind of the public.  By April 1898, Well's Motor Oils was advertising their oils for “Lubricating ENGINES of Autocars, Motor Vans, Cycles, &c.”  You really wouldn't be advertising motor oil for “Autocars” in 1898 if there wasn't a substantial market ready to use your oil for that purpose.

As mentioned, America was running behind Europe at this point, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they had car ads before we did, including this ad in a The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, (in London) from November 1896:

The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, November 1896, pg, 84, via Google Books

“A Motor Carriage and Delivery Van can be seen in operation in London by Appointment.”  Is that a car ad, or is it show-and-tell?  It's hard to say for sure if they sell or rent.  But the very next page has one more ad that is not ambiguous:

The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, Nov 1896. pg. 85 via Google Books
This ad makes it clear: “These carriages are now offered for sale in every variety and description...”, and at the bottom “PRICES FROM £130 UPWARDS.”  This is definitely a car ad, beating the alleged first car ad by nineteen months.  But since this is a London ad, I'll grant my fellow Americans their jingoistic view of the world, and allow that it doesn't count if you assume an implied “American” in the claim for that other ad.

There's definitely other advertisements from specific car companies that beat the original claimed record, including The International Motor Car Company by March 1897, and J. & C. Stirling, from August 1897, as well as ads for “Electric Motor Cars” by April 1897.

So does simple jingoism explain away the claim of that first ad as being the first ad?  I think there's a bit more going on actually.  It seems to me that we're attracted to things that reinforce simplistic views of the past.

The text “Dispense with a Horse” in that ad conforms perfectly to our view of how provincial things were “back in the old days”.  And it conforms with our view that inventions appeared on the earth, complete and ready to go, and changed the world overnight.  As if everybody used horses until one day somebody woke up and said “hey, wouldn't it be easier if we drove automobiles instead”?

The mention of the horse also reinforces the more quaint name “horseless carriage”, and while that was a common name then, it was not the most popular name.  Going by patent searches (via Google), “motor car” turns up the most patents in the 19th century, followed by “automobile”, then “motor carriage”, with “horseless carriage” coming in last out of these four choices.

This provincial feel is reinforced by the coarseness of the image.  It's such a small engraving that blown up it looks a lot like a woodcut, adding to that old-time feel.  Even though photographs were common in print (and this was based on a photograph), this image makes for a more appealing portrayal of our past.  And it doesn't hurt that many versions of this image are somewhat yellowed;   it's unclear if this is the original image capture, or if the image has been yellowed after the fact to ad to the ambiance.

So what?  It's not the first car ad, but it's close enough, right?

As I learn more about how history works, I struggle with the very meaning and purpose of it.  Is it worth the effort to pedantically correct mistakes in our history?  History can never be made whole again—it will always be an approximation.  So if the facts are wrong, does it matter if the essence of the story is still right?  This is dangerous territory, coming very close to saying that the ends justify the historical means.  Can we really trust a simplified version of history to deliver the right conclusion?

In the case of the first car ad, it probably doesn't change things so much.  But in other cases histories which are comforting but false can lead people to fundamentally flawed decisions in the present.

(See, I couldn't even write this trivial bit of history without putting a moral at the end of the story.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lost Key of QWERTY

So I was on twitter last month when Marcin Wichary asked “Any ideas on what this key/glyph was for in the early Sholes Glidden typewriter?”

This image is from a U.S. patent, applied for before the typewriter went to market, but it was definitely there on the first models.
Cropped from an image of the first typewriter model.
And as he pointed out in his tweet, the key produced a typed character that matched the key:
We also know because Mark Twain's daughter was kind enough to type it for us, in some gibberish at the head of a letter he typed for his brother, and leave us with another sample:

These samples eliminate some suggestions that the key served some mechanical purpose, like advancing the paper, or as a shift key (which the first model lacked, as it could only type capitals).

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter (sometimes called the Remington No. 1) was the first successful typewriter ever brought to market (in 1873), and the forerunner of most other successful typewriters.  The unidentified key was, as far as I can tell, on this model and only this model.  It was gone on the Remington No. 2 introduced in 1878, never to appear again (in this form), and as far as I know never found on competitors either.

So what the heck is it?  One option is to work the problem from the modern end, and see what's in Unicode.  We find four characters that look like this:

  • ⁝ - U+205D tricolon
  • ⋮ - U+22EE vertical ellipsis
  • ⫶ - U+2AF6 triple colon operator
  • ︙- U+FE19 presentation form for vertical horizontal ellipsis

Some of these are a bit hard to parse.  The vertical ellipsis makes perfect sense, as it is used to show several rows of ommitted information.  But there's nothing in 19th century typography about vertical ellipses, and I haven't even found them in use yet.  Besides, with such a limited keyboard, lacking so many basic characters, why provide this when the colon could serve a similar purpose?  Even if this existed back then, I don't think this was the purpose on this keyboard.  “Tricolon” appears in 19th century sources as a name for one type of verse structure found in the bible, so that isn't so helpful.  “Triple colon operator” unsurprisingly turns up many pages of medical sources, but I found nothing about symbols, characters, etc.

So really Unicode was no help to me.

Next, Marcin Wichary found this character in On the Prehistory of QWERTY.

This is a paper I know well, and have many problems with.  It promotes a new theory that the QWERTY keyboard layout is based on preventing transcription errors by telegraph operators receiving messages.  Given that I've pretty much proven that typebar jams were the primary design goal of QWERTY, we already have problems.  I've promised to write a more thorough debunking of their claims, but it's still on my to-do list.

At any rate, this new claim links to that idea.  The idea here is that telegraph operators needed a way to transcribe the telegraph code for “new paragraph”.  I have confirmed that this telegraph code does predate the typewriter, dating back at least to 1854, but there's still a big problem with this notion.  Our mystery symbol was clearly intended to be typed, however the person transcribing incoming telegrams could just make a new paragraph on receipt of that code, rather than typing a special character.  There appears to be no reason to ever put the symbol on paper.  It's also problematic because it is an incredibly usage-specific character, on a machine that didn't even include parentheses.

I did find a vaguely similar usage of a vaguely similar symbol, in the International Telegraph Code No. 2, which was approved by the CCITT back in 1932.  Many sources use a particular symbol for the line feed character, which looks somewhat like our mysterious three dots, as seen in this document:
But again we have the same problem - there's no reason to ever use this symbol in print, outside of ITA2 documentation.  And we already know the key does not produce a line feed.

A few days ago, the Shady Characters blog picked up this story and ran with the paragraph separator idea that I tend to discredit.  This was followed by a great discussion in the comments section of all sorts of different ideas on the origin, but perhaps the most interesting tidbit came in when a typewriter expert mentioned that his Remington No. 1 produced a slash “/” when this key was typed, rather than three vertical periods.  He referred to it as a “virgule”, which left me a bit confused, as I have Google Books permanently locked in to the 19th century, and the meaning of virgule during that time was just the french word for comma.

So virgule was a dead end, but then Keith Houston who runs Shady Characters (and published a book by the same name), added that it's also called a “solidus”, which lead me to find out that it was even more commonly called a “shilling mark”, and was used in currency, where you'd write “5/” for something that cost 5 shillings, and 5/8 for five shillings and 8 pence (although if something was 3 pounds, 5 shillings, and 8 pence, you wouldn't use / in that case you'd write “£3 5s 8d”, or “£3,,5,,8” or a few other choices).  This was interesting, but it hardly explained why typewriter inventor Christopher Latham Sholes and his cohorts would put a shilling mark on a keyboard that doesn't even have a dollar sign (although you can make a dollar sign by combining S and I).  British currency did last a long time into the 19th century in the United States, but it was certainly not the dominant currency by the time Sholes designed the typewriter.

Moreover, three dots are not a shilling mark, so clearly this was not its initial intent.  But the original three dot pattern did seem to have some kind of relationship with the shilling mark, so I kept digging.

Then I found something really interesting:
The American Bookmaker, September 1887
So while I'm maintaining that a character for the end of the line or paragraph is never used, here's a source saying you need a character for that.  The context for this is the formatting of bibliographies.  In the 19th century books tended to have ridiculously long titles, and bibliographies tended to list the entire contents of the title page.  To do this, multiple lines were joined together, usually (according to this source) with “sidewise” dashes, but in this case also with slashes.  (There's also an implicit reference to letter-cutting, the practice of carving down sorts of various letters to create your own symbols.)

The text above is describing a book called Bibliotecha Hamiltonia, published in 1886:

The slash is being used as a representation for line separators.  I've seen similar usage for condensing a few lines of a poem into a single line.  So here in 1886, we have slash meaning the same thing that three vertical dashes meant 45 years later in the 1930s.  Well, kind of coincidental, but not that exciting.  But there was also this note that the “inclined strokes” were used in place of the more common “dashes turned sidewise”.  Like a vertical bar, maybe?  And so, I was able to find in fairly short order, a vertical bar used like the slashes used in the above bibliography.
A Century of Printing / The Issues of the Press in Pennsylvania 1685-1784, 1886
But in another entry in the same book, I found something else:
There it is.

This is the same three dot symbol used by Sholes on his typewriter, in a context where it is used identically to a slash, also used on the same typewriter by the same key.  In this case, the three dots (which they call here “dotted lines”) are used to show an alternate set of line breaks.  This seems to be a less common usage than the vertical line for this purpose.

This leads me to the following working theory.  Sholes, or one of his testers, wanted a vertical bar character on the typewriter for situations like this one, with a bibliography.  It could be useful for borders and other things too.  But the typography of that first typewriter was stone simple.  It was a sans serif font, and the letter “I” was already a vertical bar.  Given that Sholes doubled up “1” and “I”, there's no point in adding a relatively obscure symbol that was identical.  To be useful it would have to look different than an “I”.  So Sholes simply used an existing alternate form.  Later, when it turned out to be less useful, it was changed to a slash which carried the same function, but could also be used to write fractions, and the percent sign, and to double up with “c” to make “¢”, as well as a number of abbreviations common in that era that used a slash.

It's not a perfect theory.  I have no smoking gun, and I still find some issues with this theory.  But right now, its the best thing we've got that (now) has actual evidence behind it.

The biggest problem is that this is still a relatively obscure usage.  Yes, Sholes was a trained compositor, and would likely have been familiar with all of these symbols, but you'd think he'd also realize these are relatively obscure symbols.  The first keyboard had no at sign, number sign, no parenthesis or brackets, no equal sign, no asterisk, no percent.  This usage doesn't seem to justify this key.  Perhaps there are other usages for the same group of symbols?

One of the big contributors to the development of the typewriter was James O. Clephane, a court reporter who became their best product tester and critic.  His testing lead to a rapid series of changes in design to make the machine more reliable and easier to use.  Perhaps this was a common and essential symbol used in court reporting?  I've searched a bit but come up empty, but it's definitely worth pursuing further.

Still this is all very intriguing.  Is that 1930s document related to this?  It seems to carry the exact same meaning.  And it's only 55 years later, still within the memory of some.   If I'm on the right track, this mysterious key could have lead to the inclusion of slash on the keyboard and in ASCII, and as well as both the vertical bar, and the broken vertical bar (which was created for ASCII in the 1960s to avoid confusion with the mathematical “or” operator).

There's even a tie-in with the pound sign.  In part two of my examination of that character, Britain on Hash, one of the possible-but-unlikely origins of the name hash for the pound sign was a practice of using slashes and dashes in a new piece of computer technology called KWIC indexing, where the separator usage of slashes and dashes seems very much related to this old usage.

The “lost” key might not be lost at all, just changed over time.

Of course we have to be realistic.  This is all just guesswork — the ramblings of a madman.  The only thing we can really say for sure, which is still a step forward, is that a symbol just like the original three dot typewriter symbol was used to indicate line separations in typography, and that this symbol was replaced on the keyboard with a slash, which was also used in typography for the same purpose.

The truth may still be out there.  There is supposedly an original catalogue that came out with the first Remington typewriter, a multipage pamphlet called The Type-Writer: A Machine to Supercede the Pen, which may well describe this key and its purpose.  So far all I've been able to find are simple single-page ads with that text.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Horror of France

Just a quick update with some good passages I've come across.

The first, is from Bookbinding and Book Production, Volume 50, page 76, from 1949.  (And just to be completely clear here, since there is great confusion over both our printing history, and the term “French Spacing”, the change discussed here is the move from wide sentence spacing to narrow sentence spacing.)
French Spacing? Horrors!
Reports that “French Spacing” might become more widely accepted on account of savings in money and time has caused at least one designer to remark “Preposterous.” Another threatened “I'll shoot any compositor who does,” and another claimed that someone was just trying to be different—“a brand of lunacy.”  Only one voice spoke in favor of such a trend.
 “French Spacing” or word spacing between sentences is one of the recent typographical innovations at the Waverly Press, Baltimore, Md.   With the advent of shoulder-spaced type, the change became an economic issue as well as a typographic one. Only because accountants speak louder than artists, the change was made.  The advantage is that every time the end of a sentence is reached, one character is cast instead of two.  The actual saving in caster strokes while not heavy percentage-wise is very high numerically with the millions of caster strokes made each week.
I tend to say that the transition period from wide to narrow sentence spacing is from about 1930 to 1950, but it's clear that there were some holdouts even at the end their, and that they felt as strongly about this as modern one-spacers.

I disagree with their simplistic analysis of the cost.  Simply the cost of typing the key was not a major issue.  (For that matter, neither was savings in paper, although in both cases, that was an era of particularly overzealous bean-counting.)  As mentioned in other articles here, it was a constellation of factors: it saved in error corrections (once the habit was relearned); it reduced the rivers that were a particular problem of the Linotype; it prevented machine downtime when typists were used on teletypesetting systems; etc.

They are one of the very few sources I have found, ever (before like the 1970s) that use the term “French Spacing”, which as I have said elsewhere has undergone a reversal of meaning (and an incomplete one, meaning that modern sources contradict each other).  French spacing originally was word spacing between sentences, versus the wide spacing we used.  Some modern sources completely reverse this.

I have a theory that we'd never even know about “French Spacing” if it wasn't for the \frenchspacing operator in Donald Knuth's TeX typesetting language.  But we do know about it, and as I've said in my other article, the change was probably inevitable.  But it seems to have started (in spirit at least) sooner than I thought.

In 1960, an article was found in The Inland Printer and American Lithographer (or some vaguely similar name to that which seemed to change repeatedly over the years), volume 145, from 1960, as well as Typo Graphic (some volume or another), also from 1960.  It was found in a “Question & Answer” section.
Q. What is French spacing?
A. There is no reference to this term in any textbook on printing or in any glossary. In searching for a precise answer I therefore turned to a number of the leading typographers in New York. To my surprise, a good many of them had never heard the phrase. However, I was finally able to come up with the following:
    French spacing is tight spacing, with equal word spacing throughout a line, i.e., no extra space after a period, colon, etc. The purpose is not only to create a tighter looking, evenly colored page, but, more important, to avoid rivers. In some ad shops, French spacing is understood to mean optically equal word spacing. As to the “French” part of the term, this style has nothing to do with France as verified by several French cultural societies and printers. The word was evidently used because anything “French” was considered to be du haut style.
This confirms what I suspected, that this was a rarely used term.  But also, at the end there, they deny that French Spacing had anything to do with French practices, instead assuming that word spacing was called French as a sort of compliment.  Step one in the rewriting of the history.  Step two of course, was to recognize that nothing truly American could ever be called French, and we have a full reversal.

I also assume the claim that they actually contacted French printers was either a lie, or they contacted someone who was clueless.  As far as I'm aware, France never used wide spacing, although I admit I haven't researched the subject as thoroughly.

The first quote also opens up another avenue of exploration: I have to go and figure out what the “shoulder-spaced type” in that first quote means.  Some hints I've seen point to yet more technological issues that both benefitted and hampered the printing process.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Summary of arguments in favor of two spaces between sentences

• The period is an overloaded piece of punctuation with multiple meanings. Periods alone are ambiguous or misleading sentence termination.
• Two spaces allows for vastly simpler and more accurate machine interpretation, including translations and text-to-speech.
• Ironically, this machine-interpretation issue allows for simple technology to allow the reader to control visual layout to their aesthetic preference. One space between sentences forces readers into the writer's preference.
• Wide spacing has been shown to be better for many new readers, and for some learning issues.
• In my opinion, wide spacing is clearly superior for skimming and scanning, and for finding your place again.

• “Everybody does it that way now” is just fashion, not a design law carved in stone. And it ignores the history of how we got here.
• The aesthetic argument is 100% undercut by the functional argument of two spaces allowing for reader-controlled display.
• Human beings found wide sentence spacing preferable for four hundred years.

• All the “just-so” stories about sentence spacing you've ever heard (typewriters, monospaced fonts, etc.) are easily disproved.
• The only compelling and supported theory on how we lost wide sentence spacing is that the technology couldn't handle it.

Ultimately, we provide more information with two spaces between sentences. This trumps everything, particularly the aesthetic argument, where one space is dictatorship and two spaces can be reader-centered.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Nota Bene Charles Dickens

So I was reading Great Expectations on my Samsung Galaxy S6, using the the Google Play Books app, when I came across this page (screenshot):
Do you see it there, near the bottom of the text?  The last few lines of text, where it reads “...Uncle Pumblechook. N. B. I was not...”, caused me a bit of a stumble.  “N. B.” stands for “nota bene”, latin for “note well”.  But what am I supposed to note well?  Worse than that, I'll admit that I didn't immediately recognize “N. B.” for what it meant, as I'm sure the majority of modern readers would not.  So which sentence does “N. B.” belong to?  Even knowing what it stands for, does it always prepend the statement to be noted, or does it sometimes append?

Thankfully, Google Play Books lets you look at the original text on old scanned books.

1881 edition, Boston

It's easy to spot on this page, thanks to the wide sentence spacing in this 1881 printing.  And just as easy to interpret.  Had I been reading the original text, I wouldn't have missed a beat in reading this.  But I read it without the semantic sentence spacing, and that important bit of grammar from the original writing was lost.

But what does it matter, when I could still figure it out from context?  Well, why should I ever have to stop and figure out printed text?  It's a book, not a puzzle.  To be completely honest, this is maybe not the greatest example, because it isn't really that ambiguous.  The period after “Pumblechook” can only be a sentence-ender.  You could argue that “N. B.” might be interpreted as a complete statement in and of itself, rather than a subordinate clause (again, if that were the case, wide sentence spacing would completely clarify this issue).  But the grammar is secondary, compared to the stumble in reading that it caused me.  Why should I even stumble at all in the reading?  In other discussions I've had with people on this topic, they often tell me that ambiguities can always be avoided by rewriting the sentence.  This is singularly unhelpful for old texts like this one of course, but more to the point, why should I have to torture my writing to conform to what is at best a modern whimsy of printing fashion?  (And at worst a bad habit we developed in the service of inadequate technology.)

The written and printed language is a framework for communication.  All communication, not merely your written word.  This includes Dickens' 1861 masterpiece.  It includes dialog of characters both fictional and real, who's conformance to proper grammar may well be tenuous.  Even if it were right to force people to rewrite their words to conform to broken printing technology that nobody uses any more, it still would not be sufficient.  Printed text still has to record things that actually happen, or things that we want to show as messy, or things that had already been written before we broke our printing process.  The idea that we can simply rewrite that sentence to avoid that problem is a vanity; a narcissist's view of the English language.

The work I was reading was printed in 1881.  This was five years before the Linotype was commercially introduced.  All sentence spacing was wide during this time, as it had been for about 400 years, using the standard em quad.

1862 edition, printed in London

1863 edition, printed in Mobile, Alabama
1880 edition, printed in Boston

1930 edition, Clinton, Massachusetts

1978 edition, London / New York
2012 edition, New York
They all use wide sentence spacing up until the 1930 edition.  This still uses extra space between sentences, but substantially less.  I'm not sure how Google or Hathitrust came up with the 1930 date, as I find no date in the book.  But in terms of typography, it's about right.  Early Linotype printing used one spaceband plus one nut-quad (en-quad), which together are vaguely similar to a the em-quad.  But Linotype's limitations led the printing industry into a trend of steadily decreasing sentence spacing, and by 1930, a spaceband plus a thin space was common, and I'd guess that's about what this is.  (Incidentally the earliest call I've seen for word spacing between sentences is in 1911, but it wasn't until a Linotype Bulletin article from 1929 when a few mainstream printers really started taking the idea seriously).

The 1978 edition is interesting.  It was a reprint of a 1907 edition (which is why Google incorrectly dated it and made it available).  But for 1978, this is very wide sentence spacing.  In fact it's the most modern book printing I've seen with wide sentence spacing of any kind, let alone full em-quad spacing (which this is).  It's obviously a literal reprint of the 1907 edition.  This was probably intentional—it seems highly improbable that it would have been reprinted from seventy-year-old stereotypes (or Linotype slugs).  I don't actually think a Linotype was used.  In 1978, this could have been phototypeset.  I see no apparent kerns in the roman text, although some of the italics clearly overlap.  This rules out the Linotype (at least for the italic portions).  So this was either hand-set, photo-typeset, or set using a mixture of techniques which may have included the Linotype.

At any rate, this 1978 edition is not intended to show its proper place in spacing chronology—it's an outlier.  I note this because people like to make claims that “back in the old days” printers were massively inconsistent with printing rules.  And yet, with sentence spacing I find the opposite to be true - I've perused thousands of 17th, 18th and 19th century texts and never found a single one with word-spacing between sentences, at least in the U.S. or Great Britain.  (I found an example by renowned master printer Ben Franklin, but that's going to be a posting of its own someday).  And the spacing is almost always one full em.  The consistency on this point is almost hard to believe.  It's only in the last century where spacing practices jumped the shark.  Other issues might not always be consistent (like the space before the semicolon in the 1863 text above), but sentence spacing was rock-solid.

The 2012 edition shows a modern printing.  Word spacing is used between sentences.  After years of looking at wide sentence spacing, narrow spacing just looks so much worse to me.  Also, as much as we like to praise ourselves for modern typographic practices, this one is the only one that felt the need to use word divisions in this paragraph (and they're not good word divisions).

Spacing between sentences isn't just fashion, it's semantic.  It's grammar.  Sometime soon, I want to do a posting (or maybe a poster) summarizing all of the arguments for and against wide sentence spacing.  Because it comes down to this: the one-spacers only argument that is grounded in reality is “everybody is doing it” (along with several false history claims that are easily disproved).  My arguments in favor of two spaces are functional.  Sentence boundaries are clarified, modern technology is aided in automated interpretation, visible layout can be easily customized by the reader, rather than the writer. In all ways, two spaces are more functional one.

Ultimately, eliminating wide sentence spacing accomplishes only one thing: it removes information.  It is a net loss for the English language.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Hidden Secrets of QWERTY

This is another off-topic posting, but it's an issue that I stumble across quite often in my research on typewriter history.  The myth-busting ideas I offer here aren't new or original, but I've added in a new statistical analysis that provides extremely strong evidence in favor of one theory.

[Update 2015/11/09: Sigh.  It turns out there's nothing new under the Sun.  A similar (and more rigorous) statistical analysis can also be found in various papers by Neil Kay, starting with Rerun the Tape of History and QWERTY Always Wins, 2013.]

There is a very old and popular myth about the typewriter that claims that the keys on the QWERTY keyboard have an intentionally bad layout to slow down typists.  Allegedly the inventor, Christopher Latham Sholes, had problems with the type-writing machine (as he called it) jamming when people typed too fast, so he moved keys around until people couldn't type fast enough to jam the typewriter.  There's a number of problems with this very popular theory.

One problem is that the first customers (or product testers) for the new typewriter were telegraph operators, who needed to keep up with the incoming telegraph signal. This was typically only about forty words per minute, but it was absolutely necessary.  And the nature of the telegraph code that was used at the time was that transcribing did not occur at a steady rate, but would often have to wait until possibly ambiguous codes were made clear by context.  The telegraph operator might type in bursts, therefore the typewriter had to attain higher average speeds simply to keep up with the customer.  So perhaps fifty or sixty words per minute was a minimum requirement in his design.  If jams occurred at these speeds, the machine would have been a failure.  And since all the typists in the world were brand new during his testing, it's unlikely he was running into issues with operators going vastly faster than these design speeds.  At least at first.

Ad for the Remington Typewriter, advertising sixty to seventy words per minute.
As found in St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 39, No. 2, July 20, 1880, pg. v

The historical record only confirms this.  The typewriter began commercial production in 1873.  In 1880 (and with the same fundamental design), Remington was advertising "sixty to seventy words per minute".  Other sources confirm that 60 words per minute was a realistic figure for most anyone with enough practice.  But the typewriter was an immediate commercial success and very soon there were expert typists who were very fast.  In the next decade typing speed tests became quite popular, and speeds well over 100 words per minute were common-place.  In 1889, Mr. McBride of Ottawa Ontario typed 179 words in one minute (albeit the same sentence repeated over and over).  The early machines were clearly capable of far more speed than any normal typist would ever require.

Sholes had no reason to slow down the typists, and in any case, QWERTY did not slow them down.

But there is a grain of truth in the myth.  The problem though, wasn't in the keys, but the type-bars.  These were the arms of metal that reached out and struck the ribbon against the paper to stamp each letter.  Anyone who has every operated an older typewriter knows that these bars could sometimes get stuck against each other.  Most type-bars could do this if you typed them at exactly the same time, but for type-bars that were right next to each other, a near miss was enough to cause a jam.

Jamming type-bars.  From a 1920s Hermes Model 2, with a modernized semi-circular basket.  WikiMedia Commons.

This hypothesis of type-bar collisions has been around since at least 1923, where The Story of the Typewriter made this assertion.  This book was written using a large collection of letters from Sholes to various associates, which lends credibility to their claim.  The claim is somewhat corroborated by The Early History of the Typewriter from 1918 (by one of the people working with Sholes), which notes that type-bar collisions were a problem on the very earliest typewriter designs.

There's a very important observation to make about this hypothesis that many modern commentators have completely missed: two adjacent keys on the keyboard do not have two adjacent type-bars.  Have you ever wondered why most keyboards arrange the keys in an odd irregular staggered slant?  This was origally done because every key was a mechanical lever that needed to have a parallel path straight to the back of the machine.  These paths were all evenly spaced, with the keys in any row using every fourth lever.

Keys are staggered so every key has a parallel lever arm.
Diagram from Sholes' patent 207559, filed 1875. 

So while the keyboard order might be QWERTY, the actual order of the key levers on the early typewriters looked like this:

Q A 2 Z W S 3 X E D 4 C R F 5 V T G 6 B Y H 7 N U J 8 M I K 9 , O L _ / P ;

As you can see, supposedly problematic common keys like E and R are no longer next to each other.  But the early typewriters were even more complicated than this.  On more modern typewriters (from the early 1900s onward), this was also the order of the type-bars that would strike the paper.  They were arranged in a semi-circle, and struck the paper in front of you so you could read what you type.  However on the original typewriters, the type-bars were arranged in a full circle, called a basket.  They struck the paper on the bottom side of the roller (you could only see what you typed by lifting the roller).  Half the keys were linked to type-bars on the back half of the basket and half on the front. This was divided by keyboard row, with the top two rows of keys going to the back of the basket and the bottom two rows to the front of the basket.

Remington Standard No. 2 with rollers raised to show circular type basket.

This meant that while the lever arms were in the order described above, that was still not the order in which the type-bars were arranged.  Instead type-bars on the basket were in this order:

Back of the basket:     Q 2 W 3 E 4 R 5 T 6 Y 7 U 8 I 9 O - P;
Front of the basket:     A Z S X D C F V G B H N J M K , L / ;

Now we're finally in a position to understand the engineering decisions involved. On the top bar, we have the vowels (except "A"), with numbers placed between each letter.  No vowel type-bars were adjacent to any other letters, and therefore could not collide with them.  The entire QWERTY row of the keyboard was protected for adjacent type-bar clashes, and in addition to vowels, we also have the very common letters R and T protected from collisions.

A closer look at the bottom two rows of keys, the front of the basket, shows that every pair of type-bars that are next to each other are relatively uncommon.  But how uncommon are they?  Quite a few people who've gotten this far in the analysis still seem to think this layout could happen by chance.  But I wanted to know if this was really even possible, so I did a statistical analysis of his keyboard layout.

In order to analyze the QWERTY layout, I first analyzed a word dictionary, the Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon, (ENABLE).  For every possible pair of letters, like "er", I counted the number of words which contained that pair.  (The matches for "er" and "re" were added together, as the order is irrelevant for our purposes.)  Based on this I came up with a total number of matching words per letter pair, and then ranked them based on matches per pair.  Not surprisingly, "er" is ranked first, with 50047 word matches.  Nineteen different letter pairs are tied for 307th place because they never occur at all.

I used this ranking of letter pairs to analyze the adjacent type-bars in the front of the basket.  The most common letter pair that has adjacent type-bars on Sholes' keyboard is A and Z, which ranks 131st in my analysis, out of 325; all other type-bar pairs in the front basket are even less common.

We could actually calculate the odds of this being a coincidence.  But since I'm a programmer not a statistician, I wrote a simulation that tried random keyboard layouts, looking for keyboards where the most likely type-bar pair collision was ranked 131 or lower.  On average, it takes more than 90,000 random tries for this to happen by luck.

But that doesn't take into account how rare the remaining pairs of type-bars are on Sholes' keyboard layout.  I added up all of the possible word matches found in my word pair database, for all of the adjacent type-bars in his keyboard.  I found 3877 total word matches for these type-bar pairs.  This is out of a total of 1,239,045 found word matches, or about 0.3%.  So I rewrote my simulation for this new standard, trying to find keyboards with this few total word matches of colliding type-bar pairs.  With this new approach, it takes on average more than five million (about 5.9 million) random tries to find a keyboard layout that is as good as QWERTY.

To put it another way, the odds that solving this type-bar problem was not Sholes' primary design goal are worse than one in five million.

We can also take a brief glance at the keyboard evolution.  Did you notice anything odd about the keyboard layout in the image above from the 1875 patent?  The bottom row shows "Z C X V".  The last change made to the keyboard layout before it stabilized on it's modern configuration was to reverse the position of the X and the C. Consider that before this final change, the type-bars would be in this order: A-Z-S-C-D-X. This puts the letter combination SC on adjacent type-bars.  This pair is more than twice as common as AZ pairs, and 85th out of 325. So the final change made to the QWERTY layout before it reached our modern standard was to move the most common remaining letter pair found among the type-bars away from each other.

Now lets revisit the QWERTY myth.  Sholes allegedly was trying to slow down typists.  But how exactly QWERTY was supposed to slow down typists?  One suggestion is that QWERTY put popular letter pairings on the same hand, on the theory that you can type more quickly going from one hand to the other, and more slowly on the same hand.  But based on my letter pair dictionary the QWERTY layout puts eight of the twenty most common letter pairings on opposite hands.  Considering there's 325 possible letter pairs, the QWERTY layout is hardly a successful implementation of this strategy.

Another (contradictory) notion is that you could slow down typing by avoiding common letter pairs on two fingers next to each other, because those are very easy to type quickly.  However, the most popular letter pair of all, E and R, are right next to each other, typed with the third and second fingers, the most coordinated fingers. These keys can be typed very rapidly.

If slowing down the typist was a design goal, then by any theory, Sholes clearly did a horrible job.

Now lets look at this analysis from the opposite point of view.  Suppose type-bar jams were his primary concern, but a secondary concern was making the layout as fast and convenient as possible?  While keeping type-bar collisions to an impressively low frequency, he still managed to put seldom-used letters like Q and Z on the far edge of the keyboard.  He put most of the vowels on the right hand (sorry lefties).  He put the most common letter pair in the language, ER, in a position where our two strongest fingers could be drummed in succession to type these letters.  While we could quibble over the details, I find it impressive that he managed to maintain such convenience in layout while avoiding type-bar jams.

I should point out at this point too, that it was likely that his keyboard layout was designed with two- or four-finger hunt-and-peck typing in mind, as touch typing didn't exist.  It developed over the first decade of the typewriter, with eight and ten finger methods, and different fingerings.  It's possible that some touch-typing already existed in 1875 when he proposed the nearly final keyboard layout, but it wasn't drastically different from his 1873 layout.  Still, by 1873 Sholes and a short list of others did have a very large number of hours typing, so it's entirely possible that they themselves had at least toyed with touch-typing.  Regardless, moving keys like Q and Z away from the middle makes sense for both touch-typing and hunt-and-peck.

But alas, Sholes was not satisfied with QWERTY.  He actually included a new layout in another patent filed shortly before he died.

Sholes' final keyboard design.
U.S. Patent 568630, filed 1889 (granted posthumously).

By spreading out more punctuation on the bottom and the numbers on the top, there are even fewer type-bar pairs at all that are letter next to letter. We only have G-Z-K from the top right, and Q-J-V-B from the lower left.  The most common pair here is BV/VB, which is the 246th most common pair out of 325. The total number of words from the ENABLE lexicon that involve adjacent type-bar combinations on the QWERTY keyboard was 3877.  The total for this new keyboard?  Only 77.  Or about one word out of every 16,000.  At the same time he achieves this, he groups the vowels together (in order), and puts all of the most common letters on the right hand (again, sorry lefties) or on the left index finger.

I have tried to simulate the odds of randomly finding a better keyboard than this one (at avoiding adjacent type-bar collisions).  The program ran for a week, and tried more than 40 trillion keyboards, and found no keyboards as good as this one.  Even if you assume this is a bizarre dry patch in the random search, it's hard to reasonably imagine that the odds are better than one in a 100 billion that this keyboard layout was an accident.  It is essentially impossible at this point that type-bar jams were not a primary design goal in his keyboard arrangements.  Based on my simulations, the odds of creating two different keyboards that satisfy this design criteria merely by chance are far worse than one in five hundred quadrillion.  The odds of one person winning two Powerball lotteries back to back (after entering each lottery only once) are more than ten times better than this.

Now to be fair, it's not likely that a keyboard design would be completely random, and so this may not be the most ideal calculation of odds.  But even if you took a few orders of magnitude off the the odds, they'd still be incredibly remote.  And I think given the original argument about slowing down typists, testing completely random keyboard arrangements is completely justified—most of these random keyboard layouts would have been much harder to type on than QWERTY, slowing down the typist more.  It would have been trivial for Sholes to hamper typists far more than QWERTY does.  It would have been very difficult for him to beat QWERTY on type-bar collisions.  And yet he did.

This is not a mistake or design flaw, this is impressive engineering.

This statistical analysis not only demonstrates that type-bar jams were the reason for QWERTY, the analysis also shows what a fantastic job Sholes did to solve this problem, while maintaining a usable keyboard.  Based on all available evidence, it's obvious that he did his best to make typing as fast as possible.  And he put far more time, effort, and engineering into this layout than critics today would ever have imagined.

But in the end, does any of this matter?  Clearly the reasons for the layout of the keyboard and the offset position of the keys are all gone.  QWERTY is purely vestigial.  On the other hand, it does show that QWERTY isn't so bad after all, and the muscle memory spent on learning QWERTY isn't a hopeless waste.  Recent examinations of the Dvorak layout have revealed that it isn't all it's cracked up to be.  And if we decide to replace QWERTY, exactly what metric should we be using?  With Sholes' own XPM layout, he seemed to place value in making the keyboard easy to learn (based on having AEIOUY in order on the keyboard).  So is learning important?  Raw speed?  Limiting repetitive stress?  Reducing errors?  Each of these goals might result in a completely different and not wholly satisfying design.

As awful as people claim QWERTY is, so far there's just been no compelling reason to replace it.  Perhaps this more than anything else demonstrates that QWERTY wasn't so bad after all.

In upcoming blogs, we'll look at who might have done the statistical analysis of this keyboard, and we'll squash look at a recent theory that claims that QWERTY was created to simplify telegraph code transcription, by putting keys with related telegraph codes near each other.