Friday, June 19, 2015

Revenge of Telescope Identification

One of the pitfalls of being a dabbler is being optimistic about your research.  Or maybe that's one of the pitfalls of being a member of Homo sapiens.  At any rate, in my rush to turn a few hours of useless Google Books research into something fleetingly useful, I quickly summarized what I'd found about that telescope in my previous posting.

I chose the 26-inch Naval Observatory refractor as the likely model for the boys' drawing.  But thanks to twitterer @jackdoerner I now know that this telescope had a twin.  The McCormick telescope at the University of Virginia.  They had been ordered at about the same time, but financial issues with both Leader McCormick and UVa meant that their telescope wasn't delivered and installed for another fifteen years.  Ultimately, UVa had to rely on philanthropists to complete the funding of their project.  Because of this delay the McCormick was never the biggest in the world, and was far less famous.

The Naval Observatory 26-inch on the left.
It's twin, University of Virginia's McCormick 26-inch on the right.

This story of twin telescopes and delays shouldn't have been at all surprising to me.

The telescope I'm most familiar with, Harvard's Great Refractor, also had a twin.  And like these two 26 inch telescopes, the Harvard 15 inch telescope and its twin at the Pulkovo observatory near St. Petersburg Russia, were the largest in the world in their day too.  Like the 26 inchers, there was a winner (Pulkovo), and an also-ran (Harvard).  While Harvard wasn't ever really in contention to be the first, financial reasons nevertheless added delays in getting Harvard's 15 inch telescope pointed towards the sky.  Harvard actually raised funds from astronomy enthusiasts to pay for their telescope.  Donors got their names on a plaque that is still there today.  (And they did it without kickstarter.)

It's almost like the 26 inch twins were twins of the 15 inch twins.

One of my biggest mistakes though was to assume that each telescope of this size was unique.  I had believed that even our own Great Refractor at Harvard was unique, and had (for reasons I can't now pin down) assumed that Merz and Mahler had only made the lenses, and the telescopes at Harvard and Pulkovo were completely different.  This assumption was completely wrong.  Merz and Mahler made both 15 inch telescopes, and they look nearly identical.  And Alvan Clark and Sons made both of the twin 26 inch telescopes, including the mounting.

This also shouldn't have been surprising, given that the telescope I get to actually use is an Alvan Clark nine-inch refractor made in 1912. (Sadly, the 15-inch Great Refractor at Harvard is non-functioning, and there are no funds available to restore it.)  And I was perfectly aware of the fact that Clark made the entire telescope, as they did with countless others.

Incidentally, Avlan Clark and Sons' ascendancy as the preeminent telescope makers of their day was very rapid.  in the mid 1840s Alvan and his sons began making a few basic reflector and refractor telescopes, more or less as a hobby at first, while Alvan continued his career as a painter and engraver.  After a few small successes, Alvan Clark Sr. had an opportunity to look through none other than Harvard's Great Refractor, shortly after it was installed.  Based on what he had learned to that point, he saw minor problems with the telescope and decided he could do a better job.  Plus, he found out how much these lenses cost —the Harvard lens was $12,000 in 1844, which would be about $300,000 today).  He turned his hobby into a business, and in just over ten years was given the opportunity to build the largest telescope in the world, an 18.5 inch telescope commissioned by the University of Mississippi (but eventually sold to the University of Chicago in 1862, as the Civil War made the original deal impossible).  His firm continued to dominate the field right up to the end of the refractor era, making four of the final six record-breakers, including the last two at 36 and 40 inches.

So the two 26 inch telescopes are very much twins.  Even the distinctive mount, which was also designed and built by George Basset Clark.  This is particularly notable given the fact that telescopes in different locations might need different mounting hardware.  The angle of the mount has to parallel the axis of the Earth, and if latitudes are very different, different hardware might be needed.  But in this case, both telescopes were designed for nearly the same latitude (less than one degree apart), which makes it almost trivial for them to share the same mounting hardware.

So which one is the inspiration?  Or was it another telescope entirely?  Again, I have no firm answers.  But this is where it gets really interesting.  @jackdoerner also pointed out that the Viriginia telescope was operational in Cambridge (Massachusetts) prior to its installation.  When I assumed that Clark only made the lens, this would have been unimaginable.  But the evidence is there to confirm what twitter was telling me.  In 1877, the Naval Observatory discovered the moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos, using their 26-inch telescope.  They quickly got word out to other important sites to confirm their finding.  And one of the sites they contacted was the Cambridge telescope factory, where the still undelivered McCormick 26-inch telescope was used to confirm the moons.

This is notable, because in the last article, I wondered if the boys had ever visited the 26-inch in Washington D.C.  But this new information means that its twin was only 100 miles away instead of 500 miles.  Did they ever visit Alvan Clark and Sons' factory?  Their ages probably make this impossible, but I can't say for sure because I don't know their ages.  The books were written roughly from 1892 to 1895.  The telescope was delivered to Virginia in 1885.  If the boys were teens when they wrote the books, then they might have been too young to visit the telescope in Cambridge and draw it with so much accuracy.

I'm also still guessing that Alvan Clark and Sons didn't provide the pier itself (the brick structure).  But their clock drive design would likely have mandated some sort of a pier where the mechanism could be inside the pier, and would need to be accessed.  So while the piers are clearly not identical, they are clearly similar, and either could have been the inspiration for that drawing.

It still is most likely one of these two telescopes.  Alvan Clark and Sons did make smaller telescopes that used a similar mount, but I haven't found any where the counterweights looked anything like these two telescopes.  It's unlikely the boys saw the McCormick telescope in Cambridge because of the timing.  And it's even more unlikely they'd ever see a picture of the McCormick—I haven't found a single image from the 19th century yet.  I'm sticking with one of these being correct, and the Naval telescope remains the strong favorite.

Unless of course the Internet tells me otherwise.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Telescope Identification

(I seem to be going off-topic more and more, but any research I end up doing on history is basically an off-shoot (or sidetrack or zig-zag) of my typography research, so it might as well go here.)

Slate published a great story about some brothers from the late 19th century in New Hampshire who wrote a series of books set in a fictional universe (they had no TV or Internet back then so they were forced to do something creative I suppose).  Someone discovered their books years later and there is now an online archive at Amherst College.  At any rate, one of the things they created for their fictional universe was this telescope.

Nelson brothers drawing, likely from early 1890s.
"The Great Monarch telescope at Picnic City B.C. [a town in their fictional world] is mounted already for shipment to N.P. to be set up under a solid steel roof on top of the great tower at Allenstown the great foundation upon which the telescope rests is made of the best B.C. Granite and Marble"
As it happens I work at the Harvard College Observatory (for the Smithsonian, not Harvard), where we have the Harvard Great Refractor from 1847, the largest(-ish) telescope in its day (bad timing between lens grinding and telescope construction meant we didn't quite get to be the largest) at 15 inches diameter (it's about 19 feet long I believe; all sizes given hereafter will be diameter in inches so assume the length is a similar size in feet).  I have seen this telescope many times and even acted as tour guide in a pinch.  I also have the privilege of using a 1912 Clark nine-inch telescope here from time to time.  So I knew from my exposure to these telescopes that this imaginary telescope seemed very detailed and realistic, and wondered what their inspiration was.  Even their text was very accurate, the appropriate use of the word "Great", the description of the granite and marble tower on which to mount the telescope, and (to some degree) the steel dome all rang true.  So I set out to figure out if there was any telescope back then that looked just like this.

After looking at dozens of telescopes, and pulling my hair out a bit, the answer is that the inspiration is almost certainly the U.S. Naval Observatory's 26-inch telescope, installed in 1873, and itself a record holder for the largest telescope in the world for about seven years.

U.S. Naval Observatory 26-inch Equatorial Refractor.

The brick pier (the permanent "stand" for the telescope), is somewhat distinctive, as most top quality telescopes used either solid marble or steel piers.  The ladder on the side is quite distinctive too, as others have stairs or spiral stairs or nothing fixed there at all.  The shape of the mounting bracket on top of the pier is also very similar.  Even the wheels that the dome sits on are somewhat distinctive in their spacing (and in being there at all, and visible).  But the real clincher is the split arched door panels that access a space in the pier.  I haven't found any other telescope anywhere with this feature. I can only assume that space was for the clockwork mechanism used to keep the telescope rotating in synch with the earth so the stars wouldn't drift out of view.  Such mechanisms were completely standard equipment, and sometimes inside the pier, other times on the outside.

It was a bit harder than it should have been to find this telescope, because in 1896 the Naval Observatory moved the telescope to a more remote location away from the foggy river, and replaced this pier with one that was inspired by the record-setting 36 inch James Lick telescope from 1888.  That telescope featured a movable floor that could be raised or lowered to match the height of the bottom of the telescope regardless of the angle.  The Navy's new dome copied this movable floor, and the new pier looks much like the Lick telescope's pier.

Most images of the Navy 26-inch show the new pier from 1896, very different from the original.
Image from Scientific American,  July 1896.
It is notable that the new location was commissioned in 1891 and a "steel" dome was ordered to house the telescope, although this may have only meant a steel frame, which would be more typical.  Depending on when they wrote this description, the Nelson brothers may have heard of these plans to move to a new steel dome, and that may have been part of their inspiration.  (By the way, the Lick Telescope was almost the end of the line for refractors.  The Yerkes telescope is the only one to beat it, in 1897, at 40 inches, a record that stands to this day.  The Yerkes also featured the same movable floor design, and the pier looks like a brother of the Lick and Naval telescope piers.  The difficulty of making lenses this large, together with improvements in stabilizing large mirror designs, meant the astronomy community switched to reflector telescopes for their ever larger designs.  The current record for reflectors is now 10.4 meters, or for comparison purposes, 409 inches in diameter.  Reflectors also can be extremely short relative to their diameter, hardly longer than they are wide, whereas a 19th century refractor this diameter would have to be 300-500 feet long.)

I don't know if this telescope was mounted on a tower.  But the Naval Observatory's best telescope from 1844 was mounted as shown below.  Likewise, the Great Refractor here at Harvard is similarly mounted on a tower built inside a building (although it isn't as tall, and from the outside you'd never think of calling it a tower).  The tower provides a stable base all the way to the bedrock, to prevent telescope movement.  It also provides additional height to make sure the telescope clears any nearby trees or other obstructions.

"Tower" used to support the Navy's best telescope in 1944.  Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1874.

With the identification made, I wondered what their inspiration might be.  It is possible that they were able to visit the telescope in Washington D.C. but I don't know how much, or even if, they travelled.  I didn't find any satisfactory answer, but I did find several different drawings of this telescope, which is basically why I'm writing this blog.  So, preamble over, here are some popular depictions I found of just this one telescope.

I should first note that I can only tell you the date where I found these images.  This is not necessarily the date when the image was created, as later publications often borrowed or stole images from earlier publications.  This image from "American Observatories" in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, volume 30 (1890) is clearly a reproduction of the photograph near the top of this article, which I don't have a date on, but I believe was taken in 1873 or 1874.

From Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine, 1888
This image, from a different Frank Leslie publication, Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine from 1888, is frankly horrible.  The scale is off, and the details don't quite match the real telescope.  I can only wonder if it was reproduced from older pre-construction drawings of the telescope.  The Nelson brothers' drawing, while less tidy, is much more accurate than this one so I tend to believe this was not their inspiration.  On the other hand, it is from the same angle, and the telescope position on the mount is the same.

From Johnson's New Universal Cyclopaedia, 1880

This image from Johnson's New Universal Cyclopaedia: A Scientific and Populary Treasury of Useful Knowledge in 1880 is a better depiction of the telescope.  It also matches the telescope position and point of view the Nelson Brothers drew, but I think it differs too much in details to really be their inspiration.

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1874
This image from an article called "Observatories in the United States" from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, volume 48, May 1874 is also very similar to the photograph I have.  Not quite as similar as the previous drawing found in 1890, but similar enough that I still think it is likely linked to the photograph, and it is the reason why I think the photo dates back this far.

It's hard to judge exactly where they were exposed to information on this telescope.  It's possible they had multiple sources available.  It's entirely likely that I haven't found all the images that were floating around in their day.  It is clear though that there were plenty of popular depictions available.  This is possibly related to one of my favorite topics, the Linotype.  As much as I love to talk about its typographic shortcomings, the revolution brought about by this machine made newspapers four times longer, and made cheap magazines and books available to everyone.  From what I've read, the Nelson brothers did their work within the first decade of the Linotype's existence.  Was this too soon after the invention to be related?  Or did our culture change that quickly?

One other interesting thing I noticed in all of this is that the illustrators never seem to be credited.  Some of their depictions are awful, but others are amazingly detailed and beautiful.  There's a fantastic drawing of the Lick Telescope that puts any modern steampunk artwork to shame, and which I finally managed to find a high-resoution scan.  It's signed "E. Steinmetz", and yet I can find no sign anywhere of who this person is.  I'd love to see more of his or her work.

In the meantime, look for future blogs on QWERTY keyboard layout, and more on the Tic-Tac-Toe machine.  And someday I'll get back to the subject of sentence spacing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Mystery of the Victorian Tic-Tac-Toe Computer

"The Turk", 1769 chess machine.
In 1769, Woffgang de Kempelen debuted a mechanical device known as "The Turk".   The Turk was a chess-playing mechanical computer.  It consisted of a large console with gears inside, and a chessboard on top.  Seated at the console was a robot, with a mechanical, human-like, arm that would pick up real chess pieces on a real board, and move them to a new square.  The Turk won the vast majority of games it ever played.  For almost seventy years, until 1837, The Turk dazzled crowds with it's amazing (and secret) engineering.

Until it was revealed to be a massive hoax.

There was a master chess player hiding inside the desk (he could move out of the way while the cabinet was opened and shown to be empty to the audience).  The Turk was a puppet, controlled by a device similar to a pantograph.  It was only because one of the puppeteer chess masters eventually spilled the beans that the hoax came to an end.  Of course, a machine that played chess was an impossibility in that era.  Many at that time believed it would never be possible.

Charles Babbage was probably not one of those skeptics.  He actually played The Turk (and lost) in 1820, and while he concluded it was a human player, it still inspired him to invent mechanical computers.  Babbage created early designs for calculating machines called difference engines in the 1820s and '30s.  He also created designs for more complicated machines that were very capable computers.  Or could have been, if they had ever been built.  Among the devices that Babbage designed was a machine that could play Tic-Tac-Toe.  Again, though, such a machine was not built in his lifetime.

The next great events in the world of computing and strategy games seemed to wait another century.  In the late 1930s, Alan Turing and Claude Elwood Shannon laid down the theoretical basis for modern computing.  Alan Turing built an actual electromechanical computer to break the german ENIGMA cypher machine.  Perhaps based on this reaserch, or perhaps simply because we had reached the right time in history, clever engineers gave us two computerized strategy games.  In 1940 and 1941, two different machines were created that could play the game Nim—the Nimatron, and the Nim Machine.  One of these is generally credited with being the first machine that could play a game of strategy.

The Nimatron, 1941 World's Fair.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across an article from the January 1879 Issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, in which "An Automatic Tit-Tat-To Machine" is described by Frank T. Freeland.  The article is an explanation of how the machine is to be built and how it will function.  But more than a mere design, the article states that the machine was built, and was able to successfully play the game.  Allegedly it never lost.

How is this possible?  Could such a machine exist, and yet escape the observations of decades of computer historians?  Perhaps, like "The Turk", this machine itself was a hoax?  At this point, I have no corroborating evidence, but I'll lay out the case for the machine's existence.

Francis Theodore Freeland was born in Philadelphia in 1859.  He attended the University of Pennsylvania where apparently his game machine was an undergraduate project in his senior year.  He graduated in 1879.  After graduation he stayed on for two years as an Instructor of Mechanics.  He was a member of the Engineer's Club of Philadelphia.  He wrote at least two more papers (Linkages for xm, American Journal of Mathematics, volume III, 1880 describing a machine for finding roots; and A Machine for the Solution of the Equation of the Nth Degree, Engineers and Engineering Volume 2, 1880) and gave several talks (such as calculating the weekday from a date, and space-filling calculations for sphere stacking).  In 1880, Engineers and Engineering mentioned that he exhibited a machine for solving quadratic equations, although I haven't been able to find any signs of a paper on this, or even if the machine worked on digital or analog principles.  But it's also an indication that his mechanical and mathematical skills were well-demonstrated.

According to a footnote of the Freeland's paper, the machine and his paper ended up at the Franklin Institute by the recommendation of William D. Marks.  Dr. Marks was a professor of mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania.  Eventually he would be an honorary lifetime member of the Franklin Institute, and the Whitney Professor of Dynamical Engineering at the University, a very prestigious position.  These facts, more than anything else, lend a great amount of credibility to the device's proper functioning.

Still, I can't find any corroborating evidence.  While I have found a few articles in other sources about this device (Gentlemen's Magazine, American Stationer, and a newspaper in Illinois), they all seem to be rehashes of the Franklin Institute article, rather than independent stories based on seeing the machine.  This is the most troubling issue.  Wouldn't such a machine be major news, and create a big stir?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps with the folklore of "The Turk" still looming in the culture people were skeptical and unimpressed.

During his time as an instructor, Mr. Freeland took a post-graduate course (which I assume means an entire program, not merely one class) in mining engineering.  He moved to Colorado, where he became a well-known figure in the mining world, publishing papers, writing, filing at least two patents, and making a fairly large pile of cash.  He retired young and travelled the world.  Unfortunately he also died fairly young, at the age of 48, during a return visit to Philadelphia.  His obituaries talk at length about his mining contributions, but no mention at all is made of his Tic-Tac-Toe machine or other mechanical contributions.

Mr. Freeland apparently had a most promising career ahead of him as a mathematician and mechanical engineer.  Why did he move to Colorado and take up mining?  Was it simply a desire for fortune?  Unfortunately we're not likely to find answers on these questions.

The next example I can find of a Tic-Tac-Toe machine is a 1949 "Noughts and Crosses" machine built by Donald Watts Davies in Great Britain.  It included some sort of lighted display grid, and a plugboard for making moves (see it in action).  This was followed in 1952 with a Tic-Tac-Toe machine made from phone relays by the Bell Telephone company to demonstrate the power of their new relays.  If his device really worked, Mr. Freeland was seventy years ahead of his time.

Davies' 1949 Noughts and Crosses machine.

As for Freeland's device, I've only given a brief look at the design.  One positive is that the "user interface" looks like something that anyone could use.  It has a Tic-Tac-Toe board with mechancial Xs and Os that slide up and down in front of openings.  To play, you would move the sliding X/O into place yourself.  It seems that no help was needed by the player.  Without a human operator between the player and the machine, it would seem fairly difficult to pull off a hoax.

Cutaway front view of Freeland's machine, showing the X/O sliders.
Another positive is that the machine wasn't that showy.  "The Turk" was all about the visual performance, and (of course) the inner workings were kept secret.  Here the inner workings for this machine were published and reviewed by the best mechanical minds of the day (decades after difference engines were designed and built).  (And as an aside, the Nimatron pictured earlier does not survive this standard very well—it was very showy, large enough to hold a person, and supposedly had a built in delay to simulate the time it would take a person to play.  Hmm.)

So far, I'm fairly optimistic that this was a real working machine, but I have to remain open to the possibility that this machine was simply another "Turk".  The obvious next step is to analyze the device in more detail and see if it could actually function.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Magic of the Modern Font

One of the oft-repeated myths around sentence spacing, is that modern fonts don't need an extra space because the fonts know how to fix sentence spacing.

What does that mean, exactly?  The statement is so vague as to be meaningless.  What needs to be fixed?  How is the fixing accomplished?  How does the font magically determine what is and is not a sentence?

If you feel that sentences don't need any extra space at all, I suppose you could argue that fonts do nothing, and that this "fixes" the problem.  But I really don't think this is what anyone means.  Everyone seems to believe that the font is doing something.  What could it be doing?

The answer is, not much.  Fonts have almost no magic built into them (except for the scaling and low-resolution rendering magic, which is impressively magical).  But they do have pair-kerning, and this may be the magic that some people are putting their faith in.

Kerning is the adjustment of the overlap of, or space between letters (or other characters).  Historically, a kern used to be the piece of metal that stuck out on letters that needed to overlap.  For example the upper-case T should overlap with most letters.  For letters where this wouldn't work, typesetters had to insert an extra space to avoid a collision with the kern.  And "kerning" itself didn't really exist, other than as a word for manufacturing type to a given (and permanent) width.  Once a font was created, kerning was never adjusted.

But these days, you can't shake a stick without hitting some hipster designer babbling on about how he tuned the eff out of the kerning in his new t-shirt design.  Of course, this is always about a designer making a mostly graphical design with some text.  Nobody actually goes through and tinkers with the kerning of the text in the middle of their term paper.  For plain text, people use the kerning that is built into a font, just like they did with handset type.

In modern fonts, each character is created with a default width, much like the physical width of the sorts back in the day.  But modern fonts have this concept of pair kerning too.  Pair kerning makes adjustments to the kerning for specific letter pairs.  For example with the letter T, you want letters that could tuck under it to actually do so, otherwise they will appear much too spacey.  All good modern fonts do this, and they do it all the time for everything.  This means I can type in a sequence of letters like "LYAVATJ", and the pair kerning built into the font should know that every single one of these letter combinations is special, and requires a bit of extra adjustment.  This makes modern fonts far superior in their unaltered spacing to old handset fonts.

A good modern font might specify special tuning for hundreds of pairs of letters.  So this can be used to fix sentence spacing, right?  Wrong.  Modern fonts almost never define any special pair kern for the period and space.  And the very few that do, define a negative pair kern, that is, they reduce the size of the visual space after the period, making it even smaller than a word space.

To understand why they don't do this, we only have to observe that periods are not simply sentence enders.  They are also used in abbreviations and (perhaps most importantly for this context), in initials.  So for example, J. K. Rowling might well need to be tightened up in the eyes of some, and in this case a negative kern makes sense.  Of course there is no way for the font itself to distinguish this usage with a sentence boundary usage.

[And as much as I love grammatical and typographic holy wars, I'm not going to get into discussions at this time as to whether one should use J.K. Rowling, J. K. Rowling, J K Rowling, or even JK Rowling.  Suffice it to say that on this one, the historical record is all over the map.  Also, let me add that neither J-period-space-K nor J-period-K did a very good job of kerning on my screen just now.]

There are even some fonts that build in extra space to the default width of the period, and then apply pair kerning exceptions for that.  This minority of fonts de facto adds extra space between sentences.  But again, it also adds extra space between initials and after abbreviations, where it isn't needed.  Hopefully fonts that use this method will then add in pair kerning for numbers so that 3.14159265 does not end up with extra space in the middle.  And hopefully letters too so that e.g. the text "e.g." won't be split open.  This seems like a bad idea, complicating the font, while not actually fixing anything.

When you get down to it, fonts are just data, which is why they really can't do anything.  Modern software though is a different story.  Whether we are talking about page layout or word processing or even the text tools in image software, the editing of text and conversion of unformatted text into formatted text can be pretty spiffy smart.  So maybe when people say that fonts magically fix things, they actually mean that the software is fixing things for you?

Sadly this is not the case.  You can't just "trust the software".  You have to know what your software is going to do, because there is almost no consistency in handling of sentence spacing in software.  Unix tech-heads that use vi and emacs can benefit from sentence detection based on two spaces between sentences (hooray).  But troff originally could only identify sentences when the terminal punctuation was followed by a carriage return or newline.  More modern gtroff does this, but also uses the two-space habit as a means of sentence detection.  TeX takes the view that EVERY period followed by a space is a sentence boundary, and you have to explicitly find each occurrence that is not a sentence boundary and label it by hand.  Yuck.

But those are all old-school plain text processors that format from plain text to print.  More modern WYSISYG software, like Word for example usually has much worse support.  Word dutifully trusts that all spaces you type are spaces that you mean, and keeps them.  Other editors have taken their cue from the monospacers and only let you type one space.

 In fact, the only consistent software out there is the majority of software that chooses to do absolutely nothing with sentence spacing.  In other words, the majority of software does not fix sentence spacing at all.

If there is any software out there that takes into account the period-space pair kern and attempts intelligent sentence boundary detection and tries to fix spacing of initials, abbreviations, decimal points, and sentence boundaries all in different ways based on all of these factors, I'm not aware of it.

In order for software to "fix" sentence spacing, it has to know what a sentences is.  The best way for that to happen is for users to tell the software what a sentence is.  And as luck has it, we already have a way to communicate this to the software, with two spaces between sentences.  Sadly fonts don't, and can't, have any magic that will do this.  Software can have this magic, but modern software developers generally don't have a clue about real typography.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

One or two spaces after a period? How about three?

The number one myth I see repeated about sentence spacing is that wide spacing came from the typewriter, to make up for the monospaced fonts.  I've talked about it before.  But it seems like it really needs its own dedicated article, and I think I have a more complete argument anyway.

There's basically two parts to this myth.  First, that monospaced fonts demand wider sentence spacing.  Second the statement or implication that wide sentence spacing was created just for the typewriter.

Let's start with the idea that monospaced fonts demand wider sentence spacing.  This is the hardest argument to make, being largely an aesthetic argument.  Still, there's always been a certain logic to visual design.
Growth (shrinkage) of letters from Times New Roman to Courier.

Most of the letters in a proportional font would have to grow significantly to match the size in a monospaced font.  And typically the space character must grow the most.  If we look at the New Times Roman font, we see that the two narrowest characters are the space and the period.  These two characters combined as they would between sentences take up less space than even a pair of "i"s or a pair of "l"s.  (And let me be clear that, contrary to another myth, modern fonts offer no "magic" that fixes sentence spacing; this is probably a topic for future blogging).  In New Times Roman it turns out the letter "n" is exactly the same size as the space and period combined.  The word "no" is twice as wide as the space between sentences.  The word "me" is even wider than that.
Comparison of sizes of various characters, Times New Roman on the left vs. Courier on the right.
But in a monospaced font, every character is the same size as the next.  If you used one period and one space between sentences in Courier (or any monospaced font), together they would be the twice the size of the letter "n" and the same size as the word "no".  In effect, with one space between sentences in both fonts, the monospaced font doubles the visual gap between sentences, relative to the other letters and words.  Or, it doubles the space relative to the letter "n".  Of course even the letter "n" grows going from New Times Roman to Courier, so in effect the sentence spacing in a monospaced font (with only one space) is even more than doubled compared to the proportional font.  The only logical argument you could make is that with those giant spaces and punctuation characters, you'd be better off reducing space between sentences, not increasing it.

But as I said, this is an aesthetic argument, so perhaps applying logic or math is just not relevant.  Fine.  The claim in this myth is that people looked at monospaced fonts, and said "this is unsightly, we must use more spaces".  If so, shouldn't there be a historical record of this?  If this myth is true then we would find narrow sentence spacing, and then the invention of the typewriter, followed by wider sentence spacing (two spaces) only on the typewriter.

And yet this is what printed text looked like before the typewriter:
From The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, printed in 1869.
First, lets get past one other part of this myth that sometimes crops up: the font is proportional.  There are those who are so confused on this issue that they believe that proportional fonts themselves are a modern, post-typewriter invention, but this is not true.  Proportional fonts have been the standard since movable type was invented in the 1450s.  And now look at the sentence spacing: it's very wide.  It's about three times as wide as the space between words, although you'll note that the word spacing varies a bit in order to make each line justify.  Nevertheless, wide sentence spacing existed before the typewriter.  But this was no isolated incident.  Almost everything printed in English used this same standardized spacing.  Here are more examples of sentence spacing, mostly taken from books about printing and typography:

Mechanik Exercises: Or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, Joseph Moxon, 1683
New England Courant, December 11 1721, published by James and Ben Franklin (this was the second newspaper published in America, founded in August 1721).
Typographia, John Johnson, 1824
The Practice of Typography: Modern Methods of Book Composition, Theodore Low DeVinne, 1904
Modern Printing volume 2, John Southward, 1915
Note that the last two are actual descriptions of sentence spacing.  The 1904 quote is instructions for the Linotype, while the later 1915 book shows more traditional hand-compositing instructions (although this is a later edition of an 1898 volume, which I was unable to find).

Almost everything printed in English from the late 1500s until around 1950 used more space between sentences than between words in a sentence.  This wasn't some haphazard practice, it was very well-defined: every typography manual I've ever read up until the invention of the Linotype that describes sentence spacing says to use an em quad.  This is a spacing element in handset type that is as wide as the typeface is tall (including the minimal built-in line spacing).  As I mentioned with the illustrations above, the em quad is about three times as large as the spaces used between words in that era (modern fonts tend to use even narrower word spaces, closer to one quarter the size of the em quad).

One of the examples above is from Johnson's Typographia, an early seminal work in typography.  In addition the excerpt shown, it also says the "m-quadrat is the proper space after a full point when it terminates a sentence in a paragraph."  This exact same wording can be found in literally dozens of other books on typography in the nineteenth century, largely because copyright laws were less well-defined back then, and Johnson's Typographia was heavily plagiarized.  Of course Johnson didn't invent this standard.  Here's what a few other books on typography (that did not plagiarize Johnson) say on the subject:
"M-quadrats mostly begin paragraphs, by an indention of the first line ; one of them is likewise the proper space after a full-point, when it terminates a sentence in a paragraph." – Typographia, J. Southward, 1824
"The m-quadrat ... is used ... after full stops, to designate that the sentence is ended." – Universal Technological Dictionary, Volume 1, George Crabb, 1833
"An em quadrat [...] separates one sentence from another when the end is indicated by use of a period" – American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking, W. W. Pasko, 1894
On the other hand, there are some texts that don't describe the practice at all.  For example, Joseph Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing" is one of the earliest known works about typography (1673).  He makes no mention at all of sentence spacing (although he uses wide spacing, as shown in one of the illustrations above.)  Several other books on typography gloss over this detail.  How could any comprehensive book on printing or typography skip over something so critical?

Take a look at this:
Enhanced image of the original copy of the Declaration of Independence, 1776.
That's a piece of the Declaration of Independence.  And it uses wide sentence spacing throughout.  But that's got nothing to do with the printing business, right?  Remember that in this era, every single document that was not printed on a printing press was handwritten.  And the standard practice in that era for handwriting was wide sentence spacing, just like the printing business.  (Note that it's unclear to me which came first, as I haven't researched handwriting practices in the 15th or 16th centuries.)  It was what everyone learned to do in school (if they learned to write).  Wide spacing was so ubiquitous in English, some authors felt it literally was not worth mentioning.

It was into this environment that the typewriter was born.  It began production in 1873, and by the mid 1880s began to become a fixture in modernized offices.  It was only natural that the same wide sentence spacing used everywhere else was also used on the typewriter, and that's exactly what was done.  And how much space did they use between sentences?  As I said, the em quad was about three times as big as typical word spaces back then, so naturally most people recommended three spaces between sentences, to replicate professional print quality.

Here's what some sources instructed in those early years.
"Properly divided sentences add considerably to the neatness of a document, and this may be done by spacing three times between each." – The Shorthand Review, Volume 3 No. 4, April 1891 
"... it is well to strike the space-key once after a comma, twice after a colon and semi-colon, and three times after the question mark and full point." – The Shorthand Review, Volume 5 No. 10, October 1893
"A full stop at the end of a sentence should be followed by three spaces, as also the note of interrogation and the note of admiration." – A Manual of the Typewriter: A Practical Guide to Commercial, Literary, Legal, Dramatic and All Classes of Typewriting Work, I. Pitman, 1893
"...and remember to space three times following each sentence." – Typewriting Instructor and Stenographer's Hand-book, Practical Textbook Company, 1892
And here's a typewriter sample from the Remington typewriter catalog in 1886 (those circles are a typewriter keyboard diagram, bleeding through from the reverse side of the page):

Remington Standard Typewriter, typewriter sample, 1886
Not all sources agreed though.  Both "Scott Browne's Typewriting Instructor" from 1882 (ish) and "How to Become Expert in Typing" (1890) stated that two spaces should be used.  There's hardly any mention of a disagreement.  In 1899, "Pitman's Journal of Commercial Education" (also known as the "Phonetic Journal") described an article in "The Gem" and notes its disagreement on spacing with "Pitman's Typewriter Instructor".  And a year earlier, a letter was written to "The Phonographic Magazine" asking the following:
"Are there any stated rules for spacing after punctuation marks in typewriting?  I notice that some writers put a space after a comma, and two spaces after a period, while others do not put any extra space after a comma and only one space after a period.  Which is correct?"
The answer provided was the latter, one after a comma and two after a period.  But it's interesting that the writer had seen such diminishing space on the typewriter.  At any rate, over the next couple of decades, sources all converged on two spaces between sentences.  I've found no explicit statement on why this happened.  But it seems obvious that given the extra wide size of spaces and punctuation on these monospaced typewriters, three spaces just looked too big compared to printed text, and some minority even felt that two were too big.

This is the complete opposite of the modern mythology of sentence spacing.  Remember that the claim is typewriters demanded more space because of the wide and uneven letter spacing.  The myth is false—history shows that typewriters demanded less space than people were used to.

So to review what we've demonstrated here, wide spacing did not come from the typewriter, and the large spaces on the typewriter apparently demanded a change towards less, rather than more space between sentences.

In short, there is not one single shred of this typewriter myth that's true.  In my opinion, it's a great litmus test to see if anyone blabbing on about typography actually has any clue of what they're talking about.

So where did this myth come from?  I covered my hypothesis in a recent blog.  But that's just a bit of the history.  This myth is really about marketing.  It's about people (generally lazy editors) who want to make everyone change their spacing habits by pigeon-holing two-spacers as being old fashioned and clueless.  It seems to me we should be fighting fire with fire.  But that's a topic for another day.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

That Slate Article

That Slate article by Farhad Manjoo is insanely popular.  It drives me nuts because it's all lies and distortions.  I didn't want to give his article any more attention than it already has, but apparently that approach was not working.

Here then is a list of many of the factual problems in this article:
"Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know. ... Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences.
Not true.  As a group, typographers have come to no such conclusion.  Some people who call themselves typographers make this claim, but many do not.  There's no sort of typographers' convention or union or club where they all get together and decide these things.  There's no document, no vote, no scholarly paper or journal.  There is only Farhad Manjoo telling you so.
James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing.
Let's look at what Mr. Felici actually said in that article he linked to.  For starters he said this: "I am not a type historian".  OK, so not an authority on the subject.  He also says that the books he can find all seem to use wide sentence spacing.  That hardly sounds inconsistent.

In fact, if Mr. Felici were a type historian (and honestly he is somewhat, just not enough on this particular topic), he'd know that in fact from about 1650 to 1900 was a period of incredible consistency in type.   Almost every book in the english language was printed with an em space between sentences.  And every typography manual in that period that describes sentence spacing says to use an em space (or more accurately an em quad).

Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces.
Mr. Felici didn't say this so I assume that we're back to Mr. Manjoo speaking from his posterior.  In fact as I said, the em space was incredibly standard.  Further, no typographer at that time counted spaces one, two, three.   They measured the distance in ems and used whatever spacing elements (thin space, 5-per-em, 3-per-em, en space, em quad, hair space) were needed to make things fit.  Anyone who knows anything about typography should know this.
Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type.
Typographers had plenty of options for adding emphasis to type, and they used them.  In fact one could argue that they had more control over spacing for emphasis than we have today.  As for standards and conventions, some details (but not sentence spacing) were a mess early on.  But by the 18th and 19th centuries, these details had been ironed out.  Much like today, there were certainly issues that were hotly debated.  Sentence spacing was not one of those issues though, so I'm not sure how any of this is relevant even if it were true.
But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.
Since it rests on a lie, this is a distortion.  It's not true that they "began to adopt best practices".  Best practices changed after being standard for over two hundred years.  If he had said it that way, you might ask the obvious question "what changed?".  What changed was industrialization, and widespread use of the Linotype, a machine that was severely limited in spacing capabilites compared to hand-set type.

I cover this in several other articles on this blog, but essentially we stopped using wide sentence spacing because it complicated the printing process (see these postings: "A River Runs Through It", and "The Cost of Printing Errors on the Linotype").
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule.

This is an outright lie.  For one thing, he immediately mentions that the American Psychology Association thinks that two spaces are needed.  And then twists the story by saying that they prefer one space for published works, although I can find no evidence that this is the case.  He goes on to quote the Chicago Manual of Style.  That's interesting because on their website they say (in the first answer) "Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer [two spaces]" Of course, Mr. Manjoo does not quote the Modern Language Association's answer, which says "As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks".

As I said earlier, there's no organization of typographers in which such a thing could be decided.  There's not even a clear definition of "typographer" with many apparently having applied this label to themselves (which may be part of the problem).
Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.
There's a significant problem here.  The typewriter was invented in 1873 (ish).  And yet wide sentence spacing was standard practice in English for hundreds of years before that.  And for another 80 years after its invention.  Wide spacing has literally nothing to do with the typewriter.  Also "everyone began to type wrong"?  How did people type before they had typewriters?  There was no such thing as typing.

If you don't believe me, you can just look at almost any old book before the invention of the typewriter.  Or you can listen to Mr. Felici, in the very same article that Mr. Manjoo references above, where he says "the use of double spaces (or other exaggerated spacing) after a period is a typographic convention with roots that far predate the typewriter."

Here's what actually happened: people used wide sentence spacing on the typewriter, because that's what they'd been seeing in print, and doing in handwriting, for longer than anyone alive could remember.

(By the way, the typewriter does play a real role in this myth.  The two space typewriter habit caused a real problem with later Linotype machines.  I blogged about this in "Two Spaces - an Old Typists' Habit?".)
Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.
As I already pointed out, this is not why they adopted the two space rule.  But I did hold back a little bit above, so that I could explain here that not only is he wrong about the adoption of the practice, he (and lots of other self-proclaimed typographers) have the story on the look of monospaced fonts 100% backwards.

Going from proportional to monospaced, most characters get wider.  But none more so than the space and period.  For proportional fonts, one space plus a period would be about the size of the letter "n" or maybe even a little smaller.  In a monospaced font, one space plus a period would be twice the size of the letter "n".  The only sensible conclusion is that monospaced fonts needed less space than the print industry.

Don't believe me?  Look at history.  Remember when I said they used wide spacing on the typewriter to match print?  They matched it literally.  The print industry's em quad was about three times as large as most word spaces, so on the typewriter initially most people used THREE spaces between sentences.  But because of the monospaced font, this made gaps that appeared much larger than what people were used to seeing in proportional fonts, so eventually people fell back to two spaces.  [Update: 3/20/2014, I added a new posting that goes into more detail on this.]
Besides, the argument in favor of two spaces isn't any less arbitrary.
That's only true if you don't bother to offer the arguments in favor of two spaces.

Here's what two spaces gives us: an unambiguous full stop.  The period means more than just the end of a sentence, it also is used in numbers and initials and abbreviations, and for other reasons.  This can cause confusion, e.g. "Who's going?" "You and I. Smith also."

Is that two people (You and Isabelle Smith) or three (you, me, and Smith)?

Of course since we read left-to-right, most of the issues of confusion aren't even technically ambiguous.  The grammar is obvious after you stop and analyze it.  But you shouldn't have to stop and analyze sentence structure, you should just read.  Wide sentence spacing avoids such issues.

As far as aesthetics, modern technology could give us a solution.  You could easily have a sentence spacing preference that adjusted the width of visible sentence spacing to the reader's aesthetic choice.  Except for one little catch.  Before a computer could do that (reliably) it'd have to know what a sentence is.  Which would be far easier with two spaces between sentences.  (Note that this blog implements this very feature.  The control is at the head of the right column).

So perhaps the best argument for TWO spaces between sentences is so that people like Mr. Manjoo could reliably and easily avoid looking at them.
Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.
That's how his article opens.  If every single factual argument he offers is in fact not true, can we still believe his thesis?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Two Spaces - an Old Typists' Habit?

I've already thoroughly debunked the myth that wide sentence spacing comes from the typewriter.  [And even more thoroughly, in a more recent posting.]  But many myths contain a grain of truth.  One might guess that the typewriter was blamed for wide sentence spacing simply because the "habit" survived longer on the typewriter than it did in the print industry.  It turns out there's more to it than that.

If you don't want to read some of my other blog postings, let me bring you up to speed.  First came very wide sentence spacing, at least two or three hundred years of it, in almost every English language publication (and even hand-written letters) of the day.  Then, at almost the same time in history two machines were invented: the Linotype machine which revolutionized newspaper, magazine, and book printing; and the typewriter, which revolutionized professional correspondence and record keeping.  Initially both technologies continued to use wide sentence spacing.  But in time, various technical and cost-related issues with the Linotype lead to increasingly narrower sentence spacing.  By 1950 most professional publications no longer used extra space for sentences, but most typewritten communications still did.

That brings you up to speed on how we lost the extra space between sentences.  But it doesn't quite explain why there is so much vitriol now against extra space, particularly from editors who lead the charge in telling us that using two spaces is nothing but an old typists habit.

The Linotype saved time and money for a number of different reasons.  One of the more significant reasons was time saved in justifying text.  The Linotype introduced a little piece of hardware called a spaceband, a variable space that could be used between words.  As a line of text was being set, the Linotype operator could with a single lever resize all of the spacebands in the line to get automated and even justification.
Simulation of the operation of spacebands on the Linotype.  (In actual operation, this was all upside down.)

Initially, wide sentence spacing was maintained by adding an additional fixed space (usually an en space) next to the spaceband for sentences.  From a modern point of view one might wonder why they didn't simply "use two spaces", that is two spacebands between sentences.  This could have been because you'd end up with too much expansion between sentences, compared to the expansion between words, and it would have looked bad.  But there was actually a much more important reason.

You weren't allowed to put two spacebands next to each other.

It was physically possible.  But as any well-trained Linotype operator of that era new, this mistake could at best end up with a bad linecasting, with extra fins of metal sticking out where the two spacebands touched.  You might also end up squirting out a bit of hot metal during the casting.  And perhaps worst of all, it was possible to damage the spacebands by putting them next to each other.

This in itself almost seems like the smoking gun.  But Linotype operators were typesetters, not typists.  They still didn't have the "one space or two" mindset of a typist, but rather "how much space".  The Linotype had several different fixed spacing elements that could be combined much as with traditional hand-assembled type, and the typesetter would never place two spacebands together when more space was needed.  If wide sentence spacing was called for, an experienced operator would have no confusion with "two spaces" or putting two spacebands together.

The Linotype used a very different keyboard from a typewriter.  The metal lever on the left was used to place spacebands in the line of text.

This was the case for the first seventy years or so of Linotype operation.  But in the 1950s and 1960s another technology began to become popular, the teletypesetter perforator.  This was not exactly new technology, as the Monotype used something similar since the late 1800s.  But it was relatively new to the Linotype.  And it was introduced to set type faster, and more cheaply.

The teletypesetter separated the typesetting task from the actual running of the Linotype, by storing the typesetting information on perforated tape.  Another machine could then be attached to the Linotype, and replay these typesetting tapes to produce the castings of the lines of text.

One reason this saved time and money was that the Linotype wasn't limited by the speed of the operator.  One Linotype could be run continuously, setting the instructions produced by two or three operators simultaneously.  But another big advantage was that teletypesetters eventually replaced the traditional Linotype keyboard with a modified typewriter keyboard.  The intent was that typists, with a little training, could be used to set type, further saving money by using relatively unskilled labor.

A teletypesetter perforator, with a typewriter keyboard.  The gauges for justification are visible in the upper right.

As the typist typed, the teletypestter punched codes into a paper tape to identify the letters being entered.  When the typist pressed the spacebar, an instruction was added to the tape to use a spaceband.  The teletypesetter also had two gauges to guide the typist in basic typesetting.  They showed the operator the minimum and maximum width of the line, assuming the spacebands in the line were at their minimum or maximum widths.  Once a line of text was long enough for what ever width column was needed, the typist could tell from the gauges.  They'd press the carriage return, the appropriate instructions for a new line would go onto the perforated tape, and the gauges would reset to zero.

Of course, the problem with spacebands still existed, and we now see a very real problem with the typists' habit of pressing the spacebar twice between sentences.  If the typist made this mistake, at best, the error would have to be found and the line of text retyped.  At worst, the mistake might result in damage and repairs and downtime on the Linotype machine.  One can imagine an editor's blood boiling the umpteenth time they had to hear about a delay on the Linotype because a teletypesetter operator had made the dreaded mistake of pressing the spacebar twice.

“By far the biggest item of cost of operation is damage to matrices and spacebands, which to a very great extent is traceable to ignorance on the part of perforator operators of the limitations and performance of the Linotype.” –British Provincial Press Productivity Team, 1952

It's my belief that this is the real source of the myth of the typists' habit.  The two-space habit was a very real problem on a teletypesetter.  It also explains the editors' hatred of the habit, a hatred so strong and deep that it would be passed down to editors today.

The next step in technology was the introduction of computerized justification.  It was no longer necessary for the teletypesetter operators to justify the text.  They could make paper tape instructions with nothing but the plain text.  That tape was fed into a computer reader, which would calculate the justification and line breaks, and produce a new tape with all the needed Linotype instructions.  The software would never place two spacebands together.  This is the source behind the claim that this software would eliminate runs of multiple spaces.  This is true only where spaces really means spacebands.  Other spacing elements could still be combined for additional space, although nearly a century of cost-cutting had mostly eliminated the practice.

This became particularly ironic when the teletypesetter and justification software were transitioned from the Linotype to phototypesetting.  Phototypesetting equipment still had a variable space, and they still called it a spaceband, but the actual spaceband hardware itself no longer existed.  At this point the space and the spaceband were pretty much the same thing.  Even though the original technological reason for eliminating multiple spacebands had disappeared completely, the solution to the problem remained in place.

Modern software still has a notion of a variable space, although nobody calls them spacebands.  Software can also solve many of the other problems that lead to elimination of wide sentence spacing.  Rivers of whitespace can easily be avoided by spacing between letters, and adjusting where words wrap and break.  Yet despite all the power and possibilities of modern technology we are still overrun by worshippers of the Linotype voodoo cult, yelling at us about extra spaces for reasons they don't even remember.

I suppose eliminating spaces has become just another old habit that's too hard to break.