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

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.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Jack with a Lantern

I did a little search for old images of Jack-o'-lanterns, which turned into a brief peak at their twisted history.

From Jack o'Lantern and Other Rhymes, 1883 (which features several jack-o'-lantern illustrations)
Halloween is an old holiday.  Viewed as a harvest festival it's extremely ancient.  But it's more modern form begins with an evening celebration before All Saints Day, a holiday of some branches of Christianity.  Also called All Hallow's Day, the evening before was All Hallow's Eve, eventually becoming Halloween.  Wikipedia says this name took hold by 1745, and I easily find it in several late 18th century sources.

By this time Halloween was already associated with supernatural activities, "witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings", especially fairies (from Robert Burns' footnote on his 1785 poem Halloween).  It was also associated with cabbage (also called "kail", and which might be the same thing in this context as turnips), which was apparently pulled up on Halloween as a way of predicting the size and shape of your future spouse (also in Burns' footnotes).  An 1897 source claims that cabbage may also be pelted against the door of a house if things get carried away, which certainly sounds like a "Trick" portion of "Trick or Treat".  This is somewhat verified by an article about Christmas and New Years celebrations in 1831 (The Edinburgh Literary Journal), which warns that if you don't reward "guizarders" (think Christmas carolers with clowns instead of singers), that you'd better keep an eye on your cabbage the following Halloween.

But probably just as old as Halloween, and possibly even older, are "Jack-o'-lanterns".  Except that they weren't pumpkins.  Depending on the source they were "fairies" or "spirits" or perhaps in more scientific contexts they were "meteors" (a general word in that era that included many unexplained glowing phenomena of the night).  Today you might have heard of "ball lightning" as a possibly related phenomenon.  The closest phrase you might have heard of these days would probably be "ghost light".

The demon version of the Jack-o'-lantern, from George Cruikshank's Omnibus, 1877.

There's a centuries old legend describing a light that's observed in the mist in swampy areas, which recedes away if the observer follows it, drawing them away from the path, sometimes to their doom.  Much like ball lightning, there's enough documentation on this phenomenon to wonder if it's more than just a legend.  And it has been scientifically investigated to varying degrees over time.  This phenomenon was called Ignis Fatuus (foolish light) in more academic sources dating back to at least the early 1600s.  Colloquially it has two popular names: Will of the wisp, and Jack of the Lantern (or sometimes Jack with the lantern), which are also at least that old.

Scientific investigations of the time blamed this effect on a few different things.  One possible source was the Aurora Borealis, however most descriptions generally seem to indicate that the light was close by.  One description claims that by holding still and averting their breath, an observer was able to use a Will-o-the-wisp to ignite a flame, and that where it occurred the ground could be set on fire.  This has led some to believe today that there is a very real "cold flame" chemical reaction involving methane and other swamp gases that created a light, which would recede because a person's breath and motions would disturb the delicate balance needed to preserve such a fragile chemical reaction.

In other words, blaming unexplainable phenomena on "swamp gas" dates back hundreds of years.

(Personally I can't help but wonder if the same refractive effects that cause Sun Dogs and Moon halos might under very specific circumstances of icy fog and moon position create an effect in fog that may appear very close, and yet appear to remain at a certain distance no matter where the observer moved.  Although given the "cold flame" descriptions from history, this would only explain a subset of these events.  It's easy to dismiss such descriptions as nonsense, but I like to remind myself that people who wrote those books were exactly the same human animals that I know today.)

From American Agriculturist, vol. 39, 1880
So why "Jack with a lantern"?  Why for that matter, "Will of the wisp"?   I had originally taken "Will of the wisp" to mean the fog had a will of its own, but apparently Will in this case means William, just as Jack is a name short for John (but often associated with mischief).  And some sources attribute "wisp" to a sort of simple torch made of bundled leaves and twigs, which makes it more of a parallel with the name "Jack of the lantern".

There's also a story of Stingy Jack that has been attributed as the origin.  There's a poem that I can find in 1851 about Stingy Jack and a deal he makes with the devil that keeps him out of hell.  Since he can't get into heaven either, he walks the earth, for some reason carrying a lantern.  However I find "Jack-o-lantern" seems to much predate Stingy Jack, so I'm inclined to think that Stingy Jack is a later bit of fun rather than an origin.  On the other hand, some similar lost tales may sit at the origin of both "Jack-o'-lantern" and "Will-o'-the-wisp".

Another source from 1834 claims that the real origin is the latin word "jaculantur", which has something to do with throwing spears.  In this alleged origin, nighttime spear-fishing was a popular sport at one time, and links the latin word with the person holding the lantern during this sport.  But as with Stingy Jack, I find no mention or hint of this in anything from the 1600s or 1700s.

At any rate, the name "Jack-o'-lantern" is apparently much older than the name "Halloween", easily appearing into the 1600s along with Will-o-the-wisp.  Some sources list it as Jack-o-lanthorn, where "lanthorn" is an alternate form for lantern which fell out of use in the 1700s.  It's often used as a euphemism for being led astray, even in the earliest sources I've found.

As the name of a ghost of fairy or spirit, the name "Jack-o-lantern" was naturally associated with Halloween as early as Halloween was associated with the supernatural.  But when was the name applied to the carved pumpkin?

From Harper's Weekly, 1867
Carving faces into vegetables is most likely the oldest aspect of this entire tradition.  Peruvian gourd carving is 3,500 years old according to many online sources, and I have no doubt that carving effigies into vegetables is substantially older than this.  More recently, Guy Fawkes night has in the past used painted or carved turnips for effigies of Guy Fawkes, generally burned and otherwise destroyed during the festivities, as noted (among several other sources) in the 1867 Harper's Weekly article that is the source of the above image.  It isn't clear if there was a candle in the turnip. However, many modern sources claim a close relationship in the practices of Guy Fawkes night (which is November 5th) and Halloween.

In another very old tradition, often attributed as a predecessor to pumpkin lanterns, the Scottish used to carve turnips into lamps and use them at Halloween.  According to an 1825 dictionary the entire turnip was carved thin enough to be translucent, and then the face was formed by "blacking" parts of the outside.  This was called a "Candle and Castock", where castock was a word that meant cabbage stalk or pith of a "colewort" (it's hard to track all this terminology since meaning seems to have shifted—cabbage, turnip, and "kail" seem to be used somewhat interchangeably).  At any rate, the same dictionary entry clearly establishes a connection to Halloween.  It would seem then that this would be a simple transition form turnips to pumpkins, but the history that I've found so far doesn't seem to confirm this at all.

Pumpkin lanterns seem to be fairly common in the U.S. through most of the 1800s.  It's important to remember that pumpkins (and other squash) seem to be an American plant.  Native Americans may have been doing this for thousands of years, but there's no direct record I know of that.  However the very earliest record I've found that combines pumpkins, lanterns, and faces, is from an 1832 story about native Americans in the New England Magazine, which describes a collection of "pumpkin lanterns, stuck upon poles, and carved into Indian faces with all sorts of inhuman distortions", and seems to tie them to the native culture.  Through the the rest of the 1800s, sources seem to indicate that carving a pumpkin and putting a candle in it was a boyish pastime, rather than a practical lamp design.  Most sources on pumpkin lanterns generally seem to assume that the pumpkin will be carved into a crude face as opposed to a plain lantern.  At least one source indicates that this was something done with useless, unripened pumpkins only.  Most of the sources indicate that it was often done as some sort of prank, used to attempt to scare children and the neighbors.

The earliest photo I've found so far, from Western Camera Notes, 1903
What's perplexing in all of this is that even though we have a turnip lamp with a face that's associated with Halloween by 1825, and pumpkin-face lamps existed around the same time, I can't connect pumpkin-lamps to Halloween from explicit sources until the 1890s (where sources are suddenly easy to find).  I can establish that pumpkin-face lanterns were called "Jack-o-lanterns" by 1855.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to an 1837 source, which is fairly convincing but still leaves room for confusion with the original meaning.  In fact, I've seen Jack-o'-lanterns or pumpkin lanterns mentioned in connection with Thanksgiving, Christmas (1876), and some sort of candle in a pumpkin for Easter (1845), before I see any connection to Halloween.

One thing I've learned about history is that you can't make strong assumptions about the culture based on books.  Today, our culture hits our media instantly.  But in the past "vulgar" culture was explicitly kept out of books.  Certainly this was tied to the expense of bookmaking, and the tendency decreased as the cost of making books steadily decreased.  In the 1600s and 1700s publishing was all about scholarly work.  In the 1800s, gradually more and more popular culture seeped into published works, as paper and presses became cheaper and higher quality, and printers proliferated.  And of course with the Linotype in 1886 and it's ability to produce about three or four times as much text at the same cost, popular culture overtook scholarly work.

So one might easily see the lack of an explicit reference as a simple oversight.  And yet I've read a few sources on Halloween customs that don't mention pumpkin lanterns at all, and a few sources on pumpkin lanterns that never mention Halloween at all.  This is hardly a rigorous analysis, but I tend to think that until the late 1800s, there was only a mild link between the two at best.

To summarize, based on my very brief examination, this is all I can confirm right now:

  • Jack-o'-lantern, the ghost/phenomenon, by the 1600s
  • Hallowe'en, by the 1700s
  • Turnip-lamps with faces for Halloween, by the 1800s
  • Pumpkin-lanterns with faces, by the 1830s
  • Jack-o'-lantern as the name of pumpkin-faced lanterns, by the 1850s
  • Jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween by the 1890s 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Britain on Hash

# part 2 

The "hash"?

In part one, we looked at the history of the number sign in the last few hundred years.  A brief overview of some very rough dates and usages (most of which probably happened a little or a lot earlier than what I've found):

1500s - musical sharp
1600s - proofreading symbol for space
1820s - Tic-Tac-Toe
1850s - number sign
1850s - pound sign
1960s - octothorpe.

But I left out the hash (or hash sign or even possibly hash mark) as a name and a usage.  This name is by far the most dominant name in England for #.  And after all the British created the English language, so they should know, right?

In a blog posting at about the name of the symbol, they claim that "the most common is probably hash."  I'm not sure who's posterior this "fact" was removed from, but lets hope it wasn't too painful.  It's certainly not the most common name in American English.  Perhaps they didn't realize the Internet extends outside of Britain.

Of course I'll readily accept that the British could never readily accept # as pound sign for weight, because that's already taken with their monetary unit, pounds sterling (£).  We'll just ignore the fact that the monetary unit comes from pounds of weight, which even the British have written as the symbol ℔ (which turned into the #) and which they'll read as "pounds".  Whatever.

Perhaps the real question is, what is the pedigree for "hash"?  Maybe the Brits really are right, maybe this is the true and genuine real name for this ancient symbol.

So I looked.

I've searched around in the 19th century, where I knew that "pound" and "number" were both well-established.  They certainly didn't use the word as a name for that symbol back then.  "Hash" was however a slang term for food, usually bad mass-produced food, sometimes a specific type of dish of meat and potatoes and other things all mixed together (i.e. bad mass-produced food).

In the 1910s and 1920s I find references for "hash mark" that referred to the military (or civil) navy marks on the sleeve used to indicate rank or experience.  We still call them that today.

Then, there it was, a reference to "hash mark" in 1920 that seemed like some other meaning entirely.  Granted it was still in a naval context.  But this usage was new.  Perhaps I was on the right track?
From The Log of the Columbia Naval Unit, 1920 (via googlebooks).
There it is!  A "hash mark" is also a synonym for a food stain.  That settles it.

At some point in the middle of the 20th century, Americans began referring to some of the markings on a football field as "hash marks".  That is to say, American football, not real (cough) football.  So yeah, we're not even going to explore this one as a possible origin.

In the 1960s I see hash tables appear in computer discussions.  And hashing algorithms.  This is a method of compactly storing and organizing random data in a semi-sorted and rapidly accessible form.  But as far as I can tell (and I'm a software engineer) there's never been any association between this method and the number sign.

Also in the 1960s, some old manuscripts from Mark Twain are published, including a story called "Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes", originally written sometime between 1896 and 1905.  In this story, a new monetary system is recommended, consisting of tenths of pennies called bashes.  A thousand bashes is one hash.  Of course, in the printing I've seen of this, no number sign is apparent.  Plus, Twain is American, so... no help here.

It isn't until the 1970s that I see the word "hash" used to refer to #.  A couple of things happened around this time.  One is that touch tone phones became popular, and incorporated the same keypad as in America, with this new and alien (to British) symbol.  The other is that "hash" became a popular nickname for hashish (which by the way is the origin of the word assassin).

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not suggesting that these two new uses of the word "hash" that happened at the same time had anything to do with each other.  I'm just presenting the facts here.  But the mere possible suggestion is interesting, because of the vacuum it fills.  That vacuum is the void that is not filled by a true origin story for calling # a hash.

Several online sources claim that hash came from "hatch", as in the cross hatching artists use when drawing.  Except, the only place I find this is in these claims.  They cite no additional sources, and I have found no additional sources.  I've only seen this as a just-so story presented to fill that vacuum.

Honestly, if we're just going to make stuff up, I prefer the hashish theory.

OK, all the jest aside, I did actually find SOMETHING.  A google search in books for "hash sign" brought me to this:

Can you see that here?  I can't get to the full content.  It looks like two different printings of the same (or a similar) article.  One uses a number sign, the other uses something new:
From Research Review. Navorsingsoorsig, 1968-1971 as found in a Google search.
The source of this is from some sort of review of papers of that day.  According to Google it's a publication of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.  It seems to be a description of a Keyword-in-context (KWIC) index, or of some sort of method for marking up or automatically creating a KWIC index.

I have found many other references to KWIC software systems in that era, and I haven't found any others yet that mention a hash sign, or a number or pound sign.  Several mention a dash, and also mention it together with a slash.  "Slash-dashing" was used as a verb in a few.

What does all this mean?  I don't know yet.  This could be a printing error.  Or a symbol I'm not familiar with being imported in, and later substituted with a number sign.  It could be some combination of slash and dash, which ends up looking like an "H".  (Thus "hash"?  Oh man, do NOT quote me on that one, that is how just-so stories are created.)  But if we are making up just-so stories, it does strike me that this new symbol along with the original number sign are highly reminiscent of hash marks on the sleeve of a naval officer.

Until more information comes in, I'm convinced the British made something up off the top of their heads, to explain an alien symbol that appeared on their phones.  They couldn't call it a pound sign, because that was taken.  They couldn't call it a number sign, what with all the other phone buttons having actual numbers on them.  So they just hashed it out I guess.

So where does this leave us?

I set out to find the pedigree of "hash".  It has none.  It's a word with no long history.  In fact, at the moment it has no real history at all, since nobody knows where it came from.  Perhaps more to the point, it seems to be completely meaningless.

Compare this to "number sign", which dates back at least 160 years, and probably quite a bit more.  It's still widely used and recognized as a number sign today.  It means "number" in this usage.  So we have both history and semantics on the side of "number sign" (and of "pound sign" for that matter).

We can't defer all decisions to the British simply because that's where the language started (although not really).  And of course we have to acknowledge that language changes.  This is an inevitable process.  But that doesn't mean we can't have opinions on how it might best change or not change.  The ability to continue to understand past writers is a great one, worth preserving.  Meaningless and pointless changes to the language don't provide any benefit to anyone, and it doesn't matter if it's the British introducing these pointless changes.  If we are going to take the time to think about our language, we might as well encourage meaningful communication.

One thing is certain: we can no longer entrust the English language to the English.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Sign of the Number


What is it?  How old is it?  Where did it come from?  And what should we call it?

The first time anything like this symbol appears in our history (as we've uncovered it so far) is one of the oldest known abstract marks made by any humanoid, in this case Neanderthals, about 39,000 years ago.
Neanderthal social media? (via Scientific American blog)
But that's a bit outside the focus of my blog, which is usually related to printing technology.  And so that's where we'll pick up this story.


The sharp is probably the oldest use of this symbol, although it isn't very clear when it really began to look like #.  Originally the sharp symbol (as well as the natural) derived from the same letter "b" that gave us the flat symbol in music ().  These symbols developed because in early attempts to record music (around the 12th century or earlier), the note B was the first (and for a long time the only) note that seemed to require modification.  To distinguish between the different versions of B they would add a notation using "b rotundum" (the round b), "b quadratum" (square b) and "b cancellatum" (barred b).

I haven't given this a complete study, so I don't know exactly when and how these morphed into our modern flat, sharp, and natural symbols.  But around 450 years ago, notation began to use multi-lined staffs to write the notes, often five line staffs but sometimes more.  In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted a printing monopoly to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd as exclusive printers of music.  Movable type was applied to the printing of music, and I believe this helped to standardize developing notations.  Their early published pieces included flats which are easily recognizable but the sharps looked more like a double X (and nothing at all like any form of "b").
From Cantiones Sacrae, 1575, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (via

Some forms even looked a bit like a flower.
From A Compendium of Practical Music in Five Parts, 1667, Christopher Simpson (via googlebooks)

Soon the sharp began to look more familar.

Sample of sharps and flats used in text rather than music, from A Preliminary Discourse to a Scheme Demonstrating the Perfection and Harmony of Sounds, 1726, William Jackson (via googlebooks)

Of course in modern music, the sharp looks noticeably different from the number sign, and in our digital world they're two separate characters, which also differ in appearance.  Here they are in this font:
Number:        #
    Sharp:       .


There's one other very old form of # which could be even older than the sharp sign (at least in recognizable form).  In the printing process, after a page of text and figures has been "locked up" in a "form", a proof is printed from the form and checked for errors, after which the form can be corrected.  There's a standard set of notations for marking these errors for correction (because the corrector is usually not the same person as the compositor).  The # symbol is used in the margin to mark lines where a space is missing (and the spot on the line is marked with a caret or slash). This same notation is still in use today.  The oldest reference I know of on printing, Joseph Moxon's 1683 text, also describes this notation:
From an 1896 reprint of Moxon's Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, Vol. 2, 1693 (via
Of course, Moxon was reporting it, not inventing it, so the usage must be quite a bit older than 1683.

In addition, volume 1 of this reference includes a standard layout for the compositor's cases.  The # is used here to mark the sort that other sources say is for spaces or large spaces (bottom row).
From an 1896 reprint of Moxon's Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, Vol. 1, 1693 (via
You might think, as I first thought, that this sort was where the number signs were kept, but this isn't so—other sources clearly mark it for spaces.  This leads to a question though, where in the case was the number sign?  It simply didn't exist as a standard printable character.  Perhaps you noticed that in my 1726 image above, the sharps appear to be hand-drawn (or more likely hand-carved characters).  Sharps were standard for music printers, but other than that, nothing like a number sign existed in the standard fonts.  Of course, many fonts had "specials", and much later on it it became  more common for specials to include a number sign, although the exact details are difficult to track down.


Another very old usage for this symbol is as a Tic-Tac-Toe board.  In printed descriptions, this is the third oldest form (based on what I've found so far), with a clear description of the game from 1823 under the name "Kit-Cat-Cannio" (Suffolk Words and Phrases; although they do not reproduce the game board).   An 1852 reference shows a game board, as shown below.  For reasons that belong in another post, I tend to suspect the game as we know it (and more to the point of this article, the game board) developed during the 1800s or at most the late 1700s.
From The Book of Children's Games, Constance Wakeford Long, 1852 (via googlebooks).


In 1853 I find this symbol described in a reference as an abbreviation for "number".  This is the earliest description of this usage I've found so far.  However three years earlier (1850) I've found the symbol used in account ledgers as a pound sign.  Which usage came first?  Safe bets at this point are that the printed description of number in 1853 trumps pound usage "in the wild" in 1850, because to be described the number usage had to be quite common.  And the earliest description of the pound usage I've found is thirty years later.  Still, I've barely scratched the surface in references so who knows what might turn up next?  At any rate, my assumption now is that usage as "number" is older than "pound".
From An Elementary Treatise on Book-keeping by Single and Double Entry,  1853 (via googlebooks).
Still, this usage remains quite perplexing.  In spite of the above description, I have so far not found any actual usage of it as such prior to the introduction of the typewriter.  Many of the sources that mention this usage do so in the context of business (or commerce or retail or something similar).  And yet I have still seen no sign of this symbol on old ledgers or inventories or anything of the sort.  I don't doubt that examples exist, I just haven't found them yet.

It's also a bit odd that there's no particularly compelling theories on how the number usage originated, even though we have tons of (bad) theories on the pound usage.  In print "number" is usually written out, but if it is abbreviated, it is either done as "No.", or as a single character that was apparently not uncommon to printers: №, as in "№ 2".  It's not clear if there's any relationship between the № and # characters, but there is a clear street use versus print dichotomy which I'll cover in more detail in the next section.


There's a number of theories out there on how this came to be used as a pound sign that all seem to center on confusion between the apparently American number sign and the British pounds sterling sign (£), relating to other technology like the telephone, the typewriter, the Baudot code (the first digital encoding scheme for the telegraph), or other early telegraph codes.  The Baudot code theory is by far the most common.

The telegraph system was invented in the late 1830s, more or less simultaneously in the United States by Samuel F. Morse and in England by Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke.  By the 1850s this "Victorian Internet" was changing the world.  And then in the 1870s, a Frenchman named Ă‰mile Baudot began tinkering with automatic decoding and printing of telegraph signals.  To do this, he invented a totally new code, a five digit binary code.  The claim is that American and British versions of this code used the number sign and pounds (sterling) sign in the same place.  There's a number of problems with this, a big one being that the Baudot code itself was almost never used in the United States.  Another big problem is that (despite an unsourced claim in Wikipedia) I can find no evidence that such a code collision ever occurred.  At least not exactly.  French and British codes overlapped the numero () and pound sterling (£) on the same code (shift-N).  However it isn't clear if # ever had dual meaning anywhere in Europe, or if it was an entirely American symbol.  Even if codes had overlapped, an obvious issue is that American usage of 12# (weight) and British usage of £12 (currency) are easily distinguished both based on order and context.

But of course the biggest problem is the timeline.  The # symbol already had dual meanings by 1853, and almost certainly much earlier.  This precludes any technology interference except possibly the original telegraph codes.  But again, I find no evidence of collisions (and in fact, no evidence that the number sign had any encoding at all) in any of the common telegraph codes of that era.

This all makes it seem more likely that if there was any confusion or overlap, it went in the opposite direction—documentation of a variety of different national code sets were confused by the pre-existing double meaning of #.  Or perhaps, if # was used or known in Europe, the double meaning even encouraged the use of the same code slot for these meanings.

The most popular theory and almost certainly the right one (in my opinion) is that the pounds meaning derived from the common usage of lb as an abbreviation for pounds, or more specifically for the latin "libra pondo".  This abbreviation of "lb" or "lbs" was common both then and now, but in addition to the abbreviation, it was also used as a symbol, by crossing a line through the letters like this: ℔.  (Some sources distinguish ℔ and lb. as pounds Troy and pounds avoirdupois respectively, however I haven't seen enough consistency across the long span of these usages to say that this is an accurate or useful distinction).  This notation goes back at least to Isaac Newton's time, as noted in online sources.  Here's an enlarged version of one of his ℔ symbols, together with a sample showing his use in context.
Isaac Newton's pound symbol, 1692 (via
As you can see, in its usual cursive form, it already looks a bit like a pound sign.  Note how he has used ℔ as a superscript.  I've found this it be a highly consistent usage in handwriting from his time through the 19th century, and one that helps convince me of the # usage when it turns up.  It's quite easy to find ℔ in old handwritten receipts and ledgers, as well as "lbs."  However use of an actual # is not that common.  I first found an 1887 receipt that includes 302 pounds of cheese (shown as 312-10=302) sold at 12 cents per pound for $36.24:
Unmistakable pound sign, 1887 receipt (via 19th Century Wellington blog).
Later I found this example from 1850.  It includes two pound signs, although the second one is smudged.  It's from a ledger in Hustonville Kentucky from 1850 and includes a line with 7-1/4 pounds of nails, then later 6 pounds of nails.

Two pound signs (one clear, one smudged), 1850 (via Kentucky Digital Library).
Early on it's even harder to find it described in a text than it is to see it in use.  The first mention in print I have found so far is this 1880 book, where its dual usage as both number and pound is mentioned:
From Book-Keeping by Single and Double Entry, 1880 (via
This mention comes thirty years after I see it "in the wild".  Of course it has to be fairly common to be mentioned in a book at all.  My assumption is that there was common usage among the people, in markets and in handwriting, where the symbol was long used to mean both number and pound.  And then there was the printing business, dominated primarily by academic concerns, and where these notations would be written out fully, or at least abbreviated in the more traditional printers' way as ℔ and №.  These two worlds rarely collided which is why it was so long before this usage was acknowledged.  This is supported by the fact that the character used in the above sample seems to be a sharp symbol, not a pound or number sign—they couldn't actually print the literal character in common usage on the streets, because even by 1880 it was still very unusual in typography.

Two technologies seem to confirm this notion: the Linotype, and the typewriter.  The Linotype was an extension of printing technologies.  The typewriter on the other hand was a replacement for people's handwriting.  The first typewriter in 1873 had no number sign (and no lower-case letters for that matter), but by 1886 at the latest, there it was, above the three, right where it is today.  Contrast this with the first Linotype that came out in 1886.  It had a rack of 72 matrices that could be used to mold characters.  None of them was a number sign.  But then, by 1906, Linotype had expanded to a 90-character rack of matrices.  But still no number sign.  It did however have the ℔ symbol.  Even by World War II, there was no standard number sign included in most Linotype fonts.  (And for the record, they existed, but were extras that had to be added in by hand, rather than from the Linotype keyboard.)

Diagram of Remington typewriter keys, from catalog ca. 1887 (via Harvard Library).
There's another clue hidden here that's related to the notion of printing versus handwriting.  If you go back and look at the full manuscript I linked to for that Isaac Newton reference, he seems to use a form of the ampersand that many still use today—a sort of a cursive plus sign.  It's a perfect example of common usage that we can all recognize, and yet it is very rarely mentioned in most printed documents.  This is possibly for the simple reason that its representation in typography is very rare.  In fact, I'm not even sure that version of the ampersand exists in Unicode.  If that form of ampersand can exist for so long without significant discussion, it gives me hope that there are some very old number signs and pound signs out there somewhere, represented as #.

Official name?

So you may have noticed that I have called this symbol a number sign a few times in this post as a more generic name.  Today, it's the most common usage (outside of social media of course).  It's seldom used to mean pounds anymore.  In my opinion, because of the widespread use of the symbol in this context, together with a long history as the same, "number sign" is our best bet as a name for this symbol.

But you may be wondering about a couple of other common names.  One of them, the octothorpe, has at least two origin stories, both linked to different sets of employees at Bell Labs around 1963.  One of them is almost certainly close to the truth.  In 2014, one of the claimants wrote a pretty detailed piece on the history.  But even the authors didn't seem to want it to catch on, and for the most part it hasn't.  Despite a few sources that call it the "official" name, this seems to have been little more than a joke.

Which brings me to the other common name, the "hash", or "hash mark" or "hash sign".  I think that one deserves a posting all its own, so you'll have to wait to see how I demonstrate that the British are ruining the English language in part two.

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.