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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The First Car Advertisement?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lost Key of QWERTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So really Unicode was no help to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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