True Stuff from Old Books: The Pleasures of Camping Out


Last week, I returned from Comics Camp in Juneau, Alaska! It was really, really great. I made, renewed, and formalized many friendships, and I left camp more inspired, less cynical, and more joyful than I had been going in.

If you’ve seen my “True Stuff from Old Books” talk, you’ve probably heard me read this bit, from an 1886 Frank Leslie’s article called “Camping Out”:

Popular FOREVER, is what I say.

Stumbling across this particular article is what first gave me the idea to start compiling and sharing True Stuff from Old Books selections at all.

It succinctly illustrates my favorite characteristic of this sort of material: it’s a beacon from the past, telling those of us here in the future that we’re not alone. We who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the present are kin to those who felt the exact same way in the past, about their own present. The feeling is not a failing on our part; it is simply human nature.

The article begins:

MODERN civilization may well be described by the words so generally applied to fire: “A good servant, but a bad master.” At no previous period have the appliances for easy and comfortable living been so numerous or so generally distributed among all classes, and the men of to-day have much cause for congratulation compared even with those of a generation since.

Whether for purposes of business or pleasure, the number of man’s servants has of late greatly increased. The telegraph, the telephone, the locomotive and the steamship, the modern printing press, and thousands of minor devices which add immensely to the sum total of his pleasures, are all willing servants if properly used; but once in control, they become the hardest taskmasters.

The telegraph and telephone offer a ready and useful service at all times; but, again, they often become the most rigid fetters, binding a man’s whole life to the office and exchange. Steam has increased to an enormous extent the ease and pleasure of traveling, but it is now too often used as a means for a rapid rush from place to place, with none of the pleasures which accompany more deliberate travel; and the many other adjuncts are too generally misapplied as a means for accumulating a little more money or building up a short-lived fame at the expense of health and true enjoyment.

Men have come to live fast, rather than well. (Emphasis added)

That’s the part I normally read out loud.

But that’s just the introduction to a much longer article, which in its entirety is about the pleasures of disconnecting from society and reconnecting with the outdoors.

There’s an extended section making fun of the ill-preparedness of novice campers: “When the meal is finally ready, it is a mixture of partly burnt, partly raw food, mingled with ashes, bits of stick, etc., that would scarcely tempt the appetite of an ostrich, and that even our tired campers are glad to turn away from in spite of their hunger.” It’s funny, but that whole section is really long, so I won’t reprint it here — I’ve put in a separate post if you’d like to read it.

I thought I would share some other parts of the article, though, that mirror some of how I felt about Comics Camp.

Picking up from where the previous excerpt left off:

…Men have come to live fast, rather than well.

The wise man is he who, while appreciating and utilizing all these privileges to the fullest extent, has independence of mind sufficient to dispense with them at times, and to refresh himself and renew his life and vigor by a short return to mother earth, and a more primitive form of existence.

The average American, with his characteristic energy, is apt to devote himself early in life to some special object, which he probably will attain eventually, but for years he has time neither for rest nor pleasure. When he is in the position to enjoy a well-earned respite, all capacity for doing so has been lost, and he must remain a money-getting machine or die speedily of ennui.

The great importance of recreation, and especially of outdoor sports, was long lost sight of in the busy days of our earlier history, when a vigorous outdoor life was followed by most men from necessity, but there came a time, later on, when mercantile pursuits began to overbalance the agricultural, and it seemed as though the health of the nation must suffer from a too close devotion to work.

Comics Camp was an adjunct to the Alaska Robotics Mini-Con I mentioned in my last post. Perhaps some of you reading this were at the con! I had a lovely time there, it was a pleasure meeting readers from Alaska.

On the evening after the convention, we piled into a school bus and spent three nights at a church camp in the outskirts of Juneau.

a unique method of being inspired

…Fortunately a reaction has now set in. Men, and women too, realize the importance of more fresh air and outdoor exercise, and sports of all kinds were never in a more promising condition in America than they are to-day.

Each, from yachting to lawn-tennis, has its patrons and its proper place as an agent of health and a means to a higher physical life; but none is […] so pleasant and beneficial as a few weeks spent under canvas in the open air, or, as it is generally called, camping out.

There was no internet at the camp, but there were cabins, and campfires, and hiking, and crafts, and creative workshops led by peers for the benefit of peers, and lots of good food and conversation.


…What is needed is a period of rest and repose, free from all cares of business, with pleasant and healthful exercises and sport, and without too many of the inevitable deprivations and discomforts…

The permanent camps are fitted up rather more elaborately than those in tents. A stove of simple construction is fitted for cooking, chairs and tables of rustic design are improvised, beds are made of a rough framework covered with tightly stretched canvas, or hammocks are swung, and the walls are ornamented with trophies from the woods…

No morning paper breaks in with an unwelcome interruption. No stock “ticker” tells of rising or falling markets, and for a time the annoyances of business and the exactions of society may be neglected with impunity.

Without access to the internet, a question that could be Googled in five seconds would instead result in an impassioned 20-minute discussion. Without distractions, we found ourselves turning inward, to each other. I left my phone in my cabin most of the time (which is why some of these pictures are courtesy of pals).

We played a mini-LEGO tournament. I got second place, incredibly enough, but new friend Katie Shanahan was the champion!

We kept a list of things to Google when we got home. We joked about “calling up the internet” on a landline and trying to use touch-tone to navigate around a browser window.

Photo by Benjamin Soileau
Photo by Benjamin Soileau

…To some central point chosen for its natural beauty, Lake George or the Thousand Islands, come hundreds of pilgrims from all quarters, not strangers to each other, but nearly all bound by one common tie, whose greatest pleasure it is to meet together for a couple of weeks each year in the hearty companionship that a life in camp engenders.

Tents of all patterns are pitched by the score on the hillside and in the grove. Flags and pennants fly from high trees; at night huge camp-fires and rows of Chinese lanterns light the scene, while the inhabitants of this curious and ephemeral city vie with each other in the variety and brightness of their picturesque apparel.

The time is filled with races, fishing, short trips about the vicinity, in visits to the ladies’ camp a mile away; and, best of all, in the still hours of the Summer night, when the fire burns up from an enormous pyramid of wood on the highest hilltop, in songs and stories of other camps, of long cruises, of adventures on the Mississippi, on Lake Gorge, in the Everglades of Florida, in the wilds of Northwestern Canada and on the rivers of India — for the canoeist of to-day cruises everywhere — and wandering in distant lands, every experience is carefully treasured until the time when he returns, as all do, to this shrine of the craft, to be related to listening friends.

There were lots of good times around campfires. When it was ghost story time, I told a totally true one about a curious herring-boat vanishing from Helsinki and appearing in Reykjavík under mysterious circumstances.

When it was singalong time, we sang one of the old traditional favorites.

When it was late and cold and rainy, we huddled under sleeping bags and dared each other to stay up longer.

…After half an hour over pipe and book, the light is turned out, all is made snug, and the tired canoeist is soon dreaming of a Summer camp a year, instead of a fortnight, long.

Next morning he is up by sunrise, for time is very precious; his breakfast is ready; all is cleaned and packed away, and the canoe launched. Off again, under sail or paddle, he hurries here, or loiters there at will, stopping, perhaps, for dinner, and then off again, until he turns toward home in time to return to the white collar and black coat of civilization in the evening, or, at latest, to be at his desk in the office next morning.

Without glass houses we can throw all the stones we like
Photo by Kate Beaton

the shining light of pals on parade

they will know us by the marks we leave
On the final night, the camp band (Molly, Seth, Marian, and Nicole) sang a song about how much they loved and appreciated the hard work the camp cook was doing. Her name was Juste, so they sang a version of “Jesse’s Girl” that they changed to be about “Juste’s Grill.”

It was one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a long time. It brought tears to my eyes, I will not lie.

It did not seem saccharine or silly. Nobody was too cool for school. We, citizens of the internet, had re-learned how to be sincere.

It was incredible.

everybody sing along
Photo by Jenn Klug

As I mentioned above, I also formalized a number of friendships. I came to believe in the value of putting a stake in the ground and saying, without ambiguity, “Yes. We, previously acquaintances or strangers, are now each other’s friends.”

friends FOREVER >:|

…Strange as it may seem, the life, like that of the sailor, has its own peculiar fascination — once away from it and amid the pleasures of the city, a restless longing takes possession of one which is satisfied but by a return to the freedom and vigor which only a close intimacy with earth, air and sky can give.

Truer words were never written.

Photo by Jeremy Spake
Photo by Jeremy Spake

Pat Race, pictured above, camp director and mastermind extraordinaire, has just opened a mailing list so folks can be informed about next year’s Comics Camp.

I hope you will consider it!!

True Stuff: Alexander Graham Bell vs. Western Union

“Be sure you get my sideburns in focus.”

One of my favorite subjects to research is how society’s complaints about “this danged whiz-bang modern world” tend to repeat throughout history.

In previous articles, I’ve shared how Socrates decried the invention of writing; how monks opposed the invention of the printing press; and how electricity and the telephone were seen as demonic instruments.

One takeaway from this sort of story is how these parallels seem to show us that fear of change is an ever-present part of human nature. But these episodes also illuminate another repeating pattern: fear of the new, from those with a vested interest in the old.

After all, the printing press was going to fundamentally alter — and perhaps cheapen — the books that monks dedicated their entire lives to inscribing. Socrates, perhaps, felt that if his words were written down, there would be less interest in his lectures.

And, since we as a thinking species are great at devising “rational” arguments to back up our preconceived notions, the opposition to printing was framed as genuine concern that the reader would no longer feel connected to God through the devotional act of transcribing the Bible.

Socrates’ argument against writing took the form of worrying that the human mind will no longer need to have its own ideas.

As for advances in electricity and the communication breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, according to an 1889 editorial in Nature,

It may well be questioned whether, in view of the startling and unforeseen consequences of scientific success which have changed the aspect and economy of the entire globe within the past fifty years, we have not overstepped the moral bounds of science by perverting the knowledge which Man came into possession of surreptitiously when he ate of the “forbidden fruit.”

We have not only experimented with the visible forces of Nature, but, like Saul, have had dealings with the occult. When Benjamin Franklin first called down the lightning from the sky he was accused by the superstitious or reverential with “tempting the Almighty.” Now we handle the subtile element as if it were inert matter, and we impress it into our nurseries as a toy for the children!

About the telephone in particular, the author of this piece declares, “The telephone is the most dangerous of all because it enters into every dwelling. Its interminable network of wires is a perpetual menace to life and property. In its best performance it is only a convenience. It was never a necessity. In a multitude of cities its service is unsatisfactory and is being dispensed with.”

The Providence Press went one step further: “It is indeed difficult, hearing the sounds out of the mysterious box, to wholly resist the notion that the powers of darkness are somehow in league with it.”

Horse Sense

Of course, I’m not alone in deriving enjoyment from looks back at history’s curmudgeons. Articles and thinkpieces about “tech disruption” today are always evoking the follies of small minds of the past, reminding us to adapt or die, lest we share the fate of the buggy-whip makers driven out of business by Henry Ford and the automobile — a metaphor which, by the way, was made famous by Theodore Levitt, writing for Harvard Business Review in 1960:

The article, “Marketing Myopia” (click the image above to see excerpts on Google Books), describes many concepts that have become familiar, even rote knowledge, in the digital age.

The “buggy whip” notion is even robust enough to survive being inverted:

It’s absolutely precious that the above article appears on some kind of blog for LinkedIn, the poster child for the declaration “What?? WE are ABSOLUTELY relevant!!”

The Myth of Western Union’s Blunder

I want to talk more about the telephone. Across the Internet plains, where thinkpieces about tech disruption multiply like dandelions, a common story is recounted.

Alexander Graham Bell, the tale goes, facing financial ruin and unending legal battles over the patent rights to the telephone, offered in 1876 to sell his patent to Western Union, the telegraph company, for $100,000.

An internal committee memo describes the Western Union response:

The Telephone purports to transmit the speaking voice over telegraph wires. We found that the voice is very weak and indistinct, and grows even weaker when long wires are used between the transmitter and receiver. Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles.

Messer Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their “telephone devices” in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?

The electricians of our company have developed all the significant improvements in the telegraph art to date, and we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy …

In view of these facts, we feel that Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s request for $100,000 of the sale of this patent is utterly unreasonable, since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.

Oh, man. This story is like catnip. The dullard corporation too stuck in the past to recognize innovation, versus the fearless visionary vindicated by history!! Heroic mascot of every they-laughed-at-Einstein-too tinkerer in a basement cluttered to the ceiling with half-finished whatevers!!

I was fascinated by this memo and its sneering tone — “The idea is idiotic on the face of it”, indeed! So I went to look it up in the primary sources.

There’s no mention of it in newspapers from 1876 to 1900. Well, maybe it became public in histories or archives later on… But there’s no mention of it, verbatim, in any documents up through 1950, either.

The memo is often described as having been sent to the president of Western Union, Chauncey M. Depew. But: Chauncey Depew wasn’t a telegraph magnate. He was an attorney and railroad man; in 1876, he was general counsel for the Vanderbilt group of railroad companies.

He was, starting in 1881 (five years after the date of this purported document), on the board of directors of Western Union, but not in an executive capacity.

Chauncey Depew, rocking his house-sittin’ chair.

So, what’s going on here?

On its face, this memo is not factual.

With some more digging, it becomes clear that the text of the memo was fabricated. The events do have some relation to reality — and as far as business lessons go, they are meaningful.

But the message may not be precisely what we thought it was.

For much of the below information, and for arming me with search terms that led me to discover other bits, I am indebted to Phil Lapsley at The History of Phone Phreaking Blog.

Suspicious of the “Depew letter” just as I was, he wrote a series of posts (one, two, three) that shed a lot of light on the background of this famous memo, and the events surrounding it — saving me a lot of original research. I aim to partially summarize Phil’s findings, and also add some information of my own.

The Depew letter, as such, seems to have first seen print as an anecdote in the “Chairman’s Statement”, written by Richard C. Levine, in a 1968 journal of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Levine himself, writing to Lapsley in 2011, explains:

I put it together from two similar but not identical versions. One was widely known among engineers and business people in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Boston area. I even saw a framed copy of the first version on the office wall of Richard E. Dolbear, an electrical engineer and expert on high voltage power systems […]

The second version of the letter, which is closer to the one I published, was copied from the files of MIT Professor Carlton Tucker. Tucker was an expert on electromechanical telephone switching and taught a survey class on telephone systems at MIT in the 1950s.

Who knows where they got it from. Lapsley also cites (and rehosts a PDF of) a 1976 article on Alexander Graham Bell in IEEE Spectrum magazine, which addresses the memo thus:

Unfortunately, this report is suspect on several counts… How did such a document originate? One can speculate along three lines: It could have been a joke. Or it could have been an honest attempt to recreate years later what such a committee might have reported. Or it might have grown out of a confused reminiscence by someone who was aware that Chauncey Depew was offered — and refused, to his everlasting regret — a share in the Bell patents.

Aha! So there is some truth to the notion that Depew passed, unwisely, on some offer from Bell.

Bell’s Bearded Benefactor

No story about Alexander Graham Bell is complete without mentioning Gardiner G. Hubbard.

G.G. Hubbard was an attorney, investor, public-works advocate, and one of the first champions of Bell’s invention. (Bell would go on to marry Hubbard’s daughter.) He was described as “a man of venerable appearance, with white hair, worn long, and a patriarchal beard.”

“Mabel, bring me my sittin’ beard.”

He was a familiar figure in Washington, and well known among the public men of his day… He saw that this new idea of telephoning must be made familiar in the public mind. He talked telephone by day and by night. Whenever he travelled, he carried a pair of the magical instruments in his valise, and gave demonstrations on trains and in hotels. He buttonholed every influential man who crossed his path. He was a veritable “Ancient Mariner” of the telephone. No possible listener was allowed to escape. (The History of the Telephone, 1910)

Before the telephone could be popularized, however, it needed to be invented.

Hubbard first met Alexander Bell through Mabel Hubbard, his daughter, who was a pupil of Bell’s at a school for the deaf in Boston. Hubbard supported Bell’s tinkering through years of failed experiments, even going so far as to warn him, “If you wish my daughter, you must abandon your foolish telephone.”

Here’s an excerpt from a letter Bell wrote in 1874, relating the details of an early attempt to “create the sensation of sound without the aid of any intermediate apparatus”.

I love the note there, too: “I hope you admire my drawing!!!”

It’s so…good, Alex.

But Bell persisted, and in 1875, with the help of machinist Thomas Watson, began to see some success in transmitting musical sounds over telegraph wire. In March 1876, Bell filed patent No. 174,465 for “An improvement in telegraphy.” It was Bell’s twenty-ninth birthday.

It doesn’t even LOOK like a bell.

On the same day, engineer Elisha Gray, who had been working for some years in the same field, and whom Bell knew, filed a caveat (a provisional patent application) for a very similar invention. There is some controversy about whether Bell knew about Gray’s application, or whose application arrived first at the patent office, or whether Bell knew the workings of Gray’s inventions or came up with his own device independently. Gray would go on to challenge Bell’s patent.

In the years to come Bell would be vindicated in the courts, eventually withstanding six hundred patent challenges from competitors over the span of decades. And in time, of course, the telephone would become one of the most valuable inventions in history.

But at that moment in 1876, he was penniless. And the following year, Gray’s competing patent was purchased by one of the largest corporations in America: Western Union.

The Reigning King of Beeps

Telegraphs, of course, were at the time the best way to transmit long-distance communications. The president of Western Union at the time was William Orton, who knew — and hated — Bell’s father-in-law, G.G. Hubbard.

You just know this guy is the villain of this story:

In the movie version of this article, Orton will be played by John Cleese.

Hubbard, in his capacity as an attorney, had introduced an anti-trust suit against Western Union in 1868. Wary of the telegraph giant’s growing corporate power, he also lobbied Congress to create a federal telegraph company, to be administered by the Postal Service.

Orton had been the head of a small telegraph company that later merged with Western Union — like many other small telegraph companies had been forced to do. When Orton took charge of Western Union in 1867, he was a reformer: he poured money and resources into improving telegraph technology. In 1878, Scientific American wrote that Orton had “possessed a ready appreciation of inventors’ work, and was quick to advocate the adoption and use of new and improved devices calculated to add to the extension and efficiency of the telegraph system.”

He was no dummy. He was up-to-date on Elisha Gray’s inventions; Gray worked for Western Electric, one of Western Union’s suppliers, and in 1874 Orton supported Gray’s efforts at developing a device for transmitting musical tones over wire. Soon, he would hire none other than Thomas Edison to innovate upon (and reverse engineer) Bell’s principle of the “acoustic telegraph”.

Orton, you see, thought he could beat Bell at his own game. A year before Bell filed his first telephone patent, Orton had invited Bell to demonstrate his work, as Gray had demonstrated his own inventions, at Western Union headquarters.

In a March 1875 letter to his parents, Bell described what it felt like to go from his own ramshackle workshop, where he couldn’t even get a battery to work half the time, to Western Union’s elaborate laboratories:

[Orton] told me that the Western Union would be glad to give me every facility in perfecting my instruments, and he gave me a hearty invitation to take my apparatus to New York, and I should have the assistance of their best electricians.

They have a special experimental room, and have at instant command thousands of cells of battery, and thousands of miles of real line wire to test with.

Mr. Orton said further, that he wished me distinctly to understand that the Western Union had no interest in Mr. Gray or his invention.

This is very encouraging. Mr. Orton had previously seen Gray’s apparatus, and yet he came forward to take up mine. [emphasis original]

In 1875, Western Union’s only remaining rival was the Pacific Telegraph Company, whose scientists were making strides in technology that let them lower their transmission prices, making them a new threat to Western Union. Orton was clearly scouting for advantages of his own. “At all events,” wrote Bell, outlining the situation in his letter home, “it is evidently a good time to bring out the invention.”

But, though he put on a kindly face, Orton offered Bell no financial support once he’d looked over his invention. The device did indeed transmit various noises, but practical uses for it seemed unlikely. (At this point, Bell’s first successful vocal transmissions were still a year away.)

In that year, 1876, Bell filed his first patent and got engaged. G.G. Hubbard was Bell’s chief investor, but he would also now be his father-in-law. Perhaps motivated by worry for his daughter’s future, there is evidence that Hubbard offered to sell Bell’s patent — which he had the legal right to do — to Orton, for the proverbial $100,000. The sole source for this figure is a 1915 recollection by Thomas Watson; he said that Western Union had refused the offer “somewhat contemptuously”. That much is plausible — Orton, remember, hated Hubbard, for his opposition to Western Union in the courts and in Congress.

Depew’s Proverbial Regret

Back now to Chauncey Depew, who, as you will recall, worked for the Vanderbilt group of railroad companies. As fate would have it, G.G. Hubbard had been a railway mail inspector in the past, and had done business with Depew often. The two were friends.

In late 1876, having now been turned down by Orton and Western Union, Hubbard approached Depew and asked him to invest in Bell’s invention. (Phil Lapsley reprints two descriptions of this meeting in his own post.)

Here’s an excerpt from Depew’s 1924 memoir:

One day [Hubbard] said to me: “My son-in-law, Professor Bell, has made what I think is a wonderful invention. It is a talking telegraph. We need ten thousand dollars, and I will give you one-sixth interest for that amount of money.”

So far, so good. What could go wrong?

I was very much impressed with Mr. Hubbard’s description of the possibilities of Professor Bell’s invention. Before accepting, however, I called upon my friend, Mr. William Orton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Orton had the reputation of being the best-informed and most accomplished electrical expert in the country. He said to me: “There is nothing in this patent whatever, nor is there anything in the scheme itself, except as a toy. If the device has any value, the Western Union owns a prior patent called the Gray’s patent, which makes the Bell device worthless.” [emphasis added]

In a different account in 1926, in an interview with the New York Herald Tribune, Depew added the following details:

On hearing my story, friend Orton laid his hand on my shoulder to make his words the more emphatic, I suppose, and told me in all good faith and complete sincerity to drop the matter at once. He said in the first place the invention was a toy, that Bell could not perfect anything so that it might have commercial possibilities, and that above all, if there was any merit to the thing, the Western Union owned the Gray patents and would simply step in, superseding Bell, and take the whole thing away from him. That cooled me off to an amazing extent. I felt I was out of the deal when I left Orton’s office.

Of course Depew would ask Orton’s opinion, since Orton was known as the expert in the field of commercial telegraphy.

And despite what Orton had told Bell the year before, Orton was indeed — or was now — interested in Gray’s version of the telephone. In fact, Western Union had bought Gray’s patents (and one by another early innovator, Amos Dolbear), and would put their own Thomas Edison-designed telephones into production the following year.

Having heard Orton’s advice, Depew now declined the offer. But Depew reported that Hubbard, who had come by his office to ask after his decision, convinced him once again of the merits of Bell’s telephone. “By the time he got through,” said Depew, “I seemed to be weaned away from Orton and back to Hubbard’s side again…I went home that night actually resolved to risk the $10,000 in Bell’s device on the strength of Hubbard’s arguments.”

That night, Orton showed up at Depew’s house to talk him back down.

[Orton] said, “After you left my office I began to worry for fear you would be foolish enough to let Bell have that $10,000… I want to explain further to you why Bell could not succeed with his device, even if it worked. We would come along and take it away from him, and you would be out of pocket the $10,000.” And so on these lines I chatted it out with Orton — that’s the most expensive chat I have had yet!

Next day I told Hubbard I had decided after all not to invest any money with Bell, and although we argued some more, I stuck to this last decision, and Hubbard went away.

Depew didn’t know at that time about Orton’s strained relationship with Hubbard, and didn’t know that Hubbard had made an earlier offer to Orton — the one that had been “contemptuously” shot down. Orton, after all, was planning to have Edison improve on Bell’s invention, and thus secure new patents that could beat Bell in court.

Here Is the Point

Western Union’s decision to pass on buying Bell’s patent is considered to be, in retrospect, a tactical blunder.

But Orton’s success at making Western Union profitable over the last few decades was due to the fact that he realized the bulk of their day-to-day business was in short commercial messages such as stock trades. He had actively focused the business at that market. And since telegraph technology had improved to the point where they could send up to four messages on a single line, the telephone, with its short range and single line, seemed obviously inferior.

Plus, at the time, Bell’s phone didn’t seem like the best option on the market — not when they could buy up competing patents, and put a genius like Edison on their payroll to build a version for themselves.

Western Union did, apparently, receive and decline an offer from Hubbard. Whatever its details — whether similar in fact to the catty, apocryphal “committee memo” or not — the lesson isn’t that the big company couldn’t pivot, or see the future. They did at least kind of pivot, and invest in where their industry was going. They even beat Bell for a while, ultimately forcing Bell’s hand — by 1878, Bell had no choice but to sue Western Union for patent infringement, a risky move when neither party knew whether the courts would uphold Bell’s patent over Gray’s.

It’s probably true that Orton couldn’t conceptualize the telephone’s potential to transform everyday civic life, in a way that Hubbard seemed to from the start. Western Union did have a hard time competing with Bell, in the long run, and Bell Telephone eventually bought Western Union.

But the missed business opportunity of the apocryphal “Depew letter” wasn’t Western Union’s — it was Depew’s. Depew was a successful railroad executive, a private investor, who came to Orton for advice about an opportunity his friend Hubbard brought to him.

Orton didn’t want to enrich Hubbard, the man who’d tried to dismantle Western Union. Orton wanted Hubbard and Bell to fail. So Orton convinced Depew not to invest in Bell, even coming to Depew’s house to talk him out of funding the competition.

Depew lived long enough to see what he could have been a part of. (Orton didn’t — he died in 1878.) To his credit, Depew writes in his memoir:

I would have netted by to-day at least one hundred million dollars. I have no regrets. I know my make-up, with its love for the social side of life and its good things, and for good times with good fellows. I also know the necessity of activity and work. I am quite sure with this necessity removed and ambition smothered, I should long ago have been in my grave.

That is a very nice way of coming to terms with the missed opportunity.

Western Union didn’t just sneer dismissively at Alex Bell’s newfangled invention, as the story seems to go. That casts the Western Union camp simply as a boardroom of buffoons.

In fact, what Western Union actually did was something far more typical: it put on a show of sneering at the new thing, so it could quietly try to crush it.

True Stuff: Build Your Own Propeller Car


Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum

This is a 1932 Hélica! It’s a car that is driven by an airplane propeller.

Here is a video of it driving around! It, of course, sounds exactly like an airplane.

Here is another, longer and better video!

The Hélica was designed by Marcel Leyat, one of a number of French automotive engineers who experimented with “wingless aeroplanes”.

These vehicles were very light, since there’s no need for a clutch or transmission. A propeller engine like this isn’t hooked up to the wheels at all; the wheels turn freely as the propeller pulls the whole apparatus through the air (just like an airplane taxiing).

Fitted with heavy-duty motorcycle tires, the claim was that the propeller cars could drive faster, and on worse roads, than the heavy, low-slung traditional motorcars of the time. And Leyat claimed that the running costs for his craft were “less than for a motorcycle.”

screw you

“Don’t be silly, your hair will be FINE”

In February, 1921, you could read about Leyat’s cars in Popular Science.

Or, in August, 1922, you could read Popular Mechanics and learn how to build your own propeller car.

The Popularity of Mechanics

I love reading old books and magazines, but two that I especially love are Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. There are a few reasons for this:

• Google Books has huge, freely-browsable archives of them both. Often, when I’ll search the Google Books database for articles on a topic, results will come up from those titles first. This is at least partially due to the fact that there are just a ton of them digitized.

• The articles give us a glimpse into the technology of days gone by (a recurring theme in this series of True Stuff From Old Books). This lets us, for example, marvel at the tentative, baby-step emergence of technologies that would go on to become reliable and familiar:

i like this light but we definitely gotta change those colors tho

“I like this light idea but we definitely gotta change those colors tho”

sqweeka sqweeka sqweeka

“But what should we CALL it? How about a ‘demi-bicycle’!”

We can get a contemporaneous perspective on ideas and methods that we have since thought better of:

springtime fresh

“Ahh, that springtime fresh smell! Makes me a bit…sleepy”

We can even revisit and rediscover ideas that have since been forgotten (perhaps for good reason):

electricity in that gaze

“Hold a cigarette with my fingers? What, and look like an idiot?”

But! I also love this type of magazine for another reason.

Making Things By Hand

There are magazines and websites today, like Make and others, that are about doing projects and constructing things. I also really like reading Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, because it takes as its foundational baseline assumption that you can make, or repair, or adapt something yourself.

We sometimes picture old-timey turn-of-the-century stuff as having an artisanal or hand-crafted character. That has truth to it — as we’ll see in a moment — but the Industrial Revolution also enabled the opposite: mass production. Tools, equipment, vehicles, housewares, clothes… For the first time, they could all be ready-made.

For the farmer out in the sticks, the Sears-Roebuck catalog was a godsend; he could order anything from a hammer to a horsecart and have it delivered by train to his local station.

But, as often happens in times of transitions, there was also a pushback against the undiscerning march of technology — specifically, a renewed focus on what could not, or could only inferiorly, be created by machine.

Thus was the birth of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was a movement to consider the handcrafts (woodworking; the creation of textiles and pottery; metalworking and masonry; anything that you could make with your hands) with the same sort of thoughtfulness normally reserved for fine art:

…Of late years, however, a kind of revival has been going on, as a protest against the conviction that, with all our modern mechanical achievements, comforts, and luxuries, life is growing “uglier every day,” as Mr. Morris puts it.

…If Art is not recognized in the humblest object and material, and felt to be as valuable in its own way as the more highly regarded pictorial skill — the arts cannot be in a sound condition; and if artists cease to be found among the crafts there is great danger that they will vanish from the arts also, and become manufacturers and salesmen instead.

— Walter Crane, “Of the Revival of Design and Handcraft”, Arts and Crafts Essays, 1899

The Notion of the Home Workshop

So at the turn of the 20th century, the Industrial Revolution had wrought a world in which powerful machines and tools enabled us to manipulate materials and forces, like aluminum and gasoline and electricity, in ways never before possible.

But in this same world, people still wanted things to be beautiful, and customized, and repairable, and modifiable.

Thus: the home workshop.

This is why I love early mechanical magazines: because they let us visit a world in which it was expected that we were masters of the objects in our lives; a world in which the machines we interacted with, and made labor for us, had workings we could understand and, to an extent, control.

Gasoline-fueled motorcars were simple enough to be be fixed quickly with a wrench; or, if something more severe became damaged, the town blacksmith could fabricate a replacement for you.

In this pre-electronic age, the workings of things were visible, and thus, things could be worked.

Now, I know that it’s tricky to judge a society by its media — the audience for these magazines in particular wasn’t everybody in the world. It was a magazine for a certain type of person.

But that was the type of person who could look at Popular Mechanics’ proto-Cool Tools section and read about things like this:

the lament of the four-posters

“Hang on a minute, will you?”

Or this:

the lament of the pitchfork

“Yeah, keep your points in a line, GEEZ”

Or this:

canoe handle the truth

“canoe handle the truth”

…And be able to make them.

Let’s be clear! None of these are particularly hard projects for people with some mechanical ability and the right tools and materials.

But today, it is much less common to have access to those tools and materials, to say nothing of the inclination to use them. I don’t know how I would heat up pitchfork tines today if I wanted to!

The Ultimate Project

In August 1922, Popular Mechanics published one of my favorite examples of what one could build — or perhaps what one was assumed to be able to build, based on how many shortcuts and abbreviations and elisions are in the instructions — in a decent home workshop.

like the wind!

“Man, I’ve got all this angle iron and half a wrecked airplane, what am I gonna DO with it all??”

CAN BE BUILT BY ALMOST ANY AMATEUR MECHANIC: a propeller-driven deathtrap in which you can careen around at up to 50 miles an hour

The “wind wagon” has a long but little-known history in aviation. The term was used to refer to any of a number of propeller-driven land vehicles.

Usually fitted with a pusher prop, wind wagons were sometimes used as test platforms for airplane engines and propeller designs, as well as teaching tools to familiarize would-be pilots with the inertia of a propeller-driven engine.

Unlike motorcars, wind wagons had no gears, so it was possible to “stall” while going up a hill, if the propeller wasn’t putting out enough thrust to offset the craft’s weight.

“It is much better to gather such experience on the ground,” reads a 1917 account in Everyday Engineering Magazine, “than in the air.”

Wind wagons go back to Glenn Curtiss, one of aviation’s earliest pioneers. In 1905 he built a wind wagon to test what was then a very unproven propeller design. Here’s a replica at the Curtiss Museum.

Curtiss himself is speaking at the beginning of this quote:

“‘The machine, although of no commercial value, is thoroughly practical and will easily run at the speed mentioned, 30 miles per hour…

‘It is needless to say that the rig is a great horse scarer, and blows up a great cloud of dust when passing along the road, and will even pull the leaves from the trees where the branches are low.’

…There is no patent on the idea and any of our readers who have a small gasoline motor can build their own craft from the suggestions given in the illustrations.

…The same idea has just been utilized in France, where M. Archdeacon, of Acheres, applied the propeller to a motorcycle. In his case the propeller was carried in front, which had the effect of pulling instead of pushing. The entire outfit weighs 160 lb. and made a speed of 49 1/2 miles per hour over short distances.

The tests were required by the authorities to be made on secluded roads, for the French horses go wild as the big whirling blades come toward them.

— “A Motor Wind Wagon”, Popular Mechanics, November 1906

Wind wagons were fun diversions for the mechanically minded; the basic technology could be adapted to ice or water just as easily. And of course this same basic idea survives today as the airboat.

dry up

“I’m tired of you just barging in here all the time!”

chill out


And in 1922, as we saw above, Popular Mechanics considered the wind wagon, a device “capable of developing a speed of from 45 to 50 miles an hour”, something that “can be built by almost any amateur mechanic.”

The plans are quite elegant:

let me know when you're done

“Yeah that’s basically how I figured it would be built”

But that’s all you get. The text also helpfully leaves out a lot of detail — I guess because they assume you already know how to bend and join angle iron.

And that’s it! That’s what I love. This is a world in which that can be taken for granted.

Here’s my favorite part — the very end of the description, before the next article starts in about lawn care:

just get pretty close and it's fine

“I’m on the edge of my lawn just reading this!”

In other words:

“Just go ahead and carve the propeller. You know, the regular way. Oh yeah — add a propeller guard too. Probably should have mentioned that. OK! Then just start ’er up and off you go! You’re good! What’s next? Let’s talk about LAWNS.”

I don’t know whether these plans, in 1922, would have been practical or aspirational. I don’t know whether the typical tinkerer’s home workshop would have been adequate to build the wind wagon, nor whether the surrounding area would have been a good place to go tearing around at 50 miles an hour, ripping leaves off of trees and terrifying the horses.

But I love reading these magazines, and paying a visit to a (possibly made-up) world where that is ever-so-casually possible.



True Stuff: The Art of Letter Writing

sit up straight

Every now and then you see someone talking about “the lost art of letter writing.” There was a TED talk, and a book last year, and there always seem to be articles and thinkpieces aplenty:

Thomas G. Knoles, the Marcus A. McCorison Librarian at the American Antiquarian Society, has an intimate knowledge of the more than 100,000 handwritten letters, as well as 1,500 manuscript collections, spanning from 1630 to present day, that are housed in the society’s archives.

“Life was so different in the 19th century. People didn’t have television, computers or radios, any of the distractions that they have now,” Knoles said. “Between the fact that it was the only way of communicating with people who were local and the fact there was actually disposable time to write the letters, letter writing was something that was a common practice.”

…While he feels the transition to the computer is a natural one, Knoles said there will be a whole texture of what everyday life was like that is going to be much harder to recapture because people don’t keep letters like they do emails and texts.

“We can grieve for anything that changes, but my own feeling is that you have to accept the fact that things are going to change,” Knoles said. “People grieved when the typewriter came. People grieved in the mid-19th century when the envelope was introduced and before that they used sealing wax.”

“Mass. Scholars Mourn Lost Art Of Letter Writing”, CBS Boston, March 22, 2014

To be clear, I am a fan of letter writing!

• As the quote above says, letter writing, its other charms aside, preserves history. On this site I’ve discussed correspondence by the Wright Brothers and shown off letters my mother received from Isaac Asimov. My mother, a prolific correspondent, has saved bushels of letters we’ve come across decades later, but in the future, we are likely to find few from the era since she began sending emails.

• A couple years ago, I sent letters — 521 of them — to every head of state in the world, every governor in the U.S., 200 of the world’s top CEOs, and the pope. I got 52 letters back!

• People send me letters! I love it when they do. Here’s one I got recently (click for bigger):

another currency by mail scheme

…Of late, however, we faced a quandary regarding your fine publication. Sharp-eyed old Grisby noticed there is a price cited on your mast-head. Imagine our shame at discovering we have been leeches, sucking the bounty of your blood for close to eleven years, without so much as lying about paying…

Enclosed please find the requisite payment of six pence… Notices of subscription renewals should not be sent and will go unanswered. We consider the matter closed.

none the richer, alas

• Hundreds of people sent us letters about Machine of Deathwe asked them to, in exchange for us sending them a death prediction card in the mail. We said “send us anything,” and the results were amazing.

So, I’m firmly on the side of writing letters. But it’s true that it’s somewhat of an affectation these days. I correspond with people all the time, but the last letter I wrote was an angry one to the IRS.

One of my favorite historical books, though, is all about writing letters…

Read more

True Stuff: ‘Women Are Funny That Way’, According to 1927

Perhaps you saw this Onion article from about a year ago: “Area Man’s Intelligence Probably Just Too Intimidating For Most Women”


It’s hilarious and terrible and I’ve seen it passed around a lot in the last few weeks. Dudes who know everything about everything are of course valuable contributors to society and thank heaven there are so many of them.

In my regular trawling of old-timey nonsense (of which I post a lot to Twitter), I happened across a brief humor column in an issue of Life magazine, 1927.

Somewhere north of 75% of the jokes in 1927 Life magazine are incredibly sexist, including one on the very same page as this piece, so the fact that this one — besides very clearly poking fun at advertising — seems to deflate the suitor’s balloon a bit is notable for the time.

And of course, “the more things change”, etc.


Women Are Funny That Way

The sign in the barber shop said: “Present a neat appearance. You can win HER by having your hair cut regularly.” Well, it kept me pretty nearly broke, but I visited that barber shop every day.

Then I thought perhaps the trouble lay in my social defects and that I was one of these stupids who never say a word all evening. So I learned French, Spanish, Greek, Crow and Old Crow, Choctaw, Coptic, Cuneiform and Hunt & Pick. I got so cultured up that nobody could pass a wisecrack without my hurling a fast one right back at him.

I drank Listerosis by the gallon, because the advertisement said not to ruin my chances with HER by neglecting it.

You should have seen me delve into Elbert Haldeman-Julius’s Scrapbook. I knew Aristotle as well as Babe Ruth knows his batting average. You have to get next to the best minds of history to be able to knock HER for a loop. I found that out in the magazines.

I became an expert on more musical instruments than Paul Whiteman ever heard of. People used to stand entranced outside my window, under the impression that I was the Street Cleaning Department Band and that Lindbergh had just landed again, or something. You can’t win HER without Art.

I joined all these clubs that prescribe the best book of the month to you. In that way I got four different books every day. A thorough grounding in current literature always goes great with HER. If you don’t believe it I’ll show you the clipping that says so.

That wasn’t the half of what I did to gain HER love.

And still she regards me as something even the cat wouldn’t bring in.

Doesn’t SHE know the rules of the game? What’s the matter with the girl, anyway?

— Tip Bliss.


Here is a comic strip from the same year (1927, a few months later) that I quite enjoyed. Click for a closer look!


I love that they’ve given over a whole page to this gag!