Sunday, December 15, 2013

What's an album?

Seeing that NPR recently published its list of the 'Top 50 Albums' of 2013, my mind turned to a question asked last year by a freshman student in my class: "What's an album?" It's actually a very reasonable question, in a time when downloaded music far outpaces the sales of physical "units" of any kind, and most younger listeners pick and choose the songs they want, and put them on playlists without any regard for what "album" they appeared on.

The first "albums" were notebooks; the term derives from album, Latin for "white," which was figuratively used for a blank tablet, and later a blank book, in which friends might leave their thoughts (this was called an album amicorum). In the later nineteenth century, the term was applied to photograph albums, with blank paper leaves upon which photos could be affixed with glue. And, in the early days of recorded music, when a single 10-inch 78 rpm disc could hold only 8-10 minutes of music, longer works -- concertos, symphonies, and so forth -- were issued in a bound volume, with a sleeve for each disc needed to play the complete work -- this was the phonograph album. The term was carried forward when LP (for Long Playing) 33 1/3 discs were first released in 1948, since each of them contained up to 45 minutes of music, which could include perhaps ten or twelve individual popular recordings, which previously would have been contained in a multi-disc album. In the late '60's and '70's, the "concept album" took advantage of the format to create a carefully sequenced series of interlocking songs -- sometimes, as with Abbey Road, 'gapless' -- which constituted a whole.

But alas, our albums are no longer held together with paper and glue, nor with any material substance -- but only by the dream-stuff of our imaginations.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The First Solid-State Lamp

As LED's have become progressively less expensive, the future of indoor lighting looks to be all lit up with them. But back in 1967, it was  news when the General Electric company announced its first production-model solid state lamp, the SSL-1. As this press release indicates, it wasn't intended for consumer use, but more specialized circumstances such as space ships, aircraft, and computers. These early SSL's were essentially single LED's in an electrical mount, as opposed to the much more common multiple-LED lights of today. The crystal was enclosed in a cylindrical "top hat" capsule and socketed to fit in the same slots as transistors; the anticipated price of the production model was $6.60 (the equivalent of around $45 today). As one of the team who helped invent and design this lamp, my father Dr. Ralph M. Potter was the recipient of an award from R&D magazine. It's amazing to me to think that this same technology, invented with such a modest set of possible applications, may well end up being the most common form of electrical illumination in the future. You can read the full press release here.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Science Stories Book Three

It was the first and most important book I never read. Back in first grade, although I was already a big Dr. Seuss fan and could read picture books on my own, what I truly craved was some sort of talisman of my ability to read the same books grown-ups did, something I could hold on to, carry around at school, and put under my pillow at night to imbue myself with advanced reading powers. I found this book in the discard bin outside the third-grade science classroom -- people thew books away? -- and immediately adopted it as my talisman. Whenever I had an idle moment at school, I sat or leaned against the wall, opening it to some random page, and assuming an air of profound readerly engagement. Only I never read it, not until many years later when I found it in a box of my old childhood things. It turns out to be a lovely book, published in 1936, and filled with quaint questions and answers ("In what ways are land animals fitted to move?" "How is the mole fitted for tunneling through the soil?"). But the greatest thing about it, to me, is that it worked -- not as a mere book, but as a gateway, a door, to an entire universe of others.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Am Death

Public health campaigns have, it seems, always gone for shock value -- who can forget such ads as the crying Indian, the smoking fetus, or "This is drugs ... this is your brain on drugs"? Nevertheless, this 1912 poster from the Indiana Board of Health stands out for the stark and threatening appeal it offers against what were seen as the worst health hazards of its day. It's odd for us today to consider that "midnight suppers" or "large amounts of black coffee" might be up there with alcohol as bona fide life-shorteners, and the caution not to "bolt your food" sounds like it's right out of a Dickens novel (and it is). This image comes via the Indiana Public Health collection at IUPUI Scholar Works, a project of Indiana University and Purdue University, an archive which also contains delightfully harsh warnings about the hazards of the house fly and rats and fleas, along with (on the other side of the equation) the illustrious benefits of good hygiene among children.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Image from the Early Office Museum
"Don't you know what duplicates are?" an incredulous Groucho Marx asks brother Chico in one of their better-known skits. "Sure," replies Chico, "that's a five kids up in Canada." The joke was a reference to the Dionne quintuplets born in Ontario in 1934, two of whom are still alive today. But of course we all know what duplicates are -- or do we? We're so used to the ability to make scans or photocopies today that the earlier copying technology of the 1960's and '70's -- the "Ditto," Mimeograph, or Gestetner machines -- seems almost impossibly antique. And yet it's still possible to re-create some of these earlier methods of copying today, such as the Hektograph (above), a precursor to the rotary mimeograph which also used aniline dye; instead of mounting the master copy of a cylinder, it was simply placed in a bed of gelatine, and the dye allowed to soak in; subsequent copies were made by simply placing a blank piece of paper on the gelatine and then peeling it off. Simple Hektograph kits were sold as late as the 1950's and can still be had on eBay or Etsy -- or one can, fairly easily, make one's own almost from scratch. And, while you're waiting for the gelatine to solidify, why not read the Early Office Museum's excellent History of Copying Machines?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Few Talking Machine Records

This steroeview, part of a promotional set offered by the Sears, Roebuck Company to illustrate the plenitude and variety of its store offerings in 1906, shows how 78 rpm phonograph records were stored; before shipping or sale, a paper sleeve would be added. The long shot emphasizes the vast array of disks available, just waiting to be shipped to your front door. Note that the employee in this photo is wearing a special, shoulder-length glove on his left hand, to avoid scratching the discs! You can view an entire set of these stereoviews in this Flickr album, starting with card no. 1 -- Mr. Sears himself, of course!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mona Darkfeather

In the annals of non-Indian actors portraying native American Indians in early silent films, Mona Darkfeather (born Josephine Workman) was among the most successful. She appeared in 110 films between 1910 and 1917, nearly always as an "Indian Maiden" figure. The studios she worked with -- Bison, Selig Polyscope, Nestor, Kalem, Universal -- were a who's who of early silent film, and her name and face were advertised with no irony whatsoever as though she were unquestionably
authentic, following the claim -- perhaps her own -- that she was a full-blooded Seminole. White men were often called upon to throw themselves on her mercy, lest some fearsome "chief" demand their death -- or, alternately, she would form a romantic attachment with a trader and run off with her beau. She had her own, impressive stationery, and succeeded consistently until the late 'teens, when -- for whatever reason -- the demand for her kind of role dried up. She did a few stage plays, divorced (and later remarried) her husband-manager Frank Montgomery, and lived to the ripe old age of 95. Her grave in Culver City is said to be unmarked.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Asylum cinema

One might not think about it, but one of the early uses of cinema film was to provide entertainment at many of the large residential psychiatric facilities -- then often known as "Asylums" -- in the US and the UK. Nowadays, of course, television provides a more wall-to-wall carpet of imagery, but back in the 1920's and '30's, full-size cinemas were a feature at many British asylums. The one shown above was found, still in place and in nearly working order, at the Stone House Asylum in Kent. The best-known patient at this facility was doubtless the poet and composer Ivor Gurney, now recognized as a significant "war poet," and whose compositions are still performed. Whether or not he attended the cinema is not known, but this projector -- a Gaumont Kalee 18 Carbon Arc model -- was successfully removed and restored; you can see a video of it in operation.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elvish in Old English

In the annals of creating manuscript facsimiles with a false (but playful) sense of age, this document has a curious history. In the early stages of his subcreation, J.R.R. Tolkien composed a number of new texts in Old English, in which he described the creation of the world in the Elder Days; his original plan was to have all of the "Lost Tales" -- an early source of the legends later gathered in the Silmarillion -- recounted by a father to his son in Old English.

This is my own calligraphic interpretation of one of these texts, which I made in 1988 as a diversion when I was enrolled in Professor Geoffrey Russom's Old English class at Brown University.  Following Tolkien's own practice with his "Book of Mazarbul," I aged and discolored the document with an ink wash and a spell in the oven. Those with an acquaintance with the West Saxon dialect will have no trouble deciphering the text, which begins with "After that, the All-father, who in Elvish is called Iluuvatar created the world." The page is also preserved as part of Oxford University's excellent Woruldhord site, which collects all manner of resources for the study and teaching of Old English. And as for Professor Russom, he was not fooled. He took one glance at the fruit of my labors and muttered, "Tolkien, eh?" And then it was back to translating the Battle of Maldon.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Das Eskimobaby

In the annals of real and purported "Eskimos" on screen, there may well be no stranger depiction than that given by Asta Nielsen in Heinz Schall's 1916 film, Das Eskimobaby. Neilsen, known for her ability to delivery quirky performances, outdoes herself here as a Greelandic Eskimo, "Ivigtut," suddenly transported from her native land to Berlin, where the explorer who brought her there treats her as some exotic specimen. It's a riff on the old "civilizing the native" trope that had already become a movie staple, but Nielsen's furious resistance to civilization and all it represents makes for some manic scenes. She doesn't understand mirrors (of course) is repulsed by beards, beds, and western clothing, and refuses to shed her fur pants for a formal gathering. The film survives, and has been released by Edition Filmmuseum as part of their Four films with Asta Nielsen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The impact of the original Batman television series on kids in the early 1960's would be hard to overstate. The first 45 rpm record I ever bought was the Batman theme song, and I persuaded my next door neighbor, a professional sign painter, to paint a sign for my tree fort that read "Bat Man House This Way" (I was disappointed, though, when he deliberately misspelled some words and painted it in a 'kiddie' font). These kinds of things are hard to measure, or record, but this photo from the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University comes close; here are some kids, dressed in their Sunday best, who have taken up residence in a Bat-cave of their own, with a chalked-up logo and a hole in the floor for extra Bat-realism. If I could have known where in Cleveland these kids were, I'd have wanted to join their club!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Geographica Incognita

One of my favorite genres of writing is what might be loosely categorized as facetiæ -- writings which pretend to be something, complete with all its apparatus, but are in fact something else. The genre goes back at least as far as Lucian's True History, and this sense of the word "history" -- as in The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling -- evokes perfectly the form I love most. My novel Pyg is cast in much the same mold.

Some years before that, though, my friend and colleague Jon Hauss and I wrote a shorter text of this kind, giving it the impressive title Geographica Incognita -- "Unknown Geography." It was, like its source texts (Poe's "Descent into a Maelstrom," "MS. Found in a Bottle," and the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), framed as a quite serious study, though one undertaken with playful purposes. Jon and I dubbed it a "collapseration." And the editors of the New Orleans Review quite liked it, and published in in 1999 in an issue which is now, happily, available online for free.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Girl and her Dog, 30 Years Later

When I posted the image of Labradorean Inuit celebrity Nancy Columbia and her dog at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, the post got quite a lot of views. Miss Columbia was indeed, as my friend Kenn Harper has aptly said, the "most famous Inuk in the world," the star of stage and screen (she wrote and appeared in "The Way of the Eskimo," produced by Selig Polyscope in 1911). But by the time this photo was taken sometime in the 1930's she'd married, had a daughter, and retired almost completely from public appearances; indeed, this may have been her last. By this time, she was living in the Santa Monica area in Los Angeles, and the photos above -- staged on a backdrop with a little "snow" on it -- appears to have come from some dog show; it's part of a sequence of dog show photos on glass plates that were part of the Security Pacific Bank Collection, and which are today -- happily -- available to the public via the digital photo collections of the Los Angeles Public Library, where I was able to help them identify the photo's subject in 2010. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

From Nightclubs to Christ

Dr. Jack Van Impe was certainly an impassioned preacher in his younger days -- so impassioned that at several points on this early recording he's completely overcome with zeal, and the words seem to tumble from his mouth faster than he can assemble them into sense. The best segments here are his rants against  Rock music, which he declares is "more dangerous than heroin, LSD, or any drug you can name." There's a comparison to Pavlov's dogs ("the beat means eat!") and a warning that by 1973 this "dirty, lascivious, filthy rock mucic" will have kids "committing sex openly on the street." It was a DJ sampling classic for ages, and was used by (among others) Rage Against the Machine, DJ Shadow, and Pizzaman (the last of whom hired an actor to lip-synch the reverend's lines in his video). The LP is long out of print, and clips are still surprisingly hard to find online (doubtless Van Impe and his current ministries are not pleased), but at least one long segment is on YouTube.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Masonic Insurance

Back in the 1920's, insurance companies offered a variety of special plans to members of fraternal organizations -- the Odd Fellows, the Elks, the Moose, and of course the Masons -- at a discounted rate. On the theory that these memberships constituted a pool of respectable and less risk-prone sorts, these policies went for as little as $2.00 a year, as in the advertisement above from a Masonic magazine. There were just a few disqualifiers -- 'fits and disorders of the brain' -- but these were to be self-reported, again on the theory that those who belonged to such social fraternities were more likely to be honest. Some of the companies established for this purpose, like Acacia, went on to become large insurance companies for the general public; there's an interesting history of Masonic insurance available here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Alice Guy Goes North

Watching the first episode of Mark Cousins's Story of Film on TCM, I was glad to see him credit the pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché as the person to very nearly invent the idea of a story arc. A number of the films she made for Gaumont are readily available on DVD from Kino Lorber, but very her early American films, produced for Solax with her husband Herbert are much less well-known. The Blachés were innovators not only in story lines, but in portraying such things as the struggles of immigrants or the everyday life of an African-American family, that many studios didn't think were screenworthy. And here, in an advert from 1911, is another genre-busting film; more than a decade before Nanook of the North, the Blachés tackled Arctic exploration as a film subject. The movie, alas, is not known to have survived, but it was probably filmed in Saranac Lake, New York, at a film 'camp' established by champion dog-musher Caribou Bill Cooper; Cooper's "Arctic Film Company" rented out its sets and dog-teams for all manner of early "Northern" films.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rescuing Balto

Most people still know something of the story Balto, the Siberian Husky who led his dog team on the crucial final link of the serum run to Nome, Alaska in 1925. And yet, despite the engaging animated version of Balto's life, and its (forgettable) sequels, few realize that, within a year or two after his heroic feat, Balto himself needed rescuing -- from a dime museum where he was confined, ill-treated, and exploited by a showman in search of that "one thin dime" from his customers. As news of Balto's situation spread, the good people of Cleveland, Ohio stepped up with a "Balto fund" that collected enough money to buy him and six of his companions from the museum and install him in permanent, comfortable home at the city's zoo. Balto's arrival was heralded by a parade on March 19, 1927, which was well-attended despite the rain. Balto lived out his years in comfort with top veterinary care; after his death in 1933, his remains were taxidermied and placed in a case at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History -- where they may still be seen today. You can read more about Balto's life and career here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The American Woman is Becoming Ugly

Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries
Ugly is as ugly does -- and there were few characters on the lecture circuit in the 1920's and 1930's uglier than Dr. Albert Wiggan. Wiggan was a tireless lecturer and advocate for "eugenics" -- the word comes from the Greek for "good genes" -- the now long-since discredited pseudoscience which used spurious and vague notions of ability and "imbecility" to cook up evidence that immigration, "race mixing," and poor people having large families were a threat to the future of the human race. The image above comes from a pamphlet promoting his lectures on the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit, a popular, barnstorming tent full of lecturers that packed them in from coast to coast.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On bokes for to rede

This stray leaf -- all that remains of a copy of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night -- is from the library of my grandfather Scot Butler Clarke. It was presented to him by Hiram College professor John S. Kenyon, chair of the English department. Perhaps it was a prize for some scholarly achievement; perhaps a personal gift (my great-grandfather Elbert was a math professor at Hiram for many years, and all of his children went there). The quote on the bookplate is Chaucer, of course, from the Prologue to his Legend of Good Women, and the fragment has two more leaves, the first stating "The Riverside Shakespeare," and the second with a copperplate engraving of the Middle Temple Hall -- which still stands -- and where Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Doan's Corners

It was once one of the best-known intersections in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Today, it's just a faceless, generic corner of the Cleveland Clinic's "campus," which has wiped out the historical character and community of a large chunk of Cleveland's East Side. But thanks to the digital collections at the Cleveland Public Library, we can catch a few glimpses of its storied history. Established when Nathaniel Doan erected a tavern at the site in 1799, it remained a hub for Cleveland's growth for nearly two centuries. The photo above is from 1929, the height of the 'roaring' twenties; the pillars of the Cleveland Trust bank at the left are about to be shaken, and the lunch counters (Chapin's on the right, Clark's on the left) replaced by soup kitchens; now it was known as 105th and Euclid. By the 1970's and '80's when I first knew this area, it had become a rundown but lively zone of second-run cinemas, X-rated dance clubs, and wig shops. The indefatigable Winston Willis, who eventually owned most of the block, fought for years to keep the Cleveland Clinic at bay, but eventually lost his last appeal, and every remaining building in this photograph was demolished.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Soul of Edgar A. Poe

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 25, 1860
Faithful followers of this blog will have read some weeks ago of the curious case of the stolen "Ultima Thule" Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, and of its likely thief, the "comic songster" Ossian Euclid Dodge. Mr. Dodge, though not a young man, headed west, and set up a music shop in Cleveland, Ohio, on Euclid Avenue, a thoroughfare whose name must have gratified his ego. While there, he permitted his purloined photograph to be copied, as well as used as the subject of a portrait in oils of Poe by the painter and sculptor William Walcutt. Alas, Walcutt's painting too has become lost over the intervening epoch, along with his reputation -- aside from a few scattered references in the press of his day, there are few of his works in museums today, and even the date of his death -- 1882 or 1895 -- is uncertain. His one remaining work of note is the Perry Monument in Cleveland.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lady Godiva Twice Daily

The theatrical tradition of 'tableaux vivants' (living pictures) or "poses plastiques" is a long one. They could be perfectly wholesome, with everyone attired in period costumes or tastefully draped in robes or togas -- or, if everyone stood still, one could do without the drapery. Since no-one moved, it was technically not theatre, and therefore outside the legal purview of the Master of the Revels (later the Lord Chamberlain) -- a detail which was used, many years later, by Mrs. Henderson to launch her "Windmill Theatre," a history lovingly re-created for the film Mrs. Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench. This handbill dates back to the 1830's, at which time Mrs. Henderson's pre-Victorian precedent, Madame Warton, was offering her personations of Lady Godiva (not to mention Venus, Sappho, and Diana!) in her own exhibition hall, dubbed "Walhalla," in Savile House in Leicester Square.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

3D Movies in 1922

3D film technology is always touted as the "latest," and although most have some idea of the earlier era of 3D film in the 1950's with its paper and cellophane glasses and tendency toward horror films (think Vincent Price in House of Wax), few realize that the earliest 3D movies were shown in 1922. One system, known as "Teleview," was invented by Laurens Hammond and installed in the Selwyn Theatre in New York. It used two projectors, one showing  only the frames from a right-eye perspective, one from the left; cinema-goers sat behind "televiewers" which were electronically synchronized to the frames and blocked out the opposite eye automatically. It was a bulky and expensive setup, and never made it as a commercial proposition -- and yet, remarkably, its basic principle is exactly the same as the latest 3D television today. For more detail about Teleview, see Daniel Symmes's archived site, "The Chopper." Although Hammond's system wasn't a commercial success, he went on to invent what's arguably the most durable and distinctive electronic keyboard of all time: the Hammond organ.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Eidophusikon

Of all the curious eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual technologies claiming to replicate the appearance of nature -- the Diorama, the Panorama, the Moving Panorama, or the Theatre of Arts -- the Eidophusikon perhaps came closest. First shown in London's Leicester Square by the painter Philip James de Loutherborg in 1781, it was a complex apparatus, and much of its mechanism remains a subject of dispute and conjecture. Like Daguerre's later Diorama, it employed subtle lighting effects and colored filters; like Thiodon's Theatre of Arts it had miniature boats and human figures that moved by some subtle mechanism; like the moving Panorama, some of its scenery moved on rolls or scrolls. There have been many attempts to re-create it; I saw one not-terribly-successful one at the Yale Center for British Art some years ago; its over-reliance on plexiglass was a problem, I thought. A far more ambitious version was achieved by a small group at the Asutralian National University in 2005; the video of this recreation is a must-see for any enthusiasts of old media. There's also a brilliant page from the New Model Theatre showing the steps they take in construction (they've built several).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Optigan: An Optical Disc from 1971

Like its cousin the Mellotron, the Optigan was an organ that used pre-recorded instrumental sounds to provide automated melody or back-up lines to the player -- the novelty was its use of optically-recorded discs, which borrowed the technology developed decades earlier for optical soundtracks on film. Although sold by a subsidiary of toy company Mattel, it was definitely not a toy; it was relatively expensive, and heavy too. I know this because one was left in the basement of my house; the tubes and other electronics were housed in the pedal assembly, which must have weighed at least thirty pounds. I'm embarrassed to admit that, not knowing what it was at the time, I left it on the curb -- hopefully some electronics enthusiast recognized what a treasure it was; all I know is, it was gone the next morning. Months later, I found one of the optical discs in the basement next to where the organ had been -- you can hear what this and other discs sounded like at the Optigan website.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Boddie Records

The photo above shows Tom and Louise Boddie, whose Boddie Records recording studio and pressing plant was a platform for independent music in Cleveland back in the heyday of vinyl. Boddie recorded every kind of music imaginable; of course there was a healthy dose of R&B and gospel, but also Hungarian folk music, Bar Mitzvah '45's, sermons, country music, and the world's first (and last) Punk-Bluegrass crossover single, the Hotfoot Quartet's cover of Devo's "Mongoloid," which I produced there in 1980, along with my own two solo guitar LP's in 1979 and 80. We're fortunate that, although the business has been closed for some years since Tom's death, Louise is still going strong, and thanks to her and the Numero Group, you can get either a three-disc boxed set of Boddie recordings, or the one-CD Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie (which includes a track from my second LP, A Stone's Throw). You can read more about the Boddies on this extensive post at

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Atomic Cigarettes

Image courtesy the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland Memory
This particular trail of history started with a postcard given me by a friend. The front showed Cleveland's Public Auditorium; the back bore a postmark of December 15th 1955. The sender, a man who signed himself "John," spoke of his having attended the "Nuclear Engineering and Science Congress." But what, exactly, was this Congress? My friend wondered if perhaps my late father, who had a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Commission in graduate school, and went to Cleveland to work for General Electric in 1952, might have attended -- and he might! Searching the web for any evidence, though, of what this "Congress" consisted, I found this astonishing photo at the Cleveland Memory Project pages. Apparently, tobacco giant Philip Morris sent one of its cigarette-making machines, along with its famous company spokesman Johnny Roventini (the bellboy who hollered "Call for Philip Morris!" in its ads) to this event, billed as "the first demonstration of the use of an atomic energy device in the manufacture of cigarettes." How exactly this cigarette machine was powered by "atomic" energy is unclear -- there was no nuclear plant in Ohio prior to 1970 --  and I suspect that my father, a lifelong non-smoker who hated cigarettes, would not have been amused!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Is Radio Menacing Civilization?

The attention-grabbing headline and illustration for this article from the Radio Mirror in 1934 belies the technical nature of some of its arguments. Like those who today fear radiation from cell phones, many in the 1930's, misunderstanding the nature of radio waves, believed they could cause fevers in humans, ignite fires, or even cause airships to crash. Let us just say that humanity was not swept away in an apocalypse of radio-ignited heat. It's also interesting to note that the argument soon shifts to the cultural influence of radio broadcasts, with Shaw claimed "lowered our cultural standards" while Tesla (who has a certain pride of place as the man who discovered the basic principles of radio) took a much more measured stand: ""You can't blame lowering our culture on radio," he insisted, "blame it on yourself and myself. The type of program that comes over the air is the type you and I want to listen to."

Monday, August 26, 2013


Not many outside of Cleveland will remember Ghoulardi -- a.k.a. Ernie Anderson -- the late-night horror-movie host known for his inimitable film-side manner and memorable catch phrases ("Turn blue," "Ova-dey!" and "Hey, group!"). There was no one else quite like him on television, then or now. His habit of cutting weird sound samples (e.g."Papa Oom Mow Mow") into the more inane of his films was another trademark, and he's been cited as an influence on, among other shows, "Mystery Science Theatre 3000." In this 1963, photo from The Sponsor he's shown with a group of fans, who dubbed themselves the "Ghoulkateers," after a certain other group of adolescents with matching cartoon shirts. Oh, and you may have heard of his son, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Man from Beyond

He's just been discovered aboard an icebound ship in the remote wastes of the Arctic, and chopped out of a block of solid ice in which he's been frozen more than a century. And yet, he's alive! Who else but Harry Houdini could think of such a scene, and bring it to life -- not on stage, of course, but through the magic of cinema. Few people realize that Houdini not only had several starring roles, but managed his own Harry Houdini Film Company, of which the above feature -- 1922's The Man from Beyond -- was perhaps its finest achievement. Happily, the film itself survives, and can be seen online, or in better resolution as part of Kino-Lorber's wonderful DVD boxed set, Houdini the Movie Star.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Finding "Negro Audiences" in 1954

Image via the fabulous Lantern media history site
People often forget the virtual apartheid of the radio airwaves in the 1940's, '50's, and early '60's -- but here's one powerful reminder that none of it happened by accident. Not only are stations here competing for bragging rights in reaching the biggest share of the "Negro Market," but there's a mention of Alan Freed's Moondog show having "Negro-appeal"! Perhaps this was in the wake of the Moondog Coronation Ball, the year before, which revealed that nearly all of Freed's audience was Black, or perhaps Freed was in fact quite conscious of who was listening to his show all along; its popularity with Black listeners seems to have been a key selling point in plans for syndication.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Zenith Radios in the Arctic

Image via the fabulous Lantern media history site
Product endorsements from Arctic explorers are nothing new -- way back in 1863, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane had given his seal of approval to Borden's Meat Biscuits, and MacMillan's old boss Robert Peary had endorsed, among other things, Howard Watches (not to be outdone, Peary's wife Jo appeared in ads for Jaros Hygenic Underwear). But unlike biscuits, watches, and underwear, radios had an enormous capacity to decrease the hazards of Arctic travel -- not only, as this ad notes, by reducing one's sense of solitude, but by enabling lost explorers to, well, not be so lost.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Horrific Letter From Greely

In the annals of bad handwriting, there are few exemplars to compare with the letter -- facetious, yet fabulously plausible -- cooked up by Mark Twain in Roughing It. A purported reply from Horace Greely to a young man who wished, against nature, to grow turnips upon vines, its inane readings, as given by Twain, are among the strangest and most hilarious in the history of American letters. The narrator's increasingly desperate attempts at decipherment -- "sausages wither in the east," "potatoes inherit and condemn," and "my beer's out" -- rival the nonsense of English as She is Spoke, a favorite of Twain's. Alas, the solution --a typescript of the letter -- arrives too late, and the lad who dreamed of such novel cultivars expires before it arrives. They bury him with a turnip in each hand.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hooray for Charles Frederick Schweinfurth!

Image courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project
This curious house was designed by noted Cleveland architect Charles Frederick Schweinfurth in 1896. I happened upon it about eighty years later, as a good friend at my high school actually lived in it. By then, the neighborhood on East 75th street was a good deal rougher around the edges, and the awnings were gone -- but inside, beyond the ornately carved front door, there will still many marvels, including a balcony window in my friend's room that overlooked the staircase. Schweinfurth designed many larger houses for the élites of his day, as well as a series of stone bridges over East Avenue, now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Every time we drove under one of these bridges, my friend would always say 'Hooray for Charles Frederick Schweinfurth!" -- and I still say so today.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Read it and Weep

Image Courtesy Suzanne O'Connell
Back in the nineteen-teens, there was a time when Hollywood was losing interest in "Wetserns," and a seemingly new genre, the "Northern," was taking hold. Set in the frozen north -- but often filmed in winter in the California mountains -- these "snow pictures" in fact had nearly all the same features as "Westerns," with an added dose of melodrama; there were damsels in distress, bad guys with black (fur) hats, and chase scenes (only with dogsleds instead of horses). This still is from a lost film, Rollin Sturgeon's 1916 epic God's Country and the Woman; the actor on the right -- who seems to be quite satisfied with the contents of the paper in his hand -- is George Holt. I'm grateful to Holt's granddaughter, Suzanne O'Connell, for sharing this rare still.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Water Kings

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink -- at least, to drink safely. One of the principal health hazards of Victorian London was its water, and one might be far healthier with a glass of beer, or even a flagon of rum, than with a drop of the swill that passed in some parts for drinking water. The "Water Kings" parodied in the Punch cartoon here were the three large water companies of London, whose water intakes were all downstream from significant storm drains and sewers, and thus quite frequently their product would be safe only after boiling, and then hardly palatable.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Loie Fuller

The American dancer Loie Fuller, who became a smash hit in Paris, is also the namesake of a delightful little French restaurant just around the corner from my house. Her most famous performance, the "Serpentine Dance," was the subject of numerous photographs as well as several popular short films featuring her and her imitators. Here, though, is a less familiar image, from a CDV in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale, which happily makes much of its digital collections freely available online.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Anne of Green Gables

Not many realize that Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables was first adapted as a film back in 1919, starring Mary Miles Minter. The film is lost, and all that remains are a few stills, such as the one shown in this theatrical lantern slide from the W. Ward Marsh collection at the Cleveland Public  Library. The prominent -- and, given the book, inexplicable -- presence of a watermelon is perhaps one sign that the film wasn't especially faithful to the book; Montgomery was said to be incensed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 1851 Crystal Palace

John Jabez Edwin Mayall, daguerreotypist (British, 1810 - 1901); The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London, 1851, Daguerreotype. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Here's another fabulous image from the Getty -- a Daguerreotype of the Crystal Palace at its original 1851 location in Hyde Park. Daguerreotypes possess an incredible level of detail, as their grain size is microscopic -- perhaps as small as a few molecules of silver halide -- but this can only be appreciated at the highest resolution. The Getty has made an 800 dpi version available, which is a start at least -- one can clearly see the equestrian statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Osler's Crystal Fountain is there in all its glory. There are also two figures in the foreground, along with the ghostly image of a third, who lingered only for a moment before wandering out of the camera's frame and into oblivion.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The 'Annie' Daguerreotype of Poe

Unknown maker, American, daguerreotypist; Edgar Allan Poe, late May - early June 1849, Daguerreotype; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
There are two reasons for celebrating the 'Annie' Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe -- first, the portrait itself, named after Mrs. Anne Richmond, Poe's friend and the original owner of the photograph, and the curious story of its making and her care of it (she survived Poe by fifty years), and secondly, because it is among the images being made freely available by the Getty Trust as part of its new Open Content program. Following the lead of the Rijksmuseum, the Getty is making a wide array of high-res images of its collections -- any in which no other copyright is known -- available for free to anyone. It is a bold move, and one I personally welcome; there's nothing that so irks a researcher as inordinate fees for images which -- other than the fact that the museum owns their originals -- would long be out of copyright.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dad in the Lab

Given the 35 years he worked there, it's always strange to me that there aren't more photos of my dad in  his lab at General Electric's NELA Park. Still, among the few that have survived are some doozies -- the one above is among my favorites, as a) my dad is actually testing a lamp;. and b) the loud print shirt with the big collar, along with the long sideburns, mark this definitely as mid-1970's. 

The Women of ENIAC

Each of the women shown in the photo above is holding a unit with the same storage capacity; the first two decreases in size are due to improvements in the tubes and wiring, but the last is due to the invention of the transistor. These were the calculating components of (respectively) ENIAC, EDVAC, ORDVAC, and BRELESC-I. One unit contained 108 tubes, the equivalent of 108 transistors; the CPU of the computer on which I'm writing these words has 774 million of them, which would require more than seven million of the units shown above. These early computers were hand-programmed, and these women were the first programmers of the electronic computing age; you can learn more about them here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Jives of Dr. Hepcat

Dr. Hepcat" -- real name Lavada Durst -- was a highly successful DJ on KVET out of Austin, Texas in the 1940's and 1950's. He spun platters (played music), called Negro League baseball games, and mastered his own brand of "jive," to which he published this guide in 1953. The best parts of this little booklet are the 'lessons' that come before the word-list -- in one dialogue, when a college professor asks his students 'What are the major problems that confront us in community welfare and organization?" they are to reply "Prof, we must definitely pick upon a head knock to manipulate the controls, one that's in the know, one that all the squares and ickies believe that his knowledge-box is hitting on all eight cylinders." Hopefully, the Prof had a copy of Durst's guide handy -- you can get yours here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Aunt Sally

Way back in the day, when number lotteries were run by guys at the corner instead of state governments, the racket was known as "Playing Policy." The name was a sly reference to an insurance policy, and the ways in which the insurer might try any means necessary to limit their liability; the numbers game was only as honest as its local purveyor, and many ended up singing the 'Playing PolicyBlues.' By the 1970's, the state lotteries had put the numbers games out of business -- still, as recently as 1980, I can recall an elderly African-American woman, who sat across the aisle from me on a Greyhound bus going from Greensboro NC to Cleveland OH, extolling the virtues of her "policy book." These books -- Aunt Sally's was just one of many -- told you what numbers to bet on, based on your dreams. If you dreamed of a ball, 'money would be left to you' -- assuming you laid yours on 39, 53, and 68; to dream of monkeys 'shows many evil enemies' but recommends 1, 2, 4, and 44. You can read more about Aunt Sally at luckymojo.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The First Photo-Montage

Photography was yet in its infancy when David Octavius Hill began taking Calotypes (sometimes referred to as Talbotypes) in Scotland in 1843. The Daguerreotype had been announced to the world only four years previous, and it remained unclear whether Daguerre's patent, which he had assigned to France, permitted unlicensed photography elsewhere. Licenses were issued to Claudet and Beard in Britain, but since Hill was in Scotland he believed his work did not infringe on these licenses. Having been present at the meeting at which the Free Church of Scotland was formed, Hill hit upon the idea of photographing every person present, then transferring their likenesses to a group portrait. Unfortunately, with so many heads to squeeze in to the scene, it wasn't always possible to insert them in a natural manner; if you look closely you can see heads growing in clusters like grapes, perched at unnatural angles, and out of proportion with their neighbors.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lecture Tonight

In the days before electronic mass-media, ordinary people who wanted to learn about things outside of a school or college could do so one of two ways: read about it, or attend a public lecture. Back in 1926, my great-grandfather Elbert H. Clarke offered a series of lectures on the stars, illustrated with lantern slides made using the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson, which had been completed just eight years previously and was at the time the largest in the world. For his lectures, he charged just 25 cents, the equivalent of about $3.50 today.
(with thanks to the Ohio Memory Project where this item from the Canton Sun is archived).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The "Ultima Thule" Portrait

It is, perhaps, one of the most famous portraits in the world, so ubiquitous in print and online that no one seems to realize that the original has gone missing. I refer to the "Ultima Thule" Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, which was stolen along with its large black walnut frame from the photographer's store window at 33 Westminster Street, Providence, sometime in the late 1850's. Daguerreotypes, of course, are "one offs" -- there is no way, strictly speaking, to print another from them -- but one can take a fairly good, though far from perfect, Daguerreotype of a Daguerreotype, and it was through this means that the "Ultima Thule" portrait has come down to us today, and become so common. Indeed, the source for most reproductions is a third-generation copy at the Library of Congress, which bears its maker's attempt to obtain copyright in 1904.

But who stole the original of this Daguerreotype? And where is it now? Click here to find out more.


Back in 1977, long before the Tolkien boom that began with Peter Jackson's films -- and long before the Internet -- Tolkien fans came together in small local groups such as the Cleveland Tolkien Society. The CTS had a journal, run off on a Gestetner duplicator, known as "Kelvaquenta" (Quenya for 'The Speech of Living Things'), which ran to perhaps five or six issues. This one included news of our recent meeting, an excellent "Tengwar Fact Sheet" on Elvish writing systems, a short essay of mine on Elvish, and a Hobbit crossword puzzle. Those curious to read the entire issue can download it as a .pdf here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

White World

"White World" was a short-lived attraction -- it ran only from 1905 to 1906 -- on Surf Ave. in Coney Island -- showcasing the accomplishments of polar explorers. It was built in the form of a giant iceberg, and was probably a variety of what's known in the trade as a 'dark ride' -- a slow indoor roller-coaster type ride that passed through dioramas and views of various subjects. The designs for this ride were made by the Italian-American artist Albert Operti -- you can just make out his name in the high-resolution version at the Library of Congress -- who had travelled with Robert Peary to the Arctic on one of his earlier expeditions. It's hard to know what the exhibit contained, though it's safe to assume it was based in some way on the illustrations Operti made for the book of the same name, published in 1902.