Notes about history

April 4, 2017 permalink

Ibm Punched Card Typography

Norbert Landsteiner wrote up a post about something that’s retro-technology-typography-nerdy beyond even my usual limits and understanding: a thorough explication and an interactive demo of how the late-1940s IBM 026 key punch (the typewriter keyboard/workstation machine that operators would use to poke the holes in the computer program punchcards of that era) was able to also print tiny human-readable letters and words at the top of the cards for easy reference.

Basically IBM encoded the alphabet and other special characters onto a clever postage stamp-sized print head that would run along the top of the punchcard, with wires to each “dot” enabling the printing of each encoded character in turn, effectively an early dot-matrix printer. (it’s not easy to see, but if you squint at the image you’ll see that the red dots form the “A” character, upside-down — you’ll see it more easily if you play with the demo and choose other characters)

IBM Punched Card Typography.

March 22, 2013 permalink

Chinua Achebe on History

That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

Chinua Achebe, RIP. Quote from a 1994 interview with him in the Paris Review. Things Fall Apart was one of the novels we read in middle school that really changed my understanding of the workings of the world, and remains one of the books that I hope to always have on my bookshelf. (hat tip to @hawkt)

April 24, 2012 permalink

Rives Bfk Acronym Explained

As an art person I’ve enjoyed a good amount of time around lithography and other drawing media, and now I’m engaged to a children’s book illustrator who largely works in watercolor, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time at art supply shops buying paper. One thing has bugged me for years about our fine rag paper purchases, though: what’s up with the “BFK” in “Rives Arches BFK”? I’ve asked professors, professional printers, other artists, and even the Internet, with no great leads, but I finally coaxed the answer out of Google today. From The Albumen & Salted Paper Book: The history and practice of photographic printing, 1840-1895:

It is no wonder that only two paper mills in the world managed to consistently produce a paper of the necessary quality, and these two mills were able to maintain their monopoly from the 1860’s until approximately World War I. They were the above-mentioned Blanchet Frères et Klébler Co. in Rives, France (hence their product was known as the “Rives” paper) and Steinbach and Company, located in Malmedy, Belgium (at that time part of Germany). Steinbach paper was known outside Germany as “Saxe” paper.

The product that established their paper monopoly (duopoly?) — the exploding new field of photography! More to the point, 3D stereography, the Victorian postcard origin of a Tumblr meme:

In the late 1850’s and especially after 1860, two new factors in photographic technology and practice generated a great demand for albumen paper. The first of these was the stereograph; its ability to transport the viewer to distant scenes with the illusion of three-dimensional reality depended largely on the smooth surface and fine detail of albumen paper. Stereo views were extremely popular, and created a corresponding demand for albumen paper. Nearly all stereo views before 1890 were made on albumen paper.

This 3D thing will catch on one of these days…

February 22, 2012 permalink

This May Be the Most Important Proposition

This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: “At the time, no one knew what was coming.”

From the first page of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (translated by Jay Rubin). His earlier books that I’ve read have been wonderful dream factories, but I’ve seen this one scoring some negative reviews. I don’t know what’s coming over the next 925 pages, but I have hope that it’ll be good.

January 31, 2012 permalink

What Sumerians Can Teach Us About Data

Gathering data is not a neutral act, it will alter the power balance, usually in favor of the people collecting the information.

From What the Sumerians can teach us about data, a blog post noting that the predecessor of writing was the depiction of data, a concept that helped establish the hierarchical systems of power in the early city-states. (I like his comparison between the data-protecting curses inscribed on the cuneiform tablets and the FBI WARNING notices on VHS!)

January 23, 2012 permalink

Bell Labs Hamlet from 1885

Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:

Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings.  The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.

The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.

(Via PhysOrg)

January 2, 2012 permalink

Marconi, Hacked in 1903

Want to expose a rival’s poor security implementation? What better way than to demonstrate the weakness in public, in front of a gathered crowd? From a New Scientist story of very early 20th-Century hacktivism:

LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. … Mentally decoding the missive, Blok [Fleming’s assistant] realised it was spelling one facetious word, over and over: “Rats”. A glance at the output of the nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” it trilled.

The radio-hacker was Nevil Maskelyne, a magician and rival inventor who was interested in developing wireless technology but who had been frustrated by the broad patents granted to Marconi. Bonus trivia: Nevil’s father was John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and inventor of the pay toilet, and his son was Jasper Maskelyne, a magician and inventor (see a family connection here?) who allegedly helped develop some of the famous optical diversions and camouflage trickery for the British military during WWII (his inflatable tanks remind me of the Potemkin Army thing I posted a couple of years back…)

October 15, 2011 permalink

Disney Employee Handbook 1943

Studio map from a nifty Disney employee handbook circa 1943. The info in the booklet is mostly uninteresting, but it’s peppered with wartime secrecy, unions (represented by a headless, walking union suit — weird!) , and the gender biases that were prevalent at Disney at the time (sorry, ink-and-paint girls, the “penthouse club” is for men only!). This book was produced not long after the famous animator’s strike of 1941, which was unpleasantly lampooned through the clowns in Dumbo, and would have been read during a time of high tension between the studio and the employees.

(Via @dajanx)

August 20, 2011 permalink

On gunpowder, ice cream, and sound symbolism

From the post Language of Food: Ice Cream, a fascinating article linking the history of gunpowder, ice cream, linguistics, and even a bit of marketing insight:

Something similarly beautiful was created as saltpeter and snow, sherbet and salt, were passed along and extended from the Chinese to the Arabs to the Mughals to the Neapolitans, to create the sweet lusciousness of ice cream. And it’s a nice thought that saltpeter, applied originally to war, became the key hundreds of years later to inventing something that makes us all smile on a hot summer day.

If you like food, language, or science, the full post is worth a read.

(Via Language Log)

June 15, 2011 permalink Brings Back Usenet from 30 Years Ago

Screenshot from an interesting project, ― Usenet posts reappearing in realtime as they did exactly 30 years ago, a new way of experiencing the history of the early Net. See how things were mere months before the launch of B-News, long before the Great Renaming and the creation of the alt.* hierarchy, and best of all, the introduction of spam is more than a decade away still!

You can use either the browser-based client to poke through the messages, or point your favorite NNTP client to the site and experience it as you would the real Usenet. Nice!

Also, I like this answer from the FAQ:

Can I post to
Your posts will be accepted, but will not show up for at least 30 years. 🙂

(Via Waxy Links)

December 30, 2010 permalink

Bute Tarentella

[Video no longer available]

Experimental animation pioneer Mary Ellen Bute’s short film Tarentella was selected this week for preservation in the National Film Registry as a culturally significant film. From the press release:

“Tarantella” is a five-minute color, avant-garde short film created by Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer of visual music and electronic art in experimental cinema. With piano accompaniment by Edwin Gershefsky, “Tarantella” features rich reds and blues that Bute uses to signify a lighter mood, while her syncopated spirals, shards, lines and squiggles dance exuberantly to Gershefsky’s modern beat. Bute produced more than a dozen short films between the 1930s and the 1950s and once described herself as a “designer of kinetic abstractions” who sought to “bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding with the … rhythmic cadences of music.” Bute’s work influenced many other filmmakers working with abstract animation during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and with experimental electronic imagery in the ‘50s.

Bute’s final piece was an interpretation of Finnegans Wake, one of the very few attempts ever made at staging Joyce’s novel of troubled dreams.

November 22, 2010 permalink

Craniophore Compositing

Ghostly photos from the Otis Archives depicting a novel circa-1885 piece of scientific analysis equipment: Apparatus for taking Composite Photographs of Skulls. Basically a wood and brass frame with a craniophore in the middle, the tool made it possible to position and align multiple skulls so composite photos could be taken accurately from the front, side, and rear views. The image on the right, for example, is a composite of five or six (or more?) separate skulls. From a contemporary anthropology journal describing the process:

Then the anterior frame and the lateral frame next to the window are lowered ; a black velvet background is hung on the posterior frame ; a large white cardboard is hung on the frame further from the window ; the brass-work is occluded with small velvet screens, and the picture is taken.

The photographs record composites of skulls from various Native American and Cook Island tribes (as seen in the archives of the Clark Institute), so I first thought that the measurements were sadly being undertaken for the sake of scientific racism, the darker side of physical anthropology, which was still in vogue in the 1880s.

That may be the case, but thankfully the full story is somewhat more complex: the inventor of the apparatus, Washington Matthews, an army surgeon-ethnographer-linguist, wrote extensively on the Siouan languages while stationed in the Dakotas, reportedly married and had a son with a woman from the Hidatsa tribe, was initiated into some aspects of the Navajo tribe, and also contributed substantially to the understanding and recording of the Navajo culture, which previously had been considered primitive by the Europeans:

Dr Matthews referred to Dr Leatherman’s account of the Navahoes as the one long accepted as authoritative. In it that writer has declared that they have no traditions nor poetry, and that their songs “were but a succession of grunts.” Dr. Matthews discovered that they had a multitude of legends, so numerous that he never hoped to collect them all: an elaborate religion, with symbolism and allegory, which might vie with that of the Greeks; numerous and formulated prayers and songs, not only multitudinous, but relating to all subjects, and composed for every circumstance of life. The songs are as full of poetic images and figures of speech as occur in English, and are handed down from father to son, from generation to generation.

November 21, 2010 permalink

Catmull Interview

They didn’t think it was relevant. In their minds, we were working on computer-generated images—and for them, what was a computer-generated image? What was an image they saw on a CRT? It was television.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and pioneer of computer graphics, on the time he and his nascent team were brought in to ILM during the filming of the second Star Wars movie.

From an ACM Queue interview between Catmull and Pat Hanrahan. There are also some good quotes about incubator projects like ARPA providing protection for new ideas, arts education, and the role of artist-scientists in the graphics field.

November 14, 2010 permalink

Delia Derbyshire Interview

The BBC will be airing a never-before-seen interview this week with Delia Derbyshire, the woman who co-composed and performed the original Doctor Who theme, probably the most famous piece of purely electronic music. For a great account of the production (no synths back then, only novel, painstaking work involving test tone equipment, razor blades and tape!), check out Mark Ayres’s A History of the Doctor Who Theme.

(The interview will air on Inside Out, November 15 at 7:30pm on BBC One – not sure when/if those of us not in the UK will be able to see it, though…)

August 1, 2010 permalink


WAX MODEL from 1917: Smallpox lesions on face of 15 year old boy

Sorry for the icky photo, folks, just wanted to share a striking bit of anatomical illustration! This image led me down the rabbit hole of looking into the art of moulage, casting realistic wax models with “wounds” and other dermatological problems for use in medical training. Obviously a much better way of introducing a classroom full of doctors to diseases than wheeling in an actual smallpox patient. There’s a photo book on the subject called Diseases in Wax: The History of Medical Moulage that I might have to track down. At $180 on Amazon, though, I sure hope that the library here has it…

(Via the Otis Historical Archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine on Flickr)

July 26, 2010 permalink

Non Square Pixels

The man who created the first scanned digital photograph in 1957, Russel Kirsch, pioneer of the pixel, apologizes in the May/July issue of Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Now 81 years old, he offers up a replacement (sorta) for the square pixel he first devised: tessellated 6×6 pixel masks that offer much smoother images with lower overall resolution. The resulting file sizes are slightly larger but the improved visual quality is pretty stunning, as seen in the closeup above. His research was inspired by the ancient 6th Century tile mosaics in Ravenna, Italy.

There are a lot of comments out there complaining that square pixels are more efficient, image and wavelet compression is old news, etc., and that’s true, but if you actually read the article you’ll find that the point isn’t so much the shape, the efficiency, or even the capture/display technology needed, but rather that this could be a good method for reducing the resolution of images somewhat while still retaining visual clarity, important in medical applications and in situations where low-resolution images are still tossed around.

Bonus: the man in the demo photo above is his son, the subject of the first-ever digital photograph!

(Via ScienceNews)

July 16, 2010 permalink

Maya Blue

Ancient pigment history is fascinating. From dried beetles (carmine) to sea snails (Tyrian purple) to ground up human and feline mummies (the rather uncreatively-named Mummy brown), colors come from some weird places. I’d heard of Maya Blue before, but didn’t realize that it’s more of a process rather than a specific mineral pigment. The color was made by intercalating indigo (añil) into fine clay over continuous heat. The slow fusing with clay made the paint exceptionally resistant to weather and acidic conditions (and even modern solvents), and the process wasn’t fully understood / rediscovered until a few years ago. Cooking it up may have been ritualistic, as the incense copal was often burned in the same bowls. The color was important in sacrifice rituals as well: when the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza was dredged back in 1904, a a layer of blue silt 14-feet-thick was found at the bottom (sensationalism aside, the silt was likely more from all of the blue-painted pots tossed in than the blue-painted people…I hope).

From Discoblog:

The researchers knew that the Mayans made their blue by heating the pigment with palygorskite (a type of clay); their analysis showed that this heating allowed the pigment to enter tiny channels in the clay which are sealed after the mixture cools, protecting and keeping the pigment true blue for centuries.

June 30, 2010 permalink

Abner Mercury Memory

From a recently declassified history (PDF) detailing the NSA’s computing equipment up to 1964, comes a description of their house-sized computer ABNER’s mercury-powered memory banks:

A succession of pulses (signal or no-signal) travels through an acoustic medium, say mercury, from one end to the other of a “delay line.” […] At the input end of the line is a crystal that converts an electrical pulse to a mechanical wave which travels through the mercury to the other end, where another crystal reconverts it to an electrical signal. The series of electrical signals is recirculated back to input, after passing through detector, amplifier, and driver circuits to restore the shape and strength of the pulses. Also, in the part of the cycle external to the delay line are input and output circuits and “clock” pulses for synchronization. In mercury, the pulses travel at the speed of sound, which is much slower than the speed of electrical signals, and thus the delay in going from one end of the line to the other constitutes a form of storage. […] In ABNER, the mercury tank was a glass tube about two feet long; the delay time was 384 microseconds, or eight words of 48 bits at one-megacycle-per-second rate. Thus the 1,024 words were contained in two cabinets holding 64 mercury delay lines each.

ABNER was named after comic strip character Li’l Abner, reportedly because it was a big, hulking machine that “didn’t know anything”.

(Via Bruce Schneier)

May 12, 2010 permalink

Potemkin Army

The Discover blog reports on a Potemkin army:

Russian balloon maker Rusbal is working on an order from the country’s defense ministry to supply full-scale inflatable military models. The realistic-looking hardware is used in battlefield positions and to protect Russian strategic installations from surveillance satellites, distracting snoops and protecting real combat units from strikes. They can look like real vehicles in the radar, thermal, and near infra-red bands, so they’d even look right through night-vision goggles.

And now from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act V Scene IV — you know, the cool part where the incoming army disguises itself as the Birnam forest):

    Let every soldier hew him down a bough
    And bear’t before him: thereby shall we shadow
    The numbers of our host and make discovery
    Err in report of us.

Nothing much new, then. Simple visual misdirection is the magician’s greatest asset.

See also:

  • Edison’s Warriors, a great article in Cabinet about the U.S. 3132nd Signal Service Company in WWII, a sonic deception team that created strategic disruption using wire and tape recordings with acoustical engineering help from Bell Labs
  • Operation Bertram
  • The Ghost Army

March 8, 2010 permalink


It’s interesting to look back at the hype and spectacle of the early CD-ROM games (with novelties like Myst flying off the shelf the medium was hailed as the savior of declining video game sales) as a parallel to the hype and spectacle of the real 18th Century phantasmagoria and magic lantern parlor theater. From classic gaming site’s short editorial piece commemorating their recent addition of Roberta William’s popular 1995 FMV horror game Phantasmagoria:

In the mid-1700s, long before horror pioneers like Alfred Hitchcock, films such as Dracula and Frankenstein, and even cinema itself, the predecessor to horror cinema was born in a tiny coffee shop in Leipzig, Germany. The proprietor of the shop, Johann Schropfer, welcomed patrons with a warm beverage and an invitation to shoot the breeze and some stick in his adjoining billiards room. But the extra attraction of running a table after a long workday didn’t do much to boost Schropfer’s steadily declining patronage. In an effort to drum up business, Schropfer cast out pool tables and converted the billiards parlor into a séance chamber. […]

By the late 1760s, Schropfer’s once-deserted shop had evolved into a hotspot where patrons gasped in awe at ghostly images projected onto smoke, chilling music, ambient sounds, and burning incenses whose aromas were evocative of malevolent forces. The masterful performance put on by Schropfer proved so lucrative that the coffee-shop-owner-turned-showman took his show on the road throughout Europe until 1774, at which time Schropfer, perhaps haunted by the specters he alleged to call forth from the afterlife, took his own life.

January 13, 2010 permalink

Winsor Mccay‘s 1911 Animation of Little Nemo

Winsor McCay’s 1911 animation of his Little Nemo comic strip (embedded above) was selected this year by the U.S. Library of Congress to be entered as a culturally significant work in the National Film Registry (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Muppet Movie, and others). Knowing that McCay did this all himself, by hand, cranking out tens of thousands of hand-colored drawings (keep in mind he was also pioneering the field of animation, inventing techniques as he worked) in addition to his incredibly intricate newspaper work leads me to suspect he was living in an alternate stream of time than the rest of us. Incredible stuff.

(Via Cartoon Brew)

January 11, 2010 permalink

The University of Nebraska Lincoln‘s Online Cartoon Archive

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is hosting an online collection of U.S. government-produced comic books, with full PDF downloads. Tucked away between the weirder, more off-beat stuff you’ll find some unique work from the likes of Walt Kelly, Hank Ketchum, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and more. Like this special run of Peanuts where Charlie Brown has Sally tested for amblyopia ex anopsia.

(Via Cartoon Brew)

December 7, 2009 permalink

This Creative Destruction Began in the 60s As

This “creative destruction” began in the ’60s, as did many things that we now both love and regret, and it was initially a spinoff of a project funded by US military agencies. […] Mephistopheles came to Faust in the form of a poodle. After all…in some versions of the story, he cannot enter your house unbidden — you have to invite him in, like a vampire.

From Internet Antichrist, a thoughtful piece by David Byrne on the the development of the ARPANET, psychoacoustics research at Bell Labs leading to vocoders and Kraftwerk, the rise of digital recording and transmission, and the possibility of the near-future demise of physical media and risks to personal privacy. The market forces of creative destruction.

November 27, 2009 permalink

From Endless Loop a Brief History of Chiptunes

From Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes:

Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]

When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.

(Photo of the SID chip via Chris Hand)

October 11, 2009 permalink


The boss from Sewer Shark stuffing his face with spaghetti -- gripping dramaEarly 1990’s gamers all surely remember the schlocky FMV games like Sewer Shark (sadly directed by VFX legend John Dykstra!), Night Trap (widely attacked in the U.S. Senate by Joe Lieberman!!), and Double Switch (starring Corey Haim and Debbie Harry!!!), and probably even get a cold chill whenever the name Digital Pictures comes up. Turgid, not much fun, and costing in the millions to produce, they were supposed to revolutionize the home entertainment business (anyone remember the $700 Philips CD-i?).

The side of the story that I hadn’t heard until now is that those were actually ports by the time the Sega CD and 3DO came around. Originally those games were created for a late 1980’s Nolan Bushnell-produced VHS (!!!) system called the Control-Vision, aka the NEMO (short for “Never Ever Mention Outside”, an appropriate moniker). Special circuitry in the system would allow games to be encoded onto multi-track VHS tape, jumping quickly (?) between segments as players push the control buttons.

Going up against the then-$100 NES, and with a competing video tape game system that already failed on the market (World of Wonder’s Action Max), Hasbro wisely pulled the plug on the NEMO. All of the expensive FMV footage that was shot would only make the light of day a few years later, squeezed down to a resolution of 256×224 pixels, mercilessly dithered down to 64 colors at a time.

September 12, 2009 permalink

Binocular Diplopia and the Book of Kells

How did reclusive monks living in the year 700 or 800 AD draw the intricate lines of the Book of Kells, rendered by hand at sub-millimeter resolution (about the same level of detail as the engraving work found on modern money), hundreds of years before optical instruments became available, hundreds of years before the pioneering visual research of Alhazen? According to Cornell paleontologist John Cisne’s theory, their trick was in the detail and pattern: by keeping their eyes unfocused on the picture plane, the monks could superimpose their linework and judge the accuracy against the template using a form of temporary binocular diplopia (sort of like willing yourself to view a stereograph or one of those Magic Eye posters).

That’s amazing.

August 29, 2009 permalink

The Full Moon Appears as a Tarte

“Harriot regularly corresponded with friends who were also trying out telescopes. One wrote to him saying that the full moon ‘appears like a tarte that my cooke made me the last week’.”

— A note from the “Cosmos and Culture: how astronomy has shaped our world” exhibit at London’s Science Museum, describing this first-ever drawing through a telescope, created circa 1610 by English mathematician Thomas Harriot.

Note to Austinites: the excellent Harry Ransom Center at UT will soon be opening their exhibit “Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works”, featuring some beautiful drawings by the likes of Cassini, Kepler, and Brahe. Can’t wait.

August 19, 2009 permalink

Death Has Long Been a Savvy Financial Move in the

Death has long been a savvy financial move in the visual arts: it guarantees that the supply of new works has come to an end, conferring scarcity value upon the existing oeuvre. For an artist it is better to die old, however. Death can reduce the value of young artists by taking them from the market before immortality is assured.

August 9, 2009 permalink

The So Called Mother of All Demos the

The so-called “Mother of All Demos”, the technology presentation given by Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute, which introduced to the world a number of useful developments: hypertext, the computer mouse, timesharing, email, video conferencing… And this was a bit over forty years ago, just before the ARPANET went online. Pretty amazing times.

The videos are available in more digestible chunks over on Stanford’s MouseSite.

August 4, 2009 permalink

First TV Broadcast: Papier Mâché Felix the Cat

This papier-mâché Felix the Cat was the first image to be broadcast over experimental television in preparation for the first public RCA broadcast in 1928. Black and white and made of durable material, they had him revolving on a turntable, beaming out as a tiny test image so engineers could adjust the signal. Early TV technology fascinates me.

There’s more good info on early test patterns over at Design Observer.

July 2, 2009 permalink

Id Been Wondering What Those Thinly Etched or

I’d been wondering what those thinly-etched or embossed porcelain “hidden images” found on antique plates and teacups were called: lithophanes. Artists would carve molds for them using warm wax over a glass plate, with a mirror to reflect light from a window underneath so they could get a preview of their work. A translucent bas relief, with the subtle grisaille quality of a lithograph.

I came across the name after seeing a blog entry on Finkbuilt about using his CNC router robot to computer-carve some psuedo-lithophanes. Is there anything that CNC and/or laser etching can’t do?

A video of his machine carving:

(Photo above via the Wikimedia Commons)

June 10, 2009 permalink

NASA Apollo 11 Haynes Owners’ Manual

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Haynes (maker of popular do-it-yourself auto repair manuals) has published an “owner’s manual” for the various craft involved in the Apollo 11 mission. Includes information on the Saturn V rocket, the Command/Service module (the part that astronaut Michael Collins was stuck in while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to go play on the moon), and the Lunar module. If you want to get me something retroactively for my 10th birthday, I think this would be it. (Via El Reg)

May 9, 2009 permalink

Krazy Kat Cartoon with Restored Soundtrack

For possibly the first time in 80 years this Krazy Kat cartoon, Ratskin, has been reunited with its original soundtrack recording, discovered on a rare Vitaphone disc in Australia. Found via Cartoon Brew, who has a good writeup of the discovery.

(note for George Herriman fans: the animated escapades of Krazy generally have little to do with the comic strip, more closely resembling Oswald the Lucky Rabbit or Felix the Cat’s hijinx)

January 10, 2009 permalink

Back in Boom Sic of 1999 There Were Rumors That

Back in boom [sic] of 1999, there were rumors that a Vegas/Vegas hotel was to be built. The entire Strip would be condensed to 5/8 scale, like Disneyland’s Main Street at 7/8 scale; or to copy the very popular Universal Citywalk, that five years earlier had launched the next stage of the Electronic Baroque in L.A.

Norman M. Klein, in The Electronic Baroque: 1955-2050. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p342.

January 10, 2009 permalink

Museums Would Map the Transition Toward This New

Museums would map the transition toward this new Baroque, like the new Guggenheims in Las Vegas, as part of a franchise that has stopped growing in the U.S. Museums were also under the gun. Very likely, shows will look more like Baroque wunderkammers than they used to. They will overlap and sprawl more, like browsers and search engines. The pressures to make shows monumentalize the new power relations will be intense, an often under shrinking curatorial budges, with signature buildings outside, like the Electronic Baroque: gaudy outside, conservative at its core.

Norman M. Klein, in The Electronic Baroque: 1955-2050. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p338.

December 23, 2008 permalink

In 1903 the Specialty Watch Company Helios Built

In 1903, the specialty watch company Helios built a trial run of miniature Boilerplates. The master of the hoax, an expert on Victorian automata, Paul Guinan, “tried” to “rebuild” one of these. The head resembles gas masks that soldiers wore in World War I, but as ornamental brass. The chest is as tubular as a Franklin stove, but gleaming with Baroque detail. Its knobby limbs were fully articulated , like an armature for special effect stop-motion seventy years later, or a thing in The City of Lost Children. […] For over a century, thousands of boilerplates have come down to us. They wait patiently. Patience has always been a virtue of the boilerplate; and of all hoaxes, including the Wizard of Oz himself.

Norman M. Klein, in Building the Unexpected. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p179.

December 5, 2008 permalink

Potemkin Villages Were a New Mode of Special

Potemkin villages were a new mode of special effects as power, as the erasure of memory in the late eighteenth century. But the principle evolves beyond one’s wildest imagination. All movie sets are Potemkin villages before they are shot as film. And all wars since 1989 have become Potemkin villages when they appear on global media. And yet, Baroque special effects already pointed toward this problem by 1650, that Baroque illusion served uneasy alliances to cover up the decay and misery of the kingdom.

Norman M. Klein, in Scripted Spaces and the Illusion of Power, 1550-1780. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p131