Miscellany № 83: Thomas Jefferson’s ivory polyptych

“An ivory what?” you may well ask. In the process of researching and writing The Book (which is, need I say, available from all good bookshops), I came across any number of tidbits that lay just fractionally below the interesting-ness threshold required for inclusion in the book. One discovery in particular, though, has had me kicking myself since I first handed in the manuscript back in 2015, and I still wish I’d found a way to incorporate it into the narrative. Here it is!

Writing media have always been defined by a tension between cost, quality and utility. In ancient China, for example, writers had to choose between tall, narrow strips of bamboo or larger sheets of silk as their writing medium.1 Bamboo was cheap and plentiful and, strung into mats unrolled from right to left, it was the driving force behind the East Asian convention of writing text from top to bottom rather than left to right. Its principal drawback was that it was also very heavy. A learned Chinese reader was said to have read many cartloads of books, emphasising their weight rather than their quantity.2 Featherweight silk, on the other hand, was expensive to buy but exquisite to write upon, and was preferred for elaborate illustrations or important documents.3 (Paper, when it arrived, split the difference between the two, but that’s another story.)

A writing board set, or diptych, found in an ancient shipwreck off Uluburun in Turkey. (© 2015 Robert Payton.)
A writing board set, or diptych, found in an ancient shipwreck off Uluburun in Turkey. Dated to around the fourteenth century BCE, it is the oldest such artefact ever found. (Robert Payton, “The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set,” Anatolian Studies 41 (1991): fig. 4. © 2015 Robert Payton.)

The Greco-Roman experience was similar. Though the conventional view of an ancient scribe is of a writer toiling over an unrolled papyrus scroll, papyrus was neither versatile nor robust enough for everyday use: it was fragile, sometimes wearing away against a reader or writer’s clothes, and it required a flat surface on which to write.4,5 The average Roman-about-town relied instead on a diptych, or writing tablet, fashioned from a pair of hinged pieces of wood hollowed out to hold a thin layer of beeswax, in which they wrote with a simple pointed stylus. Back at home, their notes could be copied onto papyrus for safekeeping and then erased from their diptych with the other end of the stylus, which was flattened like a spatula for just that purpose.5 Like the ancient Chinese, the Romans had to choose between strong and delicate, cheap and expensive, portable and static.

Thomas Jefferson's ivory notebooks
Jefferson’s Ivory Pocket Notebooks. © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Photo by Edward Owen.

What does this have to do with Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States of America, and what was his ivory “polyptych”? The clue is in the name. In a general sense, diptych means “folded in two”, but for the Greeks it carried the specific connotation of a folding, two-part writing tablet. (Today it is more often applied to bipartite paintings such as altarpieces.)6 Triptych means “threefold” and polyptych, by extension, “manifold”. An ivory polyptych, then, is an ivory notebook of many pages — and that is exactly what Jefferson used each day to record temperature, wind direction, weather, bird migrations and many other indicators of the climate and season.

Writing Tablet and Lid
Ivory writing tablet with wax inlay, French, circa 1340-1360. (CC0 image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. Acquired by Henry Walters, 1901. Accession number 71.283.)

Jefferson was following a long-held tradition. Portable, erasable writing tablets continued to be used from Roman times onward (there’s a particularly fine medieval example shown here, barely a few inches on a side), while ivory notebooks in particular became fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. Robert Payton, late of the Museum of London, and who kindly provided the image of the Uluburun writing set above, told me that they were popular with ladies of a certain station in life:

Ladies visiting each other used to keep notes on very small ivory tablets well into the beginning of the 20th century; similar tablets were also used by ladies to mark down dancing partners at formal dances in the 19th century.

Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations was one such 19th century lady. Seeking to write an IOU of sorts,

She took from her pocket a yellow set of ivory tablets, mounted in tarnished gold, and wrote upon them with a pencil in a case of tarnished gold that hung from her neck.

Late 19th century ivory notebook, with three ivory leaves between covers decorated in gold
Late 19th century ivory notebook, with three ivory leaves between covers decorated in gold. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 image courtesy of the British Museum. Museum number 1978,1002.767.)

The compact, reusable nature of an ivory notebook would have suited Jefferson down to the ground. Obsessive as he was about his daily observations — his house at Monticello bore a weathervane connected to a compass rose on the ceiling of one of its porticoes, and his pockets were weighed down with gadgets such as a thermometer, a compass, a spirit level and a globe — his ivory polyptych let him take notes with a pencil throughout the day before later copying them onto a more permanent medium.7 His daily routine, in other words, was not so different from that of a literate Greek or Roman. And though it may be stretching the analogy just a bit, if we consider that today many of us make ephemeral notes on our smartphones and (ahem) our tablets before sorting through them at a later time, we too are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. Writing technologies change over time; people, not so much.

T. Tsien, “Preface,” in Written on bamboo & silk : the beginnings of Chinese books & inscriptions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. xxi–xxiv. ↩︎
E. P. Wilkinson, “1. Manuscripts on Bamboo and Wood,” in Chinese History: A Manual, Harvard University Asia Center, 2000, pp. 444-447. ↩︎
T. Tsien, “Silk as Writing Material,” in Written on bamboo & silk : the beginnings of Chinese books & inscriptions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 126-144. ↩︎
A. Bülow-Jacobsen, “Writing Materials in the Ancient World,” in The Oxford handbook of papyrology, R. Bagnall, Ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 3-29. ↩︎
N. Lewis, “The Manufacturing Process and its Products,” in Papyrus in classical antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, pp. 34-69. ↩︎
diptych,” oxforddictionaries.com ↩︎
“I Rise with the Sun”,” monticello.org ↩︎

Miscellany № 82: the Future (and the Past) of Text

On Monday 11th September I gave a talk at Southampton University for the 2017 edition of a yearly symposium called “The Future of Text”. I’ve known Frode Hegland, its organiser, for a few years now (we first corresponded back in 2014, as I was finishing the manuscript for The Book, and he’s a fellow immigrant here in South London) but I must confess to having been a terrible conference tease. Each time he has asked me to participate, I’ve made positive noises and then subsequently had to back out because of one thing or another.

Finally, though, the stars aligned and this year I was able to attend. I’m glad I did! Frode’s focus, and that of the conference itself, is the concept of hypertext — how we can and do use computers to break up texts and recombine them in ad hoc and surprising ways. Hypertext, or at least the concept of it, has been around for some time now: Vannevar Bush first speculated about it in 1945 for The Atlantic1; Ted Nelson gave it a name in 19652 and Doug Engelbart demonstrated it in the “Mother of All Demos” in 1968.3 Most recently, of course, Tim Berners-Lee gave hypertext a home in 1989 in the form of the World Wide Web.4

Despite this long history, the feeling that I got from my fellow presenters at The Future of Text is that there is still a lot to be learned. For my part, I had little to nothing constructive to add about the future of text and so I went off script and talked about the past instead. (No-one seemed to mind!) Specifically, I ran through the history of the book from cuneiform tablet to double-cord–bound books in ten minutes flat plus five for questions,* then gratefully took my seat to listen to far more qualified people talk about where the written word might be going in the future.

Here’s my talk. I hope you enjoy it, indistinct slides aside, and please feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below!

The image featured above is a sheet from a Book of the Dead, circa 1075–945 BCE, courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1699Ea-c.

V. Bush and J. Wang, “As we may think,” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 176, pp. 101-108, 1945. ↩︎
L. Wedeles, “Prof. Nelson Talk Analyzes P.R.I.D.E,” Vasser Miscellany News, pp. 3-4, 1965. ↩︎
D. Tweney, “Dec. 9, 1968: The Mother of All Demos,” Wired, 2010. ↩︎
T. Berners-Lee, “Tim Berners-Lee on the Web at 25: the past, present and future,” Wired, 2014. ↩︎
If the voice of my first questioner sounds familiar, that may be because it was none other than Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the goddamn INTERNET. ↩︎

Miscellany № 81: Toward a Taxonomy of the Interrobang

Remember the interrobang‽ Of course you do! That’s the kind of rhetorical question for which the interrobang is perfectly suited. I’ve been thinking about Martin K. Speckter’s punctuation mark of late for a couple of reasons: first, a Google alert turned up an obituary of a Minnesotan poet named J. Otis Powell‽. I hadn’t known of Powell‽ previously — I’d have loved to have been able to ask him about his surname! — but Minnpost explains his unusual name as follows:

Powell‽ once signed his own name with an exclamation point. Sometime in the 2010s, he changed that to an interrobang, a nonstandard punctuation mark that combines a question mark with an exclamation point. [When] asked about the change, Powell‽ said, “The exclamation point was too didactic. I’m at a point in my life now where even if I’m passionate and committed to something, there’s still that question, because I learn how much I don’t know every time I learn anything.”

Getting an ampersand tattoo is one thing; changing one’s name to include an interrobang is quite another.

Separately, I recently came across the website for a London-based architecture and engineering firm named Interrobang, and, although their name isn’t especially unusual, the way they present their logo very much is — it is an interrobang unlike any other I’ve seen so far.

This prompted me look at the interrobang itself in more detail. Of all the recently invented marks of punctuation, it is arguably the most successful and the most difficult to design. I count at least four separate approaches to its visual design, and, as such, I thought it was time to lay them out and perhaps even to start closing in on a canonical form. And so here we are: please read on for my tentative taxonomy of interrobangs.

Closed interrobang

Though Martin K. Speckter invented the interrobang, he did not design it. That was left to Jack Lipton, his agency’s design director. Lipton (and, in fact, a number of other interested parties) furnished Speckter with a series of potential interrobang designs, of which a few were published in Speckter’s type-in-advertising magazine, Type Talks. Here are some of Lipton’s proposals:

Proposed interrobangs from Type Talks, March-April 1962
Proposed interrobangs from Type Talks, March-April 1962, drawn by Jack Lipton of Martin K. Speckter Associates, Inc. (Image courtesy of Penny Speckter.)

The design shown here in the middle was the one that stuck, if in the less sinuous form seen below. Its distinguishing feature is that the ascenders* of its constituent question and exclamation marks overlap to form a closed counter (or, in Lipton’s design, counters plural) and, as such, I’m calling this the “closed” interrobang.

"Closed" interrobangs
“Closed” interrobangs, all set at 72 pt. From left to right: Calibri; Arial Unicode MS; Consolas; and Segoe UI Semilight. Microsoft likes this style of interrobang, it seems.

Open interrobang

Designed for Richard Isbell's Americana
Designs for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s Americana. (Image courtesy of Fritz Klinke on Flickr.)

Next comes the converse: the “open” interrobang. This style also arrived early in the form of the interrobang that accompanied Richard Isbell’s 1966–1967 typeface Americana. The distinguishing characteristic here is that the ascenders of the question and exclamation mark are joined at the bottom but do not form a closed counter, hence the name.

Isbell’s interrobang was echoed in 1968 by Kenneth Wright’s rather more lo-fi design for Remington Rand’s Model 25 electric typewriter and, of course, the interrobang used here at Shady Characters (‽), that of Sindre Bremnes’ Satyr typeface, even if its dual ascenders splay outwards rather than fitting neatly within one another.

Disjoint interrobang

Christian Schwartz's "disjoint" interrobang
Christian Schwartz’s “disjoint” interrobang, as featured in his Amplitude typeface. (Image courtesy of Stephen Coles on Flickr.)

If the closed and open interrobangs have in common a single conjoined stroke, the “disjoint” interrobang diverges by possessing two separate ascenders — as if its constituent question and exclamation marks share a terminal dot but can’t otherwise bear to touch.

I haven’t seen many disjoint interrobangs, but the most distinctive and well-executed are those in Christian Schwartz’s Amplitude and Fritz.

Hybrid interrobang

Interrobang London logo
The “hybrid” interrobang as used in the logo of Interrobang London. (Courtesy of Maria Smith at Interrobang London.)

Lastly, on to the reason for this post! As I mentioned above, I was intrigued by the interrobang used in the logo of Interrobang London. I asked Maria Smith of Interrobang to tell me more, and this is what she said:

We’re architects and engineers working together so we wanted a name that spoke to this cross fertilisation. The interrobang seemed perfect as it combines the expression of architects and exclamation marks, with the interrogating nature of engineers and question marks.

The design was a collaboration between myself and graphic designers Polimekanos.

We wanted to create a new one because while we loved the meaning, we couldn’t find an existing one that really satisfied us in terms of its composition. I suppose we also wanted our very own! The starting point was Didot because that was the heading font for the engineering company we’re a part of: Webb Yates Engineers.

You can see the result here, featuring a single “hybrid” stroke that combines aspects of both the question and exclamation marks. I like it! It’s less dense than the closed variant and, dare I say, less fussy than the disjoint and open varieties.

So: there you have it. What do you think? Is it reasonable to categorise extant typographic interrobangs as open, closed, disjoint or hybrid? Have I missed a category, or are my names in need of some finessing? And, most importantly, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!

Ascender or stem? I’m not sure how to refer to the main stroke in the exclamation and question marks respectively. Answers in the comments, please! ↩︎

Miscellany № 80: irony archaeology

In the wake of my last post (Miscellany № 79: jè?), I was doing a bit of digging into the history of emoticons — those recumbent smileys used to signify happiness (:)), sadness (:(), mehness (:|) and so on — when I came across Scott Fahlman’s personal website. Fahlman is the man famous for inventing the emoticon and, although I’ve written about him before, both here and in the Shady Characters book, in both cases I skated over the exact circumstances of his invention because, well, I didn’t know what they were. Having found his webpage at Carnegie Mellon University, however, I now find that the whole story has been there for the reading for a decade or more!

Fahlman writes that the creation of :-) and :-( came about late in 1982 on a bulletin board run by Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science department. Thanks to some digital archaeology on the part of Fahlman’s colleagues, the thread leading up to that fateful moment can be read in full at his CMU faculty webpage. We jump into the story in September 1982 with a bulletin board message in which CMUer Neil Swartz posed a physics brainteaser for his colleagues:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

Howard Gayle responded a few hours later — not to answer the question, but to make a deadpan joke about it:

16-Sep-82 17:21    Howard Gayle at CMU-780G     WARNING!
Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.  There is also some slight fire damage. Decontamination should be complete by 08:00 Friday.

Not everyone saw the funny side. One Rudy Nedved complained that a mercury spill is no laughing matter:

16-Sep-82 21:34    Rudy Nedved at CMU-10A       Re: WARNING!!
The previous bboard message [by Howard Gayle] about mercury is related to the comment by Neil Swartz about Physics experiments. It is not an actual problem.
Last year parts of Doherty Hall were closed off because of spilled mercury. My high school closed down a lab because of a dropped bottle of mercury.
My apology for spoiling the joke but people were upset and yelling fire in a crowded theatre is bad news....so are jokes on day old comments.

Swartz, the original poster, weighed in the next day to clear things up, in a tone of voice so studiedly innocent that I can’t help but wonder if he secretly took Gayle’s side in the matter. Take special note of his second paragraph:

17-Sep-82 10:58    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Elevator posts
Apparently there has been some confusion about elevators and such.  After talking to Rudy, I have discovered that there is no mercury spill in any of the Wean hall elevators.  Many people seem to have taken the notice about the physics department seriously.
Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke.

Isn’t that interesting? The idea of using the asterisk as a sarcasm mark isn’t a new one (I covered Michele Buchanan’s similar proposal here at Shady Characters back in 2014, for instance), but Swartz’s suggestion may be the earliest one I’ve come across yet.

The denizens of the Carnegie Mellon message board did not stop with an asterisk. Swartz’s colleagues joined the conversation with a host of suggestions — all tongue in cheek, naturally:

17-Sep-82 14:59    Joseph Ginder at CMU-10A     (*%)
I believe that the joke character should be % rather than *.
17-Sep-82 15:15    Anthony Stentz at CMU-780G   (*%)
How about using * for good jokes and % for bad jokes? We could even use *% for jokes that are so bad, they're funny.
17-Sep-82 17:40    Keith Wright at CMU-10A      *%$ Jokes!
No, no, no!  Surely everyone will agree that "&" is the funniest character on the keyboard.  It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter).  It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times).  I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum of the CRT it would even smell funny!

…and so on and so forth. Three days after Neil Swartz’s original post, Scott Fahlman took to his keyboard to make his own proposal:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use


And so history was made. Fahlman himself says that his suggestion was a casual one, dashed off in a hurry (he notes that his post is missing a few words, for instance), but despite this, :-) and :-( quickly spread beyond his host institution. In November of the same year, for example, one James Morris at CMU forwarded an expanded list of smileys to a correspondent at Xerox’ famed Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. As Morris wrote:

Recently, Scott Fahlman at CMU devised a scheme for annotating one's messages to overcome this problem.  If you turn your head sideways to look at the three characters :-) they look sort of like a smiling face.  Thus, if someone sends you a message that says "Have you stopped beating your wife?:-)" you know they are joking. [...] Since Scott's original proposal, many further symbols have been proposed here:

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

Given the eye-opening sexism in his message (“o>-<|= for messages of interest to women”; a crack about wife-beating — really?), perhaps Morris should have added a ~= to its title. Regardless: the smiley was born, and it was fruitful. It continues to live on today, both in its original text form and transmuted into emoji, as “☺️”, “😃”, and many others. Not bad for a hastily-written message on a long-lost bulletin board.

Oh, and if you were wondering what happens to the candle and the mercury when the lift drops, head over to Scott Fahlman’s page to find out.

The Book at the British Library on Monday 3rd July

A quick reminder today that I’ll be giving a talk at the British Library on Monday 3rd July (just over a week to go!), and that tickets are now on general release. It’d be great to see some Shady Characters readers there — if you do come along, please don’t hesitate to say hello!

If you’re interested in learning a little more about The Book in advance of the talk, you might want to check out this recent interview I did with Jakub Nowak, available in both the original English and Jakub’s Polish translation. Jakub has previously reviewed The Book, and it was fun to dig into some of the background behind it with him.

A couple of other things while I’m here!

The British Museum holds a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut print of Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian, one of the largest such prints ever completed. I wrote a little about it in The Book, and so I was intrigued to see that the museum recently restored their copy and documented the process as they did so. There’s an informative video here about it — well worth a watch.

Secondly, Sander Neijnens’ ironical jè-mark, as documented here, continues its attempt to break into the pantheon of shady characters. You can now order a jè-mark T-shirt by emailing info@tilburgsans.nl — although Tilburg cit­izen Hetty van de Vor­sten­bosch has already gone one better and had a jè-mark tattooed onto her ankle. You can watch her story here.

That’s it for now. I look forward to seeing you at the British Library next Monday!

The photograph featured above was taken at the British Library by Steve Cadman.