After some to-ing and fro-ing via email, I ended up talking with producer Avery Trufelman over the phone a few weeks ago, and the completed episode (entitled, simply, “Octothorpe”) aired last week. You can read a transcript and take a look at some related images at the 99% Invisible website, but I heartily recommend that you listen to the podcast itself first — not for me, although I am in there, but instead to get the story of the word ‘octothorpe’ straight from the two men most responsible for its current fame and its current name. Doug Kerr and Lorne Asplund, engineers at Bell Labs during the creation of the Touch-Tone telephone, were, respectively, the architects of the #-symbol’s placement on the telephone keypad and its later christening as the ‘octothorpe’, and Avery chatted to them about their parts in the whole thing. I’d already been lucky enough to correspond with Doug while writing my original posts on the subject, but it was still a privilege to hear him explain the story aloud.
All in all, it was a pleasure to help out and to listen to the finished product, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it too.
Shady Characters readers will already be familiar with much of what Hank says, but his “symbolistic journey” through the creation and naming of the octothorpe is still worth watching.
As a bonus, here’s another video examination of the history of the ‘#’, this time from The Guardian’s Ollie Peart. Be warned: there is some strong language in there, allied to Peart’s ascerbically witty commentary on the subject of the ‘#’. Watch at your own risk!
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In its role as symbol for a pound in weight, the octothorpe is a natural fit for recipe writers. It is terse and visually unique, and unlikely to be mistaken for any other similar symbol. And so, when Marissa Nicosia, a visiting professor of English at Scripps College, took to Twitter to ask what the following symbol was, the answer was immediate and unanimous: this scribbled mark is the pound sign, or octothorpe, caught midway between its earlier ‘lb’ and later ‘#’ forms.
Taken from a 1655 recipe book entitled The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, this pseudo-octothorpe would have been written a scant few years after the birth of Isaac Newton, a man who, as we have seen before, was fond of a handwritten pound sign himself.
The seventeenth-century recipe from which this octothorpe is taken describes how to make macarons, and the complete recipe is available to view (and perhaps to try out) at Penn Libraries’ web site. But if you consider delicate, delicious macarons to be too damned refined for their own good, how about some pre-fried, oven-cooked potato “shapes” in the form of the octothorpe and other zeitgeisty marks? I present to you Birds Eye “Mashtags”, and I have eaten them so that you don’t have to.“It’s Twitter, for your mouth!” as Christopher Hooton described Mashtags in The Independent, and if that is the case then Twitter tastes a lot like warmed-over, carry-out chips eaten the morning after the night before. The less said about the smell, the better.