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Wednesday 27 July 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (LXVII)

The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on this day in 1856.
He wrote more than 60 plays, most of which address prevailing social problems, but have a vein of comedy. An ardent socialist, Shaw wrote brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society. He argued for equal rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land and healthy lifestyles.
He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), the latter for Pygmalion (an adaptation of his play of the same name, which was later adapted again, as the musical My Fair Lady).
The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an Imperial Good Companion portable typewriter which, with the shift key, types in Shaw’s Shavian phonetic alphabet. The Shavian alphabet (also known as Shaw alphabet) is one conceived as a way to provide simple, phonetic orthography for the English language to replace the difficulties of conventional spelling. It was posthumously funded by and named after Shaw.
Shaw set three main criteria for the new alphabet: it should be (1) at least 40 letters; (2) as phonetic as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to sounds); and (3) distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that the new spellings were simply "misspellings".
Shaw died at his home in the village of Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, England, on November 2, 1950, aged 94.
The American novelist, short story writer and sports writer Paul William Gallico was born on this day in 1897 in New York City. He is perhaps best remembered for The Snow Goose, his only real critical success, and for the novel The Poseidon Adventure, primarily through the 1972 film adaptation. Gallico died aged 78, on July 15, 1976, in Antibes, France.
First we had music-playing typewriters. Now typewriters controlled by records.
Seriously, though, this was secret military business, involving IBM and the US Navy, and it happened at the height of World War II.
The link man here is IBM design engineer John A. Skinner, once of Johnson City, New York, later based with the US Navy in Annapolis, eventually living in old age in Bethesda, Maryland.
It begins with me stumbling across what, at first appearance, looks to be a perfectly innocuous, quite amusing patent for a “record controlling printing apparatus”, issued on this day in 1949 to a John A. Skinner of the United States Navy.
So I go looking for anything I can find about Skinner and the next thing I’m reading online documents that were once classified.
One is a PDF of an oral history interview given by Dr Howard Campaigne, in Annapolis on June 29, 1983, to Robert D. Farley, which states, “Captain Campaigne desires that the classification of these tapes be secret …”
Dr Campaigne is described as “a mathematician and cryptographer [who] served during WWII at OP-20-G and for a short tour at Bletchley Park.”
OP-20-G is the Office of Chief of Naval Operations, 20th Division of the Office of Naval Communications, G Section/Communications Security. It was the US Navy's signals intelligence and cryptanalysis group during World War II. Its mission was to intercept, decrypt and analyze naval communications from Japanese, German and Italian navies. OP-20-G also copied diplomatic messages of many foreign governments.
Bletchley Park was Britain’s main decryption establishment, the Government Code and Cypher School, where ciphers and codes of Axis countries were decrypted, most importantly the ciphers generated by the German Enigma and Lorenz machines. It also housed Station X, a secret radio intercept station.
After the war, Dr Campaigne joined the Navy Security Group, the Armed Forces Security Agency and the National Security Agency in the research and development element as a mathematician researcher. At the time of the interview, he was a retired Navy captain in the Navy Security Group Reserve.
During a lengthy interview, Dr Campaigne gets to talking about IBM. He says there was a great deal of involvement and cooperation between IBM and the military.
Dr Campaigne says this stemmed from Thomas John Watson Snr (1874-1956), the then president of IBM, being “very cooperative and patriotic”.
Thomas J. Watson shows some of the ASCC's counters to four US Navy petty officers, August 1944. The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, an algebraic mechanism employing a unique automatic sequence control, was designed to solve, rapidly and accurately, practically any known problem in applied mathematics.
“They would do anything they could do, they would do it … We made a great deal of use of their tabulators and that sort of equipment.” There “were a number of IBM technical people of considerable quality who went into uniform and left IBM and joined us and Arlington Hall. There were a number of them. Russ Raleigh was one. He was in the Army. John Skinner was another and he was in a Navy uniform … Now some of those went back to IBM after the war. Russ Raleigh did, but John Skinner didn’t. John Skinner stayed and became permanent Navy. Which surprised us, because John seemed to have a real career in IBM. He seemed to be on his way, but he stayed in the Navy instead. IBM had their typewriter division up there in Rochester at the time."
From left to right, Bob Blue of IBM, Henry Tholstrup, then with Friden, Dick Utman of BEMA, Vince Grey of ASA (receiving the document), Len Griffin of US Navy, Charles Phillips (X3 chairman, transmitting the document), John Booth of Teletype, Eric Clamons of Univac, John F. Auwaerter of Teletype.
Later, Dr Campaign talks about Skinner’s team leader at IBM, Henry L. Tholstrup, of Rochester.
Tholstrup patented a transcribing apparatus for IBM in 1945 (above), and he and Skinner worked with Harry J.Nichols on an IBM communications system in 1940-1943 (below):
“They had an engineer who prepared or modified versions of typewriters for our use so that they would run mechanically from a computer-like thing. And Henry Tholstrup was his name. He was a civilian with IBM the whole time there. He was a menace because he was so flexible about the coding of the letters.
"People would ask him, ‘Can this coding be put in?’ ‘Sure, anything you want.’ And he could put it on typewriters and no two were alike. And consequently, they were incompatible, one with another. He would have done better to have stuck to some specific coding, but he was a nice guy.”
More detail on Skinner emerges from the transcript of a similar interview, given by James T. Pendergrass, who at time worked with IBM, to William Aspray at Princeton on March 28, 1985.
Pendergrass discussed his work in the Navy and the early use of computers there. He talks about his decoding and production work during World War II, particularly on the Enigma project, in which he used IBM, Kodak and National Cash Register equipment. After the war, Pendergrass remained in the Navy and worked with Rear Admiral Leonard Winger and others in the Naval Security Group.
PENDERGRASS: "John A. Skinner, class of 1930 of Princeton, worked for IBM prior to WWII and came into the Navy.
"As you know IBM had the wonderful idea, which should have been obvious to anybody, but so far as I know they were the only big company that did. They paid their people all during the war even though they were in uniform. It didn't cost them a nickel because of the excess profits loss. They charged it up to expenses. So it didn't cost them a nickel, but they had one hell of a lot of loyalty. Anyway, IBM salesmen that came into the Navy, still were selling IBM equipment because IBM salesmen had tremendous esprit de corps. It's mellowed since then and they're just ordinary human beings now. They were certainly a lot more then.
“John Skinner was one of these. He certainly never did anything illegal. John is very prissy and very correct. I don't think he would conceivably do that, but when your mindset tells you that IBM is the greatest corporation in the world and they can do anything, it's very hard to be unbiased. John Skinner was in uniform and he did convert to regular Navy, but all during the war and for many years after it he was our man in the Bureau of Ships Electronic Division. He was the liaison.”
“John A. Skinner lives in Bethesda, Maryland … He just got under the wire. He was a Lieutenant Commander and put in his 30 years. I think he just made it at 62.
“Last I saw him, when he came back for some reunion, 50th reunion or something, I took him downstairs and showed my Apple 2. He was all very interested.”
In his patent application for the “record controlled printing apparatus”, Skinner said he took his earliest cue from New Yorker John Edward Wright's 1919 ”reproducer” typewriter:


Joe V said...

Great story, thank you for all the work of research that goes into each of your articles.

marnanel said...

I've been trying for some time to discover what the keyboard layout of the Shavian typewriter in Sydney is. Do you know where I can find this out?

Robert Messenger said...

The Shavian keyboard Imperial is not on display at the Powerhouse, but in storage there. Unfortunately I didn't take a photograph of it. But you could try to contact Matthew Connell, who was/is the curator in charge of typewriters there. Try

Robert Messenger said...

If you want to cite a registration number, the details (but no photograph) are at