Unraveling a Loose Thread of History Found in a 1956 Issue of Galaxy Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 16, 2019

This morning I was flipping through some old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction I had bought on eBay and ran across this ad in the October 1956 issue:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-10

At first, I flipped right by it. Then in the next issue I picked up, the December 1956 issue, I found this ad:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-12

This one promised a whole lot more. Could this be for real? Computes, plays games, composes music? I don’t ever remember reading about home computers existing this early. I thought computer kits were something from the 1970s. This December ad promised a new improved 1957 model, and for only $19.95. In 1956, $19.95 was some serious money for a kid. It would probably be hundreds of dollars in today’s money. And was this a genuine computer, or was it some kind of trick, like those X-Ray glasses advertised in the back of comic books?

First stop: Wikipedia.

Geniac was an educational toy billed as a "computer" designed and marketed by Edmund Berkeley, with Oliver Garfield from 1955 to 1958, but with Garfield continuing without Berkeley through the 1960s. The name stood for "Genius Almost-automatic Computer" but suggests a portmanteau of genius and ENIAC (the first fully electronic general-purpose computer).

Operation
Basically a rotary switch construction set, the Geniac contained six perforated masonite disks, into the back of which brass jumpers could be inserted. The jumpers made electrical connections between slotted brass bolt heads sitting out from the similarly perforated masonite back panel. To the bolts were attached wires behind the panel. The circuit comprised a battery, such wires from it to, and between, switch positions, wires from the switches to indicator flashlight bulbs set along the panel's middle, and return wires to the battery to complete the circuit.

With this basic setup, Geniac could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. It had no active elements at all – no relays, tubes, or transistors – to allow a machine state to automatically influence subsequent states. Thus, Geniac didn't have memory and couldn't solve problems using sequential logic. All sequencing was performed manually by the operator, sometimes following fairly complicated printed directions (turn this wheel in this direction if this light lights, etc.)

The main instruction book, as well as a supplementary book of wiring diagrams, gave jumper positions and wiring diagrams for building a number of "machines," which could realize fairly complicated Boolean equations. A copy of Claude Shannon's groundbreaking thesis in the subject, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, was also included.

Okay, so it was real! But in 1956? In the mid-fifties, commercial computers were just beginning to be rolled out to businesses. In 1957 American audiences got to see a humorous look at computers in the film Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Rumors of computers produced a fear that the librarians would lose their jobs, but ultimately humans prevailed. I expect most Americans in 1957 had never seen a computer and only knew about them from funny cartoons in magazines and newspapers. Geniac came out before Sputnik which ignited a fear that American youths weren’t being educated in science. Was there a desire by kids that early in the 1950s to know about computers?

Here is a History of Computer timeline that shows the Geniac for 1955. And here’s an article about the history of computers that played NIM games, which includes the Geniac.

Scientific American 1950-11The main designer of Geniac appears to be Edmund Berkeley. He wrote an early book about computers in 1949, Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Berkeley was also written about in Edmund Berkeley and the Social Responsibility of Computer Professionals by Bernedette Long. If you follow that link she writes about his influence with Geniac. I’m awful tempted to buy the Kindle edition. He also designed what some people call the first personal computer, Simon. Simon appeared as 13 how-to articles that began running in Radio-Electronics magazine in October 1950. (All 13 parts can be read online here.) It would have cost around $600 to build and had very limited features with only 2-bits of memory. Berkeley wrote the article “Simple Simon” for the November 1950 issues of Scientific American.

Electronics was a big tech hobby back then and had been since the early days of the radio in the 1910s. Looking at the Geniac ad carefully though showed it wasn’t an electronics kit, but merely electrical. It might contain 400 parts, but they were wires, light bulbs, batteries, nuts, and little contacts. It seems designed to set up simple logic programs. How much could a kid do with one? YouTube to the rescue:

And this film, which features a later model from the 1960s called a Brainiac:

This brings up even more questions. Did kids really play with them? Where they inspired to study computers and become computer programmers and engineers? Were there any famous computer pioneers that started with a Geniac or Brainiac? Could Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates have played with one? Of course, those two might have been too young for this era.

The kit seemed aimed at kids, but it would have required a great deal of work and patience to produce any results. Actually putting one together and doing any of the example projects would have been very educational.

David Vanderschel describes his Geniac computer from 1956. He says an IBM 1620 was the first real computer he encountered in 1962. That was the first computer I programmed on in 1971 at computer school using FORTRAN.

Hackaday had a post last month about the Geniac claiming that Mike Gardi credits his professional success in software development to educational logic games like the Geniac. Gardi created a replica of a Geniac and has links to the original documentation. This 1955 manual had instructions for a couple dozen projects. Gardi said:

Technically GENIAC was a collection of configurable N-pole by N-throw rotary switches, which could be set up to cascaded and thus perform logical functions. As a result GENIAC could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. However, projects outlined in the manual, which started with basic logic circuits, ultimately progressed to such things as a NIM machine and TIC-TAC-TOE machine.

I did find a Geniac on eBay that has a $99.99 buy it now price. There’s a Brainiac for sale for $349! That’s more than I’d want to spend. The Brainiac is in great shape though. It’s probably the one from the film above.

The more I Googled, the more intrigued I became about the impact of the Geniac computer. Is this how historians get sucked into writing books? I checked a couple books on the history of personal computers I own, but neither mention Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. If you search Google for the first personal computer you usually get the MITS Altair 8800. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe I could write a whole history book about home computers before 1975.

Additional Reading:

Update:

I went to my public library and looked through the books about the history of computing. I found no mentions of Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. I then checked The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1950-1960. I found no references to Geniac and only a handful of articles by Berkeley. His articles did sound interesting:

  • “Robots for Fun” Life, 173-74+, March 19, 1956
  • “Relations Between Symbolic Logic and Large-Scale Calculating Machines” Science, 395-399, October 6, 1950
  • “Simple Simon” Scientific American, 40-43, November 1950
  • “Tomorrow’s Thinking Machines” Science Digest, 52-57, January 1950
  • “2150 A.D. Preview of the Robotic Age” New York Times, 19, November 19, 1950
  • “Robot Psychoanalyst” Newsweek, 58, December 12, 1949
  • “Algebra and States and Events” Science Monthly, 332-342, April 1954
  • “We Are Safer Than We Think” New York Times, 11, July 29, 1951

An amusing thing happened at the library. I kept asking the librarians where the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature was located. They didn’t know. Finally, they asked a very old librarian and she found it for me. She then came back with the younger librarians, they wanted to see it too. I had told them when I was young every kid was taught to begin their library research with that classic index.

JWH

 

Why Isn’t Everything Beautiful?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 8, 2019

I’m reading The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller where she describes how books were important in seven beautiful cities in the ancient world. Over and over again Moller describes how a conquerer builds a city, embraces books and libraries, and founds a new civilization. They raise magnificent buildings and evolve a culture. Then someone else comes around and sacks the city.

It occurred to me that if humanity had preserved everything great we built the world would be beautiful all over. Moller describes the founding of Baghdad and it sounded magnificent. But all I can think about is how ugly that city is when I see it on the news. How many civilizations have built countless gorgeous edifices that have disappeared in time? Which is worse, war or entropy? People and decay eventually ruin everything beautiful?

The Biggest Little Farm

Last week we watched The Biggest Little Farm on Amazon about a couple who transformed an ugly drought-brown farm into something amazingly green and beautiful. Humans have the ability to go walk out into a desert and create what you see below.

beautiful house in desert

But soon or later we do this:

Syrian city

It takes so much effort to transform chaos into order you’d think we do everything possible to protect what we create. Moller writes about all the books and libraries that have been destroyed before the invention of the printing press. I know it’s hard to build something that lasts because everything eventually wears out, decays, falls apart, or is bombed, burned, or torn to pieces. But I think we could make things last far longer if we tried. What if the hanging gardens of Babylon still existed? Or all the larger works of the Mayans and Aztecs?

Just think how beautiful the world would be if we had spent all the money we spent on wars into preserving the best of our cultures. Sure there are lots of incredibly beautiful places that exist now, but what percentage of everything are they, and how long will they last? Imagine every city an entire work of art.

Quite often on television, I see documentaries about grand buildings that existed within my parents and grandparents lifetimes. Historical societies struggle to preserve as many as they can, but all too often we bulldoze aged building to make way for new ones. Sure it is natural for us to get tired of some buildings, but do we always have to? The other day I saw a story about an entertainment complex for teenagers in the 1940s where it had a roller skating rink, an immense pool, and a pavilion for music and dancing. Photos showed something very elegant, and to my modern eye very nostalgically attractive. I wished it still existed so I could go hear big band music live. Photos taken just before it was destroyed show it dilapidated and sad looking. Why did we let it fade away? I guess not everyone wants to hang onto the past.

When I drive through most commercial districts today everything looks utilitarian and tawdry. Depending on the wealth of the locale, the designs run from crappy decaying to hip conformity to city council standards. I can drive for miles on certain big city thoroughfares and see a repeating array of chain stores and restaurants. It feels like the cycling background in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Wasn’t it more beautiful in the old days where every business building was unique?

I can remember over sixty years of changes. I can’t count the number of buildings I once knew that no longer exist. You’d think we’d construct every structure to last and to be the most beautiful it could be by the current architectural fashion. There’s a magazine I love to look at, Atomic Ranch, that reveres the mid-century ranch house. That’s an era I thought was beautiful. Sure, it’s not Athens or Alexandria, but the look is very appealing to me. I wonder if a mid-century modern neighborhood could be preserved for a thousand years.

It’s odd how ideas come to us. I was reading a book and I wondered why it isn’t beautiful everywhere we looked. Our species certainly has built enough beautiful objects to cover the earth. Why haven’t we preserved them?

Mid-century modern ranch

Of course, I’m one answer. We’ve let our house rundown. Suan and I have never been into yard work, decorating or housework. We care more about our hobbies and television. It takes a lot of money and effort to maintain something beautiful. Some of my neighbors work hard to make their yards and interiors look beautiful, on the outside and inside. What’s funny is some of them only make the effort on the outside, or just the inside. I’ve always envied my friends who make their personal environment beautiful. Take this as a thank you.

You’d think with seven billion people everything on this planet would look clean and tidy, if not aesthetically elegant. Maybe it’s too easy to find beauty on our flat-screen televisions.

What’s also fascinating to contemplate is how beauty pops up in nature through random nonintelligent design. Of course, the concept of beauty is something that might only exist in our species. Does any other animal stop to admire the rose? Maybe beauty only resides in human civilizations because of anti-entropic efforts. We’re all at war with entropy, and only some of us use our limited energies to create beauty.

Rose

I’ve read that color doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s something our brains adds. I’d hate to think this is true. I wonder what the other animals and insects see.

JWH

Corrupt Biblical Archaeology

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 17, 2019

Yesterday I encountered two reports of Biblical scholarship that depressed the hell out of me. I’m an atheist, but I find historical biblical research fascinating. The first encounter was with the new issue of Harper’s Magazine and its story “Common Ground: The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem” by Rachel Poser, a senior editor for the magazine. (Harper’s offers one free article a month to read behind its paywall, so if you click the link it will count.) Poser’s report is about how right-wing activists have coopted archeology to justify Israel’s reclaiming land in Jeruselum. It’s a long, but fascinating report about right-wing politicians and zealots corrupting the science of archaeology, and their feuds with secular scholars who are seeking an unbiased understanding of the past.

My second encounter was last night on Netflix with the third episode of The Bible’s Buried Secrets entitled “The Real Garden of Eden.” Host Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor at the University of Exeter makes a rather strained case that a garden in a palace of ancient Jeruselum was the Garden of Eden, and Adam was their king. Stavrakopoulou uses almost no quotes from Genesis and builds her argument with an hour’s worth of archaeological evidence that seems flimsy at best. I can’t prove she’s wrong, but I’ve heard much better theories.

In both of these encounters with Biblical archaeology, it was obvious that science was being corrupted by shoehorning evidence to fit a cherished hypothesis. Of course, for thousands of years, humans have used ancient scripture as a kind of legal precedent to justify their claims. In both the article and documentary, archaeologists cherry-picked their findings and didn’t offer opposing evidence, either from valid scientists or their counterpart ax-grinders.

If you read the articles returned in this Google search, you’ll see many challenges to Stravrakopoulou’s hypothesis. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a theory, everyone has their evidence. There are scholars who pursue rigorous biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology, but how do we tell the cranks from honest academics?

Actually, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on The Garden of Eden. At least it summarizes the complexity of the problem. Rachel Poser’s description of Elad’s effort to prove the biblical David existed and the sites Elad’s archaeologists were excavating belong to David’s kingdom are simplistic in their logic and evidence. Stavrakopoulou case for Eden is also simplistic. And if you pay attention to any of the popular documentaries about biblical history and archaeology, they’re often simplistic too. Everyone seems to be trying to deceive other people into accepting their pet theories. Is there any way of not being conned?

First of all, does the Garden of Eden or King David really matter to the modern world? I would distrust anyone who uses any biblical history as validation for any present-day disputes over morality, ethics, land, laws, etc. They are only academic issues. Researching history, and evaluating it with archaeological evidence is a fun intellectual pursuit. But if you use it for any kind of justification of action, then it’s a complete fallacy.

I find it insane that modern minds use ancient thoughts to rationalize how we should live today. We should have laws against using old beliefs for legal precedent. Read Poser’s article. It’s horrifying how we’re using three-thousand-year-old fables to kill each other.

To Christians and Jews, the world began four thousand years ago, and they struggle to overlay that fantasy onto reality. They ignore the fact that more ancient civilizations surrounded the Levant even at the time of Genesis. Even when Adam and Eve were supposed to be walking in the Garden of Eden humans had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or that David’s Kingdom was an itty-bitty bump in the road between two vast empires.

I don’t know why western civilization is so focused on the tiny Holy Lands of the Bible when Earth is thousands of times bigger. It’s as if we all have a kind of history myopia that fails to see the planet and its history as a whole. I think the main problem is we’re raised with only one set of myths. Would we be more rational if our parents sent us to a different church/temple/synagogue/mosque/shrine every week as a child? Our insanity seems to come from trying to rationalize one viewpoint at the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis is a wonderful work of literature from pre-history. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to understand why it was written, by who, and when. But imagine if three thousands years from now, people revered a copy of Gone with the Wind as their only source of American history.

One solution might be to invite Asian archaeologists to dig up the Holy Lands, ones who had never been exposed to The Bible.

JWH

 

 

Owning a Piece of History

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 9, 2019

A few weeks ago I watched “Galileo’s Moon” on the PBS show Secrets of the Dead. It was about a copy of Sidereus Nuncius (1610) by Galileo showing up for sale, one of the most famous science books in history, and it even had Galileo’s signature. The show was about how antiquarian book dealers and scientists worked to authenticate rare books. I thought it would be wonderful to own such a significant piece of history, and it disturbed me that rich people could buy these timeless treasures for themselves.

I’ve long wanted to own a rare scientific book and wondered if I could afford any volume published before 1700. Books by Galileo run in the hundreds of thousands to the millions. I’m sure I could probably find something I could afford, but it’s doubtful I would have ever heard of it.

During the course of the show, they interviewed Marino Massimo De Caro whose home was a museum to Galileo, astronomy, and space history. I realized if you’re going to own such unique treasures you have to preserve and maintain them. Anything that’s over 400 years old needs to be protected so it might exist for another 400 years, or even 4,000 years. I couldn’t handle that responsibility.

Then I saw three lots of Galaxy Science Fiction on sale at eBay. I already have access to all its issues as digital scans, so I didn’t need reading copies. However, I decided it would fulfill my desire to own something historic. Of course, old science fiction magazines won’t be historic to 99.9999% of Earthlings, but among the people who know the history of science fiction magazines, they would be. There were 355 issues published between 1950 and 1976 and I got 165 of them, just under half. Quite a purchasing coup.

One reason I even checked eBay to see if they were available is that I’m reading, Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years by David L. Rosheim. And I read it because I just finished reading The Way the Future Was a memoir by Frederik Pohl who edited Galaxy in the 1960s. Between those two books and other science fiction histories I’ve been reading, I know how important Galaxy Science Fiction was to the genre in the 1950s and 1960s. I started reading Galaxy in the mid-1960s and had collected many back issues then. By 1971 I was even trying to collect the earliest science fiction magazines. My first purchase of pulps was four issues of Amazing Stories from 1928. Amazing Stories began in April 1926 and was the first science fiction magazine. In 1975 I sold all my magazines and decided not to collect anything anymore. Owning objects is a burden, especially stuff that takes a lot of movers to relocate.

In the last couple of years, I’ve rekindled my love of old science fiction magazines but I’ve satisfied my need for them with digital scans I get off the internet. If I hadn’t seen that program about Galileo I doubt I would have had that hunger to own something old. But it’s given me great delight to bid for them on eBay and win the bid. And it’s been big fun going through the issues. But I now realize I’m in the same situation as big-time collectors of rare books – how do I protect and preserve my pieces of history?

I got these Galaxy magazines pretty cheap, so they aren’t precious. But they are historical in a tiny way, and they are disappearing. Most people throw away magazines. I bet my wife will throw these magazines away when I die. I’ll need to make a provision in my will to give them to someone who will cherish them too. However, I would assume such people would also be dying out, but a few lovers of old magazines are born in every generation.

On Facebook, Twitter, and eBay I meet people who collect much older magazines. Today I met a young man online who collects 19th century Dime Novels. If these issues of Galaxy are preserved, there will be a handful of people in the 22nd century that will want them. I could increase their value if I would track down and buy all the other issues too. I might, but I’m already feeling the burden of their weight on my Buddhist soul. I will probably enjoy these issues for a couple years and then sell them.

Even if I could afford a copy of Sidereus Nuncius, I doubt I’d want to own it long. Old stuff really belongs in museums and libraries so everybody can enjoy them.

Galaxy magazines from The Verge

JWH (Happy Birthday Jim Connell)

 

 

 

 

Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

60 Years – From Treasure Island to Black Sails

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sixty years ago, back in 1959, I read my first book, Treasure Island. Actually, my mother read it with me. I was seven and in the third grade. It was around Halloween because I went to a costume party dressed as Long John Silver. I’m not sure, but my faulty memory tells me I picked Treasure Island to read because I had seen the 1934 movie version on television, the one with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. I have reread the book and seen the old movie many times since. They are burned into my memory.

Sixty years later, in 2019 I’m watching a TV series called Black Sails (2014-2017) that features several characters that share names with characters in Treasure IslandLong John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and Ben Gunn. The producers of the show consider it a prequel to the novel. If you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many filmed versions of Treasure Island it hardly matters, but if you have, knowing the character’s future adds to the fun of watching the show. To make the show even more delicious, many of the other characters are based on historical people from the Golden Age of Pirates.

Black Sails is not your typical pirate movie (well an extended TV series of 4 seasons with a total of 38 episodes). Black Sails spends most of its time developing characters and a complicated plot arc. Sure, it has sea battles, sword fights, treasure chests, and waving skull and crossbones, but it’s mostly about business. Pirate captains are elected. They keep their leadership only as long as their bookkeeper keeps them in the black. Pirates steal on the high seas but fence their booty in Nassau which is resold in the American colonies. Everyone is concerned with their own bottom line. Nassau belongs to England but its colonial governors are always corrupted. The main theme of the story is how some pirates and some Englishmen want to make Nassau legit like the other colonies.

Captain Flint and Long John Silver

Black Sails does feature a great deal of sex and violence, including plenty of full-frontal nudity, swearing, and gore, so it’s not for children like the original Treasure Island. But it’s also been modernized with several significant roles for women. None of the women characters are from Treasure Island and only one is from history (Anne Bonny).

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is dishonest, violent, and likable. That’s true of the John Silver character in Black Sails. Captain Flint is a vastly complex character in the show, even its main character, but Captain Flint was just alluded to in Stevenson’s novel, and generally for his monstrous reputation. Black Sails spends much of its time giving Captain Flint a backstory. Billy Bones was not very likable in the book but is very likable in the television show.

Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold were real pirates, and it’s worth following their links to read about them at Wikipedia. It’s also worth reading about the Republic of Pirates that the show builds upon that worked out of Nassau, and the pirate code of conduct. These six links will provide a significant history needed to truly appreciate what the show succeeds at doing.

Over my lifetime I’ve become acquainted with many fictional characters that have been legendary or mythic, ones which are constantly recreated and enlarged – Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Jo Marsh, Elizabeth Bennet – so that Black Sails is giving more life to Long John Silver. I like that. Maybe because he’s the character I’ve known the longest.

JWH

Archiving the Past for the Future

Are you throwing away history? How you perceive yourself is determined by what you remember. How society remembers itself is through histories. Histories are written based on the evidence the past leaves for the future.

If our eyes and ears were a video camera, each day we take in several terabytes of information, yet we remember very little. Our brains decide to throw away most of our sensory input. How many commutes to work or school can you remember? There are many theories as to how we select what to save, but I don’t science has found a consensus yet. We can’t recall the past with TiVo-like utility. Our memories are vague impressions squirreled away inside our heads. Most people don’t have photographic memories, much less video-graphic. This is also true of historians, they only have tiny incomplete fragments of the past.

Now that we’re entering into the Marie Kondo phase of our lives, many of us are throwing away the physical evidence of what we’ve done at the same time many of us have become interested genealogy. If you’ve ever watched Finding Your Roots you know how important physical records are for reconstructing the past. What’s true for individuals is even truer for society.

My father died when I was 18, and I’ve often wished I had more evidence of his life to figure out who he was. I don’t have that evidence, but I wonder if it exists elsewhere. I’ve also wanted more evidence of my own life to remember who I was. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about world history, trying to put together a consistent memory of our past. Too much of history is opinion because we don’t have enough hard evidence.

The current decluttering mania teaches us to categorize our discards into three piles: Keep, Give Away or Sell, or Throw Away. I believe we should keep an eye out for a fourth category – Save for History. When we hold an object and ask ourselves, “Does it bring me joy?” we should also ask, “Could future historians use this?” The trouble is, what is of historical value, and who do we give it to?

Any document that connects people to events might be valuable. Of course, ticket stubs to a Bob Dylan concert might only help you remember where you were on a night in 1978. But what about a schedule of speeches for a conference? Or an old menu saved for sentimental reasons? Or a video of a family reunion? Or a catalog from an art exhibit? Anything that might help other people remember might be worthy to save.

We need to think about how we remember who we are as a society and what artifacts to save? I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I’m amazed by how much information we have about people who lived over five hundred years ago. Few of us have that kind of information even if we wanted to write our own autobiographies. Evidently, people who get into genealogy learn what’s important to identify people connections. And anyone who has written up an event or documented a house for sale knows about the importance of supporting facts.

What evidence should we save today about our past to help people in the future understand us? I’ve acquired a new hobby of scanning old magazines and fanzines. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people digitizing popular culture and uploading it into libraries, and sites on the internet like Internet Archive. However, like our own minds, we have to decide what tiny bit is worth saving, and what massive amount of junk is not. We’re actually Marie Kondoising our culture every day.

The next time you have a box of junk to throw out, don’t just ask if each item gives you joy, but would it give a future historian joy too.

One kind of evidence I ache to have for my own personal history are photographs. I wish I had pictures of all my schools and classmates since kindergarten. I also wish I had photos of all the houses I’ve lived in, their yards, and of each room. My father was in the Air Force and we moved around so much that I can’t remember all the houses I lived in or the schools I attended. I wish I had evidence to recreate that knowledge. In other words, I wish I had documentation to support my memory. There’s a chance that other people photographed what I wanted. It’s a shame we don’t have a photograph database, especially one controlled by artificial intelligence with machine learning.

PBS - Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Most of us do not have evidence that will matter to historians, but you never know. And even if we did, how do we pass it on? If you’re a famous person you can donate your papers to a library. One thing us ordinary folks can do is to share photographs with relatives, or anyone who is pictured in the photographs. I have some old school yearbooks that I’m going to scan and upload to the Internet Archive. Yearbooks are starting to show up there. I keep hoping yearbooks from schools I went to that I don’t have will show up. Classmates.com has yearbooks for a fee, and I use it, but I think this information should be public. Eventually, items in the Internet Archive, which hopes to save everything digitally, will be churned through by AI and data miners, and there’s no telling what kind of results will turn up. I highly recommend watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots to see how sleuthing personal histories work.

I’m also scanning and uploading old fanzines to Internet Archive. It’s a skill that takes a little work to acquire, but I like rescuing these old documents. I worked in a library while going to college, and one of my jobs was finding missing issues to make whole volumes to bind. I’d send snail mail requests around the world to track down lost/stolen issues. Now, I get on eBay to look for missing issues to scan.

I haven’t gotten into genealogy yet, but I’ve thought about getting into that hobby just learn what kinds of things people save. I’m just getting into this idea of what to save for history. I know I don’t have items for big history, but I wonder if I have little clues that other people want for their small histories.

JWH