Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The last typewriter manufacturer in the world has ceased production, with 500 models in its inventory and no plans to produce additional machines. The manufacturer, Godrej Prima, is located in India--where, the Business Standard relates, early national leaders like Nehru once promoted typewriter manufacturing as a step toward an industrialized India.

While the concept of a typewriter dates to the early 1700s, the first working typewriter was created in 1808 by an Italian inventor. American inventor Christopher L. Sholes introduced a more "modern" machine with the first QWERTY keyboard in the 1870s. (See this site for images and additional background on the invention of typewriters.)

By the twentieth century, of course, typewriters were a fundamental component of business operations, as "pools" of predominantly female secretaries typed carbon copies of important documents and countless generations of academics and college students agonized over the particularities of aligning footnotes in an age before Word. As recently as my own college application days I was typing words into my admissions forms, and when I first came to UCLA in 2001 there was still a room housing a typewriter for similar purposes in the history department.

From symbol of modernity to obsolescence in 60 years... such is the story of technological progress in our fast-moving age. The legacy of typewriters lives on, from the QWERTY keyboard I type this upon to children's books (Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, anyone?) and amusing YouTube monuments to a bygone age.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Royall Tyler and the Practice of History

I'm reading Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, 2010), which I'm finding fascinating, if a bit prone toward jumping around and certainly advocating a particular series of positions. Regardless of one's opinion regarding the current political climate, I found myself struck by an anecdote she shared about an early American lawyer, legal scholar and author by the name of Royall Tyler.

Tyler began writing his autobiography in the early 1820s, addressing it to a fictional reader in the year 2025. It was never published, and survives only in fragmentary form, but Tyler's understanding of the potential shortfalls of history is profound. As Lepore shares, Tyler envisioned his mythical reader as a historian, smiling at

The sprawling letters, yellow text,
The formal phrase, the bald stiff style...

And in the margin gravely notes
A thousand meanings never meant.

Lepore: "Historians, Tyler knew, will always make too much of too little. After all, what if only his left shoe made it down to that superexcellent age, 'to be gathered as an invaluable treasure into the museum of the Antiquarian'? Some historians, 'after vainly essaying to fit it to the right foot, would gravely declare that the anatomy of their ancestors' pedestals differed from those of his day.' They would think people who lived in the eighteenth century had two left feet." (Lepore, 151)

A perceptive bloke, was Tyler. So often we use our fragments of evidence to cobble together a coherent narrative that fits our vision for how the past should have operated. We need legitimacy for our beliefs, so we go in search of those bits of the past that will enable us to claim it. In truth, however, the past is always more complicated and more contested than that. This, really, is Lepore's larger argument, even if she does go on to suggest some conclusions that might better fit her own stable of beliefs.

Does this mean that history is necessarily illegitimate? Does it mean that we can never use the past to help inform the present? I would argue no. The past has much to teach us, and careful historical study is the best way to improve our grasp upon what came before. The problem comes when we attempt to make history fit our current circumstances. History informs our circumstances from behind. It's a one-way path. Any time we begin from the present and start to impose the present upon the past, we are going to run into trouble. Our best understanding of our past comes when we examine history without such preconceived notions, understanding that the complexity we find will not lend itself to easy conclusions. Life may have become more 'complicated' in a technological sense, but humans 200 years ago were just as complicated as they are today.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Parallel histories

It is easy to forget--indeed, it has been largely elided from our histories of the period--that the hundredth anniversary of the events of the Civil War occupied the same years as the most focused period of the civil rights movement in the American South. These parallel narratives no doubt heightened the tensions and the emotions of white southerners and black protesters alike as they contested contemporary conditions in an atmosphere of blinkered commemoration.

Robert McElvaine, a historian at Millsaps College, has written a fascinating account of the 1960s' first southern commemoration of what these Mississippi participants would no doubt have referred to as the "War of Northern Aggression." He cogently points out that these events were taking place in near-perfect tandem with the first sit-in demonstration in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, a "read-in" at the public library in Jackson.

Here's the link so you can enjoy your own "read-in." Comes complete with a distressing photo of Gov. Ross Barnett in a Confederate uniform. This is the same Gov. Barnett whose recalcitrance in fall 1962 would help lead to riots as James Meredith attempted to become the first African American student to attend Ole Miss.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Busy day...

On this day in 1811, American fur traders arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River to found Fort Astoria. The American settlement itself was short-lived; British traders took possession during the War of 1812. Without the precedent it established, however, Oregon, Washington and Idaho might well be Canadian provinces.

On this day in 1861, Confederate forces launched an attack upon the Union's Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Civil War was officially underway.

On this day in 1961, the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space -- yet another thorn in the side of a United States still irked by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957. Fortunately, 24 days later (May 5) Alan Shepard successfully made it into orbit.

On this day in 1981, the first American space shuttle--the Columbia--was launched. The shuttle program comes to an end later this year.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tensions are rising at Fort Sumter

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the most perilous period in American history--the Civil War. This has already been a subject of considerable controversy (and we won't even get to the shots fired on Fort Sumter until next Tuesday), including the actions of the Virginia legislature in omitting slavery entirely from a proclamation regarding the war and some possibly ill-advised Confederate balls over the winter in southern states.

To counter more selective episodes in American memory I have discovered a fascinating series on the NY Times Web site called "Disunion." The site's scholarly contributors are using period accounts and historical analysis to follow the Civil War as it unfolded. You can find a link to the Disunion section of the site here: Disunion. This site explores the developing military conflict, bearing in mind that again, we haven't actually gotten to shots fired--I'm sure more military coverage will come as the anniversaries of those events unfold--but it also examines the wider context of the impending war. I especially enjoyed this post regarding Lucretia Mott and Quaker activism against slavery.

Well worth bookmarking and reading! I may call particular attention to especially cogent articles as the remembrance of the war progresses.

Monday, April 4, 2011


The history of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has been more complicated than that of many presidential libraries, owing to the controversial legacy of its namesake. Nixon's personal and political papers themselves were left in turmoil following his resignation, with troves split among National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) repositories in Laguna Niguel, California and College Park, Maryland and in a collection held privately at the Nixon Library until fairly recently. Now, the papers are reunited at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and under the administration of NARA.

Originally, the Nixon Library and Museum was built using private funds and administered by the Nixon Foundation, which now serves in an advisory role. During the Library's tenure as a private entity, the question of how to address the Watergate period of Nixon's presidency was answered with a display that, while long on data and physically sizable, was not a welcoming space. Indeed, it resembled nothing so much as a long, dark tunnel through which there was considerable motivation to move as quickly as possible. Images of the original exhibit are available here. Information contained within the exhibit minimized the president's involvement in the affair and included references to the investigation as a "coup."

At the end of March, the Nixon Library opened a new exhibit on Watergate, with extensive background, access to oral history interviews and documents available online here. As the AP reported on March 31, the new exhibit has encountered criticism from Nixon loyalists. The Nixon Foundation, for example, filed a lengthy series of objections, although its statement upon the opening of the exhibit was quite measured and rightly points out that examination of the Museum's exhibits in their entirety will provide the most complete view of a "long and consequential career."

I was struck, however, by the comments of one conservative activist, a man named Steve Frank who worked on Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign in California. "I thought it was improper of them not to provide the whole substance of Watergate" in the original exhibit, he told the AP. "When you try to hide the facts, it makes it look worse than it is."

As a historian, I would hope that perhaps we are ready to enter a new period in Nixon scholarship, and indeed, in the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s as a whole. This may have been the era when the "personal" became the "political," but it is time to move on into a world tinged not by emotion, but by historical analysis--of all points along the political spectrum. Facts may remain subject to interpretation, but more facts are going to lead to more informed, more scholarly, more measured interpretations. The distance of time and generation offers beneficial opportunities to take a cue from the Nixon Library and undertake broader examinations of these tumultuous years. We will likely find that the "whole substance," as Frank put it, moves us into a more integrated world of understanding.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

And now, the news

On this day in 1902, the first full-time movie theater opened, in, fittingly, Los Angeles, California. In an age when movie theaters have become almost exclusively a source of entertainment, it is easy to forget just how large a role theaters in the United States played throughout the twentieth century in creating a broad "American" identity, forged around shared experiences, ideals and--perhaps most important--increasingly universal access to national and international news. Yes, there were always important exceptions to the ideal of a universal "American" identity, and well there should have been, but we cannot underestimate the significance of an emergent world where citizens in San Diego, Portland, Boston and Charlotte could all see, hear and absorb a single presentation of the news.

Newsreels could inspire (World War II scrap metal recycling) and amuse: Stan Laurel at swim meet. They helped encourage a world of style that crossed international boundaries: 1954 Dior fashions. They brought news from around the world to American cities and towns (D-Day 1944), and unfortunately, they could sometimes present interpretations of events that, while arresting in their footage, omitted important context: Watts riots in 1965.

In the 1950s, television began to supersede newsreels as a source of news and information, and today, of course, we face an inundation of information from myriad sources. In some ways, our world may never be as universal again, even as the society portrayed by newsreels remained far more complex than the silver screen would ever show.