Crowd Control

Tokyo has the world’s busiest train stations, handling 13 billion passenger trips a year. To keep things running smoothly it relies on some subtle features to manipulate passenger behavior.

Blue lights mounted discreetly at either end of a platform, the points at which prospective suicides contemplate leaping into the path of oncoming trains, have been associated with an 84 percent decline in such attempts.

Rail operator JR East commissioned composer Hiroaki Ide to replace the grating buzzer that used to signal a train’s departure with short, pleasant jingles known as hassha melodies. These have produced a 25 percent reduction in passenger injuries due to rushing.

Stations also disperse young people by playing 17-kilohertz tones that can generally only be heard by those under 25. And rail employees are trained to use the “point and call” method, shisa kanko, in executing tasks. Physically pointing at an object and verbalizing one’s intentions has been shown to reduce human error by as much as 85 percent.

(Thanks, Sharon.)

Ellison Words

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison typed more than 1,700 works using a single finger of each hand. In 1999 Mike Keith set out to learn which words would be easiest for him to type. “Easy” means that successive letters are typed by alternate hands and that the hands travel as little as possible. (See the article for some other technicalities.)

Here are the easiest words of 4 to 13 letters; the score in parenthesis is the total linear distance traveled by the fingers, normalized by dividing by the length of the word (lower is better):

DODO, PAPA, TUTU (0.00)
DODOS, NINON (0.20)
BANANA (0.17)
AUSTERE (0.77)
TEREBENE (0.53)
ABATEMENT (1.12)
MAHARAJAS (0.88)
PROHIBITORY (1.15)
MONOTONICITY (1.19)
MONONUCLEOSIS (1.05)

Ellison could easily have used most of these in a story about an infectious disease outbreak in India. But I guess that might have looked lazy.

(Michael Keith, “Typewriter Words,” Word Ways 32:4 [November 1999], 270-277.)

The Gymnasticon

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Here’s a surprisingly modern-looking exercise machine from 1796. Essentially it’s a set of flywheels turned by hand cranks and foot treadles; Francis Lowndes said he patented it “to give and apply motion and exercise, voluntary or involuntary, to the limbs, joints, and muscles of the human body.”

He claimed he’d successfully used it to treat gout, palsy, rheumatism, debility, and contraction, but he said it would be equally useful for healthy people in sedentary occupations, according to the Monthly Magazine: “The merchant, without withdrawing his attention from his accounts, and the student, while occupied in writing or reading, may have his lower limbs kept in constant motion by the slightest exertion, or by the assistance of a child.”

Light and Shadow

A striking paragraph from A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, Caroline Davidson’s 1982 history of housework in the British Isles:

One woman actually entered the nascent electrical industry in the 1870s. Pretending to be a man (she assumed the name of Charles Torr) she rose to become managing director of a large Birmingham firm called Winfield’s which produced ornamental brass-work, chandeliers and fittings suitable for interior electric lighting. She joined a dining society of electrical engineers called the ‘Dynamicables’ where many of the problems facing the new industry were discussed. She obviously had the vision to see electricity’s brilliant future, as well as a flair for business and exceptional talent for concealing her sex. For, in the early 1880s, she approached Rookes E.B. Crompton with a proposal that their two firms should go into partnership; Compton’s was to carry out lighting installations and Winfield’s was to supply the capital and fitments. Her plans were extremely grand: she wanted to apply for a Parliamentary act to light Birmingham and to sell electrical goods world-wide. However, after the two firms had co-operated for several years, Winfield’s ran into financial difficulties and Charles Torr committed suicide: only then did her colleagues learn her true sex.

I haven’t been able to learn anything more. Davidson cites Crompton’s Reminiscences of 1928, which is unfortunately rare.

The Finger Pillory

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Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”

In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”

A First

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On Aug. 17, 1896, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll was crossing Dolphin Terrace on the grounds of London’s Crystal Palace when she was struck and killed by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company.

The car had been traveling at 4 mph, “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine,” according to one witness.

After a six-hour inquest, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Coroner Percy Morrison said he hoped such a thing “would never happen again.”

Illumination

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When electricity first became widely available, it was hailed as marvel, more valuable even than a human servant. In a 1914 manual on using electricity in the home, Maud Lancaster wrote:

[I]t is always at hand; always willing to do its allotted task and do it perfectly silently, swiftly and without mess; never wants a day off, never answers back, is never laid up, never asks for a rise; in fact it is often willing to work for less money; never gives notice and does not mind working overtime; it has no prejudices and is prepared to undertake any duties for which it is adapted; it costs nothing when it is not actually doing useful work.

First, though, people had to learn to use it. In 1884, electrical engineer Rookes Crompton wrote, “At the recent Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition, a couple from the country asked the price of an incandescent lamp at one of the stalls, and being supplied with it for 5s., expended a box of matches in trying to light it, and then declared the whole thing was a swindle.”

Apparition

four vagabonds

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone used to take a camping trip each summer, calling themselves the Four Vagabonds. Ford liked to tell a story about stopping at a service station to replace a headlight:

He claimed to have said to the attendant, ‘By the way, you might be interested to hear that the man who invented this lamp is sitting out there in my car.’

‘You don’t mean Thomas Edison?’ the man gasped.

‘Yes, and, incidentally, my name is Henry Ford.’

‘Do tell! Good to meet you, Mr. Ford!’

Noting the brand of tire in the service station’s racks, Ford added, ‘And one of the other men in the car makes those tires — Firestone.’

The attendant’s jaw dropped. Then he saw John Burroughs with his flowing beard and his voice became skeptical: ‘Look here, mister, if you tell me that the old fellow with the whiskers out there is Santa Claus, I’m going to call the sheriff.’

(From Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Fords: An American Epic, 2002. Thanks, Bill.)

Secret Admirer

In 1952, strange love letters began to appear on the notice board of Manchester University’s computer department:

HONEY DEAR
YOU ARE MY FERVENT CHARM. MY AVID HEART ARDENTLY IS WEDDED TO YOUR DEVOTED LIKING. MY DEVOTED LOVE PANTS FOR YOUR HUNGER. MY HUNGER CHERISHES YOUR IMPATIENT CHARM. MY FONDNESS DEVOTEDLY PANTS FOR YOUR ADORABLE PASSION.
YOURS KEENLY
M.U.C.

DARLING SWEETHEART
YOU ARE MY AVID FELLOW FEELING. MY AFFECTION CURIOUSLY CLINGS TO YOUR PASSIONATE WISH. MY LIKING YEARNS FOR YOUR HEART. YOU ARE MY WISTFUL SYMPATHY: MY TENDER LIKING.
YOURS BEAUTIFULLY
M.U.C.

M.U.C. was the Manchester University Computer; professor Christopher Strachey was testing its ability to select information randomly by asking it to string romantic words into impromptu billets-doux. You can see the word lists, and generate your own love letter, here.

The Voder

Bell Telephone was experimenting with speech synthesizers as early as 1939 — 5 million visitors to the World’s Fair that year witnessed an electronic speaking machine called the Voder. “The miracles, as the Bible describes them, are really true, for here in this room we are witnessing a modern miracle,” one said. “The wonders of God transmitted through man’s mind are truly being demonstrated here.”

Largely this was thanks to the operator, or “Voderette,” who spent a year learning to finesse the keys, foot pedal, and wrist bar. “Although the Voder produced intelligible speech, it sounded like a talking church organ,” writes Trevor Cox in Now You’re Talking, his history of human conversation. “Sometimes the tweaking of its controls created a slightly drunken slurred intonation. Even so, the voice was more natural-sounding than the famous voice of Stephen Hawking, because the skilled operators were like concert pianists making rapid alterations to the controls to improve the sound.”