The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis

I am wholly unsurprised that Harold Innis (1894-1952) maintained a card index (zettelkasten) through his research life, but I am pleased to have found that his literary estate has done some work on it and published it as The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980). The introduction seems to have some fascinating material on the form and structure as well as decisions on how they decided to present and publish it.

For those unaware of his work, primarily as a political economist, he wrote extensively on media and communication theory including the influential works Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951). 

While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Ticknor and Fields, 1854, p. 41)

This quote from Walden becomes even more fascinating when one realizes that the Thoreau family business was manufacturing pencils at John Thoreau & Co., one of the first major pencil companies in the United States. Thoreau’s father was the titular John and Henry David worked in the factory and improved upon the hardness of their graphite.

One might also then say that the man who manufactured pencils naturally should become a writer!


This quote also bears some interesting resemblance to quotes about tools which shape us by Winston Churchill and John M. Culkin. see: https://hypothes.is/a/6Znx6MiMEeu3ljcVBsKNOw

I finished watching Wondrium’s spectacular The Banjo: Music, History, and Heritage over the weekend. While looking up future tour dates for Rhiannon Giddens, I notice she’s just won a Pulitzer and will be directing the Ojai Music Festival in June! Now massaging my vacation travel… 🪕🎶
Acquired a copy of the Library of America’s Octavia Butler volume containing Kindred, Fledgling, and her Collected stories.

While I hope to read chunks of it over the summer in Butler’s childhood neighborhood of Pasadena, I got it to read Bloodchild for the Octavia Butler Sci Fi Book Club on 6/24/2023 at 3:00 PM at Octavia’s Bookshelf which is co-hosting with the La Pintoresca Branch Library and the Huntington Library.

RSVPed Attending Tinderbox Meetup - Sunday, May 7, 2023: Connect with Sönke Ahrens live, the author of How to Take Smart Notes
Time: Sunday, May 7, 2023, 12:00 noon Eastern Time (US and Canada)
9 AM Pacific Time
Zoom link for the meetup: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/8850659900?pwd=ZE9ROUs1czNiK2FTTStjTUJuVkIydz09 4
Agenda
This one is going to be fun! Sönke Ahrens, the author of How to Take Smart Notes 12 will join our meetup on May 7th. Let’s start a thread on what we’d like to review with him. The meetup is not for a couple of weeks. If you have the time, I highly suggest you grab a copy and give it a read.
The Tinderbox crowd has been doing lots of solid zettelkasten related material recently.
A lot of discussion in the Zettelkasten space has taken place on the debate between digital and analog with handwriting being the default analog option. Why not split some of the differences and opt for the mechanical typewriter option? Where’s the subreddit for that? It can’t just be me and Umberto Eco, right? 🗃️

A wooden table arranged with a black Smith-Corona Clipper typewriter next to a Shaw-Walker wooden dovetailed card index, some index cards, and a black fountain pen.

Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic by Simon Winchester

In case some haven’t been watching, I’ll mention that Simon Winchester’s new book Knowing What We Know on knowledge to transmission was published by Harper on April 25th in North America. For zettelkasten fans, you’ll note that it has some familiar references and suggested readings including by our friends Markus Krajewski, Ann Blair, Iaian McGilchrist, Alex Wright, Anthony Grafton, Dennis Duncan, and Mortimer J. Adler to name but a few.

Many are certain to know his award winning 1998 book The Professor and the Madman which was also transformed into the eponymous 2019 film starring Sean Penn. Though he didn’t use the German word zettelkasten in the book, he tells the story of philologist James Murray’s late 1800s collaborative 6 million+ slip box collection of words and sentences which when edited into a text is better known today as the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you need some additional motivation to check out his book, I’ll use the fact that Winchester, as a writer, is one of the most talented non-linear storytellers I’ve ever come across, something which many who focus on zettelkasten output may have a keen interest in studying.

Book club anyone? (I’m sort of hoping that Dan Allosso’s group will pick it up as one of their next books after Donut Economics, but I’m game to read it with others before then.)


Book released on 4/25/2023; Book acquired on 4/26/2023

Vintage desktop Remington Rand 10 5/8 inch card index for 3 x 5″ cards

I’ve bought (yet another) card index on April 22nd. This must mean that I’m officially a collector, but if I keep this up I may have to start a museum soon.

Close up of a bronze metallic art deco designed plaque on the front of a small card index that reads "Remington Rand / Library Bureau Div." sandwiched in between the words "Made" and "in U.S.A." Two small nails hold the plaque on to the box. In front of the box is a white index card that read in red typewriter print "The power of information" with a quote typed in black below it.

This model is a Remington Rand Library Bureau Division 10 5/8″ x 5 5/8″ x 2″ dovetailed wooden box with steel follower and toothed sliding track. The sides of the box are 1/4″ thick and was designed for 3 x 5 inch index cards. The box has a softer brown color and wider grain typical of the mid-century Remington Rand Library Bureau Division products. Because it is short enough, it can fit inside my larger card catalog filing cabinet if necessary. 

Angle down on a small, light brown wooden card index. The box has several manilla 1/5 cut 3x5" card dividers inside along with some white index cards. Outside of the box on the table in front of it are a typewritten index card and a black metal Rotring 800 0.5mm mechanical pencil. Off to one side is a white ceramic bowl full of lemons.

Given that Remington Rand used the Library Bureau Division brand name from its acquisition in 1927 into the 1950s and the materials and design used, I’m guessing that this model is likely from the late 40s to early 50s. This was likely used as a desktop card index or possibly as a charging tray in a library. Sadly it didn’t come with any information about provenance. With the follower all the way back it’s got 8 1/2 inches for cards which means space for about 1,200 standard index cards.

There are no nail holes on the bottom indicating that it had feet, but it does have the faint appearance that it may have either had felt feet or a felt sheet glued to the bottom to prevent it scratching one’s desktop. As I expect to use it on a glass top, I probably won’t modify it. Beyond this and a few small scuffs showing very moderate use, it’s in exceptionally fine shape.

Bottom of a 10 5/8" card index featuring two wooden slats on the sides and a metal strip down the middle for the card follower inside the box. A faint black item number "6015" is printed on the bottom.

I’d picked up an 11 inch Shaw-Walker card index recently, but I couldn’t help making a knee-jerk purchase of another vintage desktop card index. I got it used on eBay for the pittance of $16, which compared to some of the modern cardboard,  plastic and metal options is honestly a steal, especially since it’s got a much nicer look and permanent feel compared to some of the more “modern” zettelkasten containers. Who wants a $20 cardboard box from Amazon when you can have a solid piece of history made of hard wood and steel on your desk?

Since my father worked in manufacturing for both Ingersoll Rand (no relation) and Remington at different points in his life, its quite a nice reminder of him sitting on my desk on a daily basis. Because it bears the name Library Bureau, it also harkens back to the early days of mass manufactured library card catalog equipment beginning with Melvil Dewey in 1876.

Of course, I ought to quit picking up these 3 x 5 inch card boxes and get some more 4 x 6 inch boxes since I primarily use those on a daily basis. 

Any ideas what I ought to use this box for? Perhaps it ought to be an address card index/rolodex? I’ve already made the decision to do my “memindex” in 4 x 6″ cards and the Shaw-Walker is accumulating cards with jokes and humorous observations (jokerzettel anyone?).

View from the front of an empty Remington Rand card index box toward the back featuring a steel card follower sitting in a steel slider tray with teeth on the right side for adjusting the follower in the box.

View of the back of a tan painted steel card follower in a Remington Rand card index. It has a silver steel button on the top which has a spring loaded pin lever to allow the follower to be positioned in the box at one of approximately 42 evenly spaced teeth in its metal tray.

Of course I now have a small voice inside saying that I need a Remington typewriter on my desk to match it.

1948 Smith-Corona “Clipper”

Childhood Typewriters

I’ve had a hollow space in my chest where a typewriter wanted to be. I’d had a few inexpensive plastic ones in my childhood before having a really spectacular Smith-Corona, but I thought that through many moves it had been long lost. Until, that is, I visited my parents on spring break this past week. While going through some old papers and boxes, I ran across a dusty, but stunning old jewel from my youth. 

Hiding in a corner of memorabilia was a hard black box which I immediately recognized as my old portable typewriter! I recall my parents having purchased it at a yard sale and bringing it home for us kids to use in 1984. It took a while back then to clean it up, but I used it for a variety of school projects and papers for several years until its use for school papers was later taken over by an electronic Panasonic word processor. Despite the newer technology I still preferred that old typewriter for composing and noodling around.

Ooh, my little pretty one, my pretty one

So, what is this fantastic jewel? It’s a 1948 Smith-Corona “Clipper” 4C (serial number 4C-242370). It’s still in spectacular shape. I had to re-connect the letter “A”s linkage joint, but all the keys still work well, and it’s going to need a new ribbon. The interior is a bit dusty and needs some cleaning and oiling, but a short afternoon of tinkering should make quick work of any issues. 

Oblique angle down on the top of a black Smith-Corona Clipper sitting on a brown wooden tabletop.

What’s fascinating is that all of the parts and functionalities of the machine came back to me instantaneously when I touched it. I knew all the small subtleties of sliding in a sheet of paper and aligning it to perfection. All the small niceties like the single/double space switch, the margin adjustments, the lovely bell, the ribbon direction adjustment switch, and even the centering mechanism were right there at my fingertips.

Rear view angle of the carriage return on the Smith-Corona Clipper with a view into the internals featuring the bell. The apparatus could be cleaner and features some use and dust build up on the oiled metal.

Sadly the original key wasn’t with the typewriter’s lock, but it was easily pickable. I’m reasonably sure the key will turn up as I dig through my other childhood memorabilia in the near future. At the worst, I can probably print a new key using a recipe I’ve already found online. I even unearthed a roughly contemporaneous typewriter manual for the Smith-Corona Clipper model

And the best part is that a young 12 year old was drawn to it and immediately wanted to use it and take it home with us, so the typewriter obsession may go on for at least another generation.

I can’t wait to begin using my new (old) tool for thought in my zettelkasten practice. I’m curious to see what the slow down effect of a manual typewriter has on my writing and thinking work. Perhaps the composition of my cards at the end of the day will have the added satisfaction of punching the keys of a fantastic typewriter.

Typed 3 x 5 inch index card. The top title in red ink reads "The Power of Information" with the following quotation: 
No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. --- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

If nothing else, the Clipper does look quite nice next to my Shaw-Walker card index which is from the same era.

Desk level view of the front of a Shaw-Walker wooden card index tray next to a black typewriter.

Ultra-luxury of the “Clipper”

Just where does the Smith-Corona “Clipper” sit in the pantheon of typewriters? A variety of writers in the 21st century still talk about their love and nostalgia of specific typewriters mentioning the design esthetic of the Olivetti, a remembrance of an old Underwood, or their fondness of a Remington, but I think Tom Hanks sums things up pretty well:

This is what I would suggest: if you wanted the perfect typewriter that will last forever that would be a great conversation piece, I’d say get the Smith-Corona Clipper. That will be as satisfying a typing experience as you will ever have.
—Tom Hanks, actor, producer, typewriter enthusiast and collector, author of Uncommon Type on CBS Sunday Morning: “Tom Hanks, Typewriter Enthusiast” [00:07:30]

Close up of the Clipper logo on a Smith-Corona typewriter. It features a red outline of the small single wing, four engine airplane with the word "Clipper" underneath it  underlined with red waves so as to make the plane appear to be flying over water.

Of course Hanks comes by this analysis naturally as the Clipper typewriter’s namesake is the Boeing 314 Clipper, which appears prominently on the front left panel of the typewriter’s cover. The context and history of some of this airplane have been lost to current generations. Twelve of these air yachts were built by Boeing and operated for a decade between 1938 and 1948. Nine of the airplanes were operated by Pan-Am as transoceanic “one class” ultra-luxury air travel featuring lounges, dining areas with silver service for six-course meals from four-star chefs served by white coated stewards, seats that converted to sleeping bunks for overnight accommodations, and separate male and female dressing rooms for the comfort of elite businesspeople and wealthy travelers in the mid-twentieth century. As an indicator of the exclusivity and expense at the time, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong on the Clipper was listed for $760, which is equivalent to about $15,000 adjusted for inflation in 2021 (Klaás, 1989, p. 20).

Pan Am’s Clipper service of the 1940s represents the romance of flight in that era in the same way Smith-Corona Clipper represents the romance of typing in the ensuing decades. Most Americans’ nostalgia for the luxury and exotic freedom of airline flight in the 1960s and 1970s was built on this early experience operating the Clipper nearly 20 years before.

Reverse view into the opened Smith-Corona Clipper featuring a close up view of all of the type face and levers. Just visible at the top are a side view of the keys on the front of the typewriter.

References

“Tom Hanks, Typewriter Enthusiast.” CBS News Sunday Morning. CBS, October 15, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTtDb73NkNM.

Klaás, M. D. (December 1989). “Clipper Across the Pacific, Part One”. Air Classics. 25 (12).