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
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.
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.
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.
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?).
Of course I now have a small voice inside saying that I need a Remington typewriter on my desk to match it.
Check-in in time for the local #zettelkasten conference at a nearby mall?! People picking up their t-shirts and signing up, presumably to learn about bibcards and zettelkasten numbering systems! 🗃️🏃🏼♂️😁
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.
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.
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.
If nothing else, the Clipper does look quite nice next to my Shaw-Walker card index which is from the same era.
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]
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.
While looking at a #zettelkasten on Ancient Egyptian, I just ran across an actively maintained scholarly zettelkasten with over 10 million individual slips!!! One of the largest sub-sectional topics alone has over 90,000 slips. Eat your heart out Niklas Luhmann!
I’ve been watching the secondary market for used card indexes for a while and finally caved and purchased a vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ index cards. It was dusty and dirty and in reasonably good shape, but with some cleaning and some wood polish, it’s in much better shape.
I removed the original tacks on the bottom which appeared to have once held down some red felt. I cut out a new rectangle of green felt and reattached the tacks so that the index won’t scratch up my desktop. The dovetails are in good shape, but it seems like in a year or two some of the joins may need to be re-glued.
In all, for a small $10.00 investment, it’s a stunning addition for my zettelkasten card collection. Compared to some of the cardboard and metal options out there, it was half the price, but is far prettier and infinitely more durable.
Of course I’ve got a strong preference for 4 x 6″, so I’ll be on the look out for something bigger, but this was just too good a deal to pass up. Perhaps I’ll use it like a Memindex or a related productivity tool?
Finally a physical zettelkasten box for your sharpest and most dangerous ideas!
In Chapter 1: American Exceptionalism of Myth America (Basic Books, 2023) historian David A. Bell indicates that Jay Lovestone and Joseph Stalin originated the idea of American exceptionalism in 1920, but in Democracy: An American Novel (1880, p.72) Henry Adams seems to capture an early precursor of the sentiment:
“Ah!” exclaimed the baron, with his wickedest leer, “what for is my conclusion good? You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws. You care not for experience. I have lived seventy-five years, and all that time in the midst of corruption. I am corrupt myself, only I do have courage to proclaim it, and you others have it not. Rome, Paris, Vienna, Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure! Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges. Every where men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.
Had a flavor of American exceptionalism been brewing for decades before Stalin’s comment? Adams’ posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Education of Henry Adams (1907, 1918) in 1919 may have brought his earlier writings back to the public conscious for the 1920 citation?
A fascinating combination of office furniture types in 1906!
The Adjustable Table Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan manufactured a combination table for both telephones and index cards. It was designed as an accessory to be stood next to one’s desk to accommodate a telephone at the beginning of the telephone era and also served as storage for one’s card index.
Given the broad business-based use of the card index at the time and the newness of the telephone, this piece of furniture likely was not designed as an early proto-rolodex, though it certainly could have been (and very well may have likely been) used as such in practice.
Yesterday’s progress on the 4 drawer Shaw-Walker filing cabinet. I’ve emptied the drawers and removed them along with the rollers and hardware. I’ve also stripped all the original paint and a significant amount of rust, though I still have all of the bottom panel left, which is the worst of the rust. I’m still hoping that I can salvage the bottom.
Someone has sent a View-Master in the post, and I can’t help but think that this is how I would love to do daily reviews of my notes via spaced repetition. How do I turn them into reels?!
Normally I would be having a peaty single malt Scotch, but since I’m reading Graeber’s Pirate Enlightenment, I feel obligated to work on a bottle of white rum tonight. 📖🏴☠️🥃