Friday, June 24, 2022

Samples of Greek handwritten and typewritten text

Our group recently visited the Vallindras kitron (citron liqueur) distillery in the village of Chalki, on the wonderful island of Naxos. Among the items on display are a group of letters from 1928-1937, some written by hand and others typed. They provide an interesting sample of the variety of Greek handwriting, as well as the more subtle variations in Greek typewriting.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Could the ancient Greeks have built a typewriter?

I'm sure that's the burning question on the mind of every reader of this blog. 

And I have a confident answer: yes.

I already thought so, based on my amateur acquaintance with the history of technology, but I'm still more convinced after visiting the Kotsanas Museum this afternoon—a lovely little institution in a prosperous neighborhood of Athens that features reconstructions of ancient Greek machines, musical instruments, armor, and games.

Greek philosophers and mathematicians were driven by the desire to understand, but they also wanted to construct devices that could be amusing or useful. Plato reportedly invented this water-driven alarm clock:

Other highlights of the museum (not in chronological order) include this more sophisticated hydraulic clock invented by Ktesibios (3rd c. BC) ...

... a pantograph (for miniaturizing drawings) invented by Heron (1st c. AD) ...

... this proto-machine gun or multi-catapult, by Dionysius of Alexandria (3rd c. BC), which could automatically launch arrows against the enemy as you turned a crank ...

... the "flying pigeon" of Archytas (5th c. BC), propelled by a jet of compressed air ...

... and here is an ancient telegraph. There would be two of these devices stationed on different peaks. When one "telegrapher" wanted to sent a message to the other, he would light a torch to indicate that the water spigot should be opened, and another to indicate when it should be closed. The column holding a set of frequently-used messages would descend simultaneously at both stations, and stop at the appropriate message.

This ancient "robot" was designed by Phylon of Alexandria (3rd c. BC). It pours water and wine into a cup. It's an example of many ancient inventions that were intended to amaze and entertain rather than for strictly practical purposes. (Such devices could be used in theaters and temples, whenever you needed a deus ex machina.)

The most impressive surviving piece of ancient technology is the Antikythera mechanism, recovered from a shipwreck in 1901, which I saw yesterday at the National Archaeological Museum. (Click these photos to enlarge them if you wish.)

Powered by a simple crank, the multi-geared mechanism could coordinate and predict various motions of heavenly bodies.

This is one of several reconstructions that can be seen at the Archaeological Museum. The entire device was the size of a large, thick book.

Ancient Greek technology peaked in the Hellenistic period, between Alexander the Great and the Roman conquest of Greece. Its center was probably Alexandria, famous for its scholars and library. Many of these engineering achievements were not reproduced until the late medieval or early modern era. (Mark Petersen offers a wonderful science-fictional answer to why ancient technology got derailed in his contribution to Backspaces.)

Aeolosphere (proto-steam engine) as described in the Pneumatica of Heron of Alexandria

There can be no question that one of these ancient engineers could have built a simple index typewriter, such as an American ...

... or Odell.

If a gifted ancient inventor had conceived the idea of a keyboard typewriter, I bet he could also have worked it out. It would take a lot of time and skill to build such a thing, but there were very fine craftsmen who made precision gears and who had the ability to make objects as delicate as this golden headdress (the size it appears on a laptop screen is about actual size). 

I don't think the ancients had coiled springs or mechanical escapements, but they knew how to use weights and hydraulic pressure to drive mechanisms, and whoever was clever enough to devise the Antikythera mechanism could have devised an escapement too. Nothing essentially stood in the way.

So yes, the ancients could have built a typewriter. 

A tougher question is: Why didn't they? Writing, after all, was an essential part of their culture. There are ancient inscriptions everywhere in Greece. There is fine writing on many parts of the Antikythera mechanism. And there was interest in writing technology—here, for instance, are several devices used for simple cryptography.

They had long known that letters and other shapes could be printed and stamped, for instance with a signet ring. (Here is one from Mycenae, ca. 1500 BC.)

Maybe it simply never occurred to anyone that writing ought to be faster than handwriting, just as it never occurred to them to read silently. (St. Augustine, 354-430 AD, reports it as remarkable that someone could do this feat.) 

Another factor, in classical Greece, was that papyrus was an uncommon material and most writing would not be done in ink. Instead, you would write on a reusable, hinged wax tablet that looks much like a laptop.

But what about the scholars of Alexandria, who had plenty of papyrus and wrote with ink on scrolls? Didn't one of them ever dream about a typewriter?

A more fundamental question, perhaps, is why the ancients didn't invent printing (more precisely, the printing press and movable type). The question suggests a wonderful "what if?" World history would certainly have been very different. For one thing, we would have far more than the tiny fragment of ancient literature that we currently possess.

Wait! Hold it! I just ran across this device in the Kotsanas Museum!

Just kidding. This is a reproduction of a Cembalo scrivano designed by Giuseppe Ravizza in the mid-19th century. But I still maintain that Ravizza's ancient predecessors could have managed it.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Athens typewriter safari

I've been to Athens before. Athens, Ohio, that is. But there's also an Athens, Greece! And this is my first visit.

The city is both magnificent ...

... and shabby.

Of course, as promised (and as I can't help doing), I am looking for γραφομηχανές. My first sighting was at the Stoa of Attalos, a reconstructed building from the Roman period that houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora. 

The other tools used by archaeologists in the '30s are also interesting. (The Leroy Lettering device was very popular in its day, as I found out with a quick check of eBay.)

I had Sunday afternoon free, so I headed for the Monastiraki district, which houses a bustling flea market. (Here's a former Ottoman mosque, with the Acropolis in the background, and busy shops at its foot.)

As I hoped, there is a profusion of miscellaneous old things.

Surely some palaiopoleion would have typewriters?

Some shops and dealers do have old technology. In Greece as in the US, you need to find the sweet spot between cheap modern junk and fancy antique furniture.

Aha! An L.C. Smith — with QWERTY keyboard.

A well-worn Adler with the French AZERTY layout.

Finally, a machine that types in Greek! This is an Erika 10 from East Germany.

And here's a wide-carriage Siemag from West Germany.

Both the Erika and the Siemag feature a Greek keyboard based on QWERTY that is also capable of typing in capital Roman letters, since the Roman capitals that don't match Greek ones are available on the top row of the keyboard when you shift.

Here's a Continental portable, lacking some body panels, with a different Greek/Roman layout, based on AZERTY.

This Oliver (no. 9?) has a slightly different AZERTY-based Greek keyboard.

As cool as the Oliver is, I think this is still cooler. This Adler has four characters per key and is capable of typing both Greek and Roman capital and lowercase letters. The layout is a really weird, but still QWERTY-based concept.

There is no way that I'll be lugging a huge, heavy, rusty Adler home with me, but at least photos are portable and free! I hope you've enjoyed them.