Friday, December 11, 2009

The Average American Consumes about 34GB of Data Daily

According to an article in the New York Times on Dec 9, UCSD has issued a report indicating that the average American consumes about 34 GB of data per day. This is up about 350% over nearly three decades ago. Are we going to drown in all this data? Can we keep up with the growth of data consumption?

I would imagine that if you had asked one of our founding fathers how they would cope with travelling at 60 mph they would have said that it would have been between difficult and impossible to function at that speed. Certainly if you asked if they could steer a vehicle at that speed you would have been looked at is if you were crazy. Yet, here we are. We think nothing of getting in the car and travelling at that speed. We watch the roadside whizzing past us and don't get too excited about it.

With data consumption it is the same thing, once you get used to dealing with that speed, you really don't feel like it's all that much to deal with.

What I do find interesting are a number of side issues relative to this point that should merit some attention. AT&T appears to be considering "limiting" the unlimited data plan for their iPhone. Particularly in the San Francisco and Manhattan markets. They claim that some iPhone "hogs" are consuming inordinate amounts of data with certain video applications. See this article or this really funny article on this point.

The other notable point is that the cable industry wants to set limits to the amount of data that they provide at the base rate to their customers at about 5GB per month. If this were to be accomplished we would find ourselves having to ration our consumption of data or pay exorbitant rates to get a "full" daily dosage of data.

Whatever your feelings about these developments, one thing is very clear. The amount of data that we will be consuming as the years roll on is going to increase dramatically. This is sort of a form of data pollution. The video density is becoming higher and higher. The number of devices we use this data on is increasing. Our appetite for higher density data on these types of products is increasing dramatically.

What do you think this will mean to our future technology developments? I'd like to hear from you about this.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Permanent Agreement between PA and Friends on Priestley House

On December 1, 2009 The Daily Item of Sunbury, PA reported that the Friends of Joseph Priestley House has come to a long term agreement with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission over the management and operation of the Joseph Priestley House and Museum in Northumberland PA. It is anticipated that the agreement will be signed shortly. Under the agreement the Friends will have complete control of the operation of the site. The state will continue to provide some of the cost to maintain the facility.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Zillow Effect

I have been watching with keen interest the development of a new class of web sites. As the Internet gathers into its web more and more terabytes of data, it is possible to gather some very valuable information about specific individuals.

Let's use Zillow as the example here. Zillow aggregates publicly available information on residential real estate such as taxes, sales prices, and a host of other things like lot size, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc., and makes that information available to anyone who might be interested in looking at it and it is already organized for each specific property. More importantly, Zillow also computes a market value based upon this information. They call it a Zestimate. I suppose, in a way, it is sort of like a FICO score.

You could argue, no, it's not like the FICO score because the FICO score is based upon accurate experience information on the consumers' use of credit. The FICO score can have a significant impact upon a consumers' life, every financial or credit decision involving that consumer usually boils down to what his or her FICO score is. It's like that pesky SAT score that was on your forehead when you applied to college.

If your home is your largest financial investment and the Zestimate is the alleged "score" that you have achieved with that investment, it could materially affect the decisions that are made that involve your financial condition. Zillow is the first to point out in their terms and conditions that financial institutions cannot use the Zestimate as a basis for loan. This makes me think of the porn sites that say that if you are under 18 years of age that you are not allowed to use the site. When was the last time you thought a teenager would heed such a notice?

Additionally, if the Zestimate is lower than it should be it could influence a potential buyer for your home should you want to sell it. If you are contemplating the purchase of a home it could impact your decision about whether to buy that home. Perhaps, you have applied for a business loan and as part of your Net Worth statement you list the equity in your home. No loan officer in the world is going to perform a CMA (Certified Market Analysis) on your home under those circumstances. It is too costly and takes too much time. A quick and easy Zestimate is available to check the number on that Net Worth statement.

Do we really believe that this computed value has any accuracy? This is easily measurable. Take a community and find every sale during a given period of time and compare the sale price to the Zestimate that was in effect at the time of the sale. Just how accurate can such a crude Zestimate actually be?

According to Carol Augustus, a Realtor with Pacific Union in Marin County California, Zillow itself cites the following figures as interpreted for Marin County:

1. 88% of Marin homes are in Zillow
2. 80% have Zestimates
3. 20% are within 5% of a recent 3 month sales price (80% are NOT)
4. 38% are within 10% of a recent sales price (68% are NOT)
5. 64% are within 20% of a recent sales price (36% are NOT)

I, quite frankly, don't know what to make of these numbers. Does this mean that a given home has a 20% chance that another home in the county sold within 5% of the price within the last 3 months? If so, what does that mean? It sounds almost meaningless.

Alternatively, if it means that 20% of the homes are within 5% of a hypothetical sales price, this would be dreaming of a dream. I don't have any other interpretations that could make sense of these cited statistics.

Look at this Zestimate chart below.  The line on top is the Zestimate from mid 2008 through 2013 for a home that I am familiar in my neighborhood.  You can see that it has fluctuated from a low of around $800k to a high of almost $1.4m.  What is most notable is the precipitous drop in 2012.  The coincident lines below are the Zestimate values for the town and Zip Code for this home.  Nothing dramatic there, and there was nothing dramatically different at this home.  How do you explain this kind of variation?

So, now the big question is, what if products like Zillow and their Zestimates become more pervasive and can meaningfully affect your daily life (either positively or negatively)?
Will you have the ability to redress your grievances if you feel you have been maligned? Will there be the equivalent of the Fair Credit Reporting Act to protect consumers from erroneous data being used negatively against them in these new financial marketplaces?

What other products are there out there now, or can reasonably be expected to appear on the web near you in the not too distant future? I'd like to hear from you. Please let me know your thoughts on this issue.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Posts on Joseph Priestley

Yesterday, Positive Liberty, posted an interesting blog: 'Joseph Priestley on the Swedenborgs'. In this entry they cite known letters between Priestley and the Swedenborgs as described in a recent publication William Blake and the Culture of Radical Cristianity by Robert Rix, Ashgate Pubishing, July, 2007, 178pp.
Oh, the heretics that are among us! I merely mention this as a link and will not elaborate on it here. I note that a reader of that blog responded to the blog, "Oh, I’d have paid to see Priestley answer a Mormon knock on his door…Oy".

Also, an interesting commentary appears in the web site. It covers two recent books about Priestley:Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian, published by the Dr. Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies at the University of London, edited by Isabel Rivers and David Wykes; and, Steven Johnson's recent biography, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, published last year by Riverhead Books .The article is favorable to the Rivers and Wykes text but fairly critical of Johnson's work. I will add my comments later after I have thought about it some more. Please see my separate post on Johnson's book.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friends to Staff Reopened Priestley House Temporarily

In an article in the Daily Item, Sunbury, PA, dated two hours ago it has been reported that the Friends of Joseph Priestley House have just signed an agreement with the State of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commissipn to reopen and staff the Priestley House with volunteer members starting Octover 3.  The Friends will also financially support certain aspects of keeping the site open.  This came about due to the budget cuts that forced the Commission to have closed the site earlier this year on August 14.  The agreement was announced last evening at the annual dinner of the Friends.

This arrangement will allow the public to have access to this important historic landmark and museum until a more permanent arrangement can be found.  Both the state Historical and Museum Commission and the Friends are to be commended for the improvement to the situation.

There has been a press release issued by the Central Pennsylvania Susquehanna River Valley Vistitors Bureau on this in addition to the notice on the Joseph Priestley House website

Let's hope that a practical solution for perminent funding of the site can be found.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Friends Report Progress on Operating Priestley House

Susan Brooke of the Friends of Joseph Priestley House reports: "We  are very close to an arrangement that will let us open this fall, with a proposal to hold our annual Heritage Day (costumed event, with chemistry demonstations,) on Nov. 1 as previously scheduled. We meet with the state staff  this Thursday to finalize."
Stay tuned for more information later this week.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Erasmus Darwin and those pesky little critters in the stones

I was doing my usual aerobic gardening work today --I had 8 tons of boulders delivered to the house the other day and I spent the day today breaking them into smaller pieces to border some beds and paths I am building. That sure is hard work. The sledging just gets you real quick, but it's the lifting and hauling the resultant pieces that absolutely does you in. I got about 3 tons broken and moved today in about 6 hours.

What is interesting is the kind of rock it is. It is local field stone. Looks like some was coral a long time ago and the rest is some sort of igneous type rock. Neither of these rocks break real easy. Call me prejudiced, but I would take the good old Connecticut potatoes any day of the week over this stuff out here. I really like the field stones out in Connecticut. So much so, that I brought some of them out here with me when we moved here. The movers weren't too happy about that. One of the rocks is about 600 lbs.

Anyway, there I was breaking open these rocks and you could see that there were these animal fossils preserved in some of them. Nothing to write home about, but still, there they were. My mind went to a passage I read somewhere in one of the Joseph Priestley books I had read that Erasmus Darwin had also been intrigued by the fossils he was finding in the rocks. Don't forget that in that (mid 18th century England) epoch it was still believed by Western culture that the Earth had been created by God some 6,000 or so years ago. The fossils don't fit in real well with that theory. Darwin (this is Charles' grandfather) was on the right path. He was convinced that the history of the Earth was far greater than that postulated by the Church. What Erasmus did not get, though, but his grandson Charles would, was that these primordial creatures would some day 'evolve' into all the living things that we see on the Earth today.

It is very humbling to think of how creative and observant these early scientists of the Age of Enlightenment were. And, they were so brave to tell the world about it in spite of any repercussions that might result from these heretical ideas. We can dismiss this as being obvious, but they did not have the understanding that we now have about the development of the planet.

In fact, Charles Darwin waited many many years after conceptualizing his theories about evolution and natural selection before he ever published his results. He knew that the publication would have profound effects upon the world and would affect the religious deeply because it appeared to contradict the Church's teachings.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Letter to Governer Rendell about Joseph Priestley House

Dear Gov. Rendell:  

I would like to address the matter of the closing of the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, PA by the PA Historical and Museum Commission on August 14 of this year.  

While I am not a PA resident, I have followed with intense interest the developments this year. The site is a true national treasure and should be treated as such. I do understand the budgetary constraints that have plagued PA this year. I also do understand that the Friends of Joseph Priestley House are attempting to negotiate a way for them to operate the site. I think the Friends are a fine group (I am a member), but they do not have the real resources to do justice to the site.  

I propose, as an alternative, that you consider working with the U S Park Service to see if the site can be converted to a National Historic Site. If that were to occur, the site could be operated by the U S Park Service at no cost to the state of PA and still be made available to visitors. I know that the U S Park Service has just purchased the land for the memorial for United Flight 93 in PA, so there must be some discussions going on with the U S Park Service ongoing.  

This would be a wonderful compromise under the circumstances. It might even add additional tourism to PA if the site were made a National Historic Site of the U S Park Service since there are many people who want to tour U S Historic Sites (there are less than 100 such sites in the country). Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid Forwards Request to National Park Service to Make Joseph Priestley House a National Historic Site

I received a letter from Senator Harry Reid that was very encouraging.  Sen. Reid met with Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, the other day and, unfortunately, I had not written to Reid beforehand.  After writing to Reid, Reid responded that he was going to forward my request to the National Park Service.  It will be interesting to see what comes of this.

I don't know if it is that we just passed the slowest part of the year in August and nothing happened, or if something is going on with respect to the Joseph Priestley House and it is not being reported by any of the media.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Restoration Begins on One of the Oldest Modern Computers

I just found this article about the WITCH computer at Bletchley Park which they are going to attempt to restore. It is a 1950s era machine based upon telephone relays and vaccuum tube technology.  It is an interesting read.
I will try to post additional information on this as I have time and I find it. There appears to be very little out there and I can see inaccuracies all over the place.

There is now a considerable amount of information out there about this restoration project:

Here is a subsequent article about the WITCH developments during 2009

Here is the subsequent article about the WITCH developments during 2010

Here is the article about the WITCH during 2012

When completed, the WITCH will be the oldest working computer.  This is a monumental project.
If you look at the detailed reports above as to what actually has to be done to resurrect this fossil you would not want to get started on it.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Joseph Priestley House Update

This blog continues comments and activities concerning the closing of Joseph Priestley House on August 14 and the various attempts to reopen it.  For continuity it is recommended that you start with the earliest post first. Please click on the label "Joseph Priestley House" at the left.

I have received three more correspondences on this topic:

The first was included in the "Postings from Priestley House" Newsletter of the Friends of Joseph Priestley House, Number 44, Summer 2009, which states:

"New Responsibilities Ahead for Friends
The friends Board is discussing a Management Agreement with PHMC [Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission] that could result in increased responsibilities for the Friends.
Ownership & Maintenance. PHMC will retain ownership of the site and cover major maintenance, exterior painting, electric, gas, water, sewer, and lawn care and snow removal.  The Friends would be responsible for the interior painting.
Insurance.  Friends will be responsible for liability insurance for anything conducted at the House (which we now have) as well as negligence insurance regarding the structures and contents (which we don't now have).  We may be responsible for the insurance for collections currently on loan from other sites.
Custodial Care. Friends would be responsible for custodial care of the facility -- that includes general housekeeping, light bulbs, toilet cleaning, etc.  A curatorial assistant would be available to respond to the injury or damage to artifacts.
Security.  Friends would be responsible to provide periodic security visits to [the]site and entrance for emergency responders and lock up after they leave.
Programming.  Friends are responsible for all events at the site including tours.  Special events at the site may include alcohol such as wedding receptions."

I have also received an email from: 
Amanda Shafer
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Commonwealth Keystone Building
400 North Street, Plaza Level | Harrisburg, PA 17120-0053
Phone: 717.525.5368

"In the past years, the PHMC operated the Joseph Priestly House for about $140-160 thousand per year on a Wednesday through Sunday schedule. However, the cost to run the site in the future depends on many factors such as when the site is open, the number of programs held, maintenance and ticket/membership pricing.  While the Joseph Priestley house is temporarily closed, the PHMC is seeking other management options in order to keep the site protected and available to the public. Thank you for your interest in our sites. I have also forwarded your comments to the Executive staff."

The third correspondence is a letter from Congressman Dean Heller (R- Nevada)

"As you know , the National Park System owns and administers all of the current 86 National Historic Sites. Congressional legislation authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to designate an area of historical significance that is worthy of remembrance as a National Historic Site.  Current National Historical Sites include the home of Abraham Lincoln, the Vanderbilt Mansion, and the home and woodland property of John Muir.

I understand your admiration for Joseph Priestley's accomplishments. A famed philosopher, historian, and educator, he is most noted for his scientific achievements including the discovery of oxygen and nitrogen.  Throughout his lifetime, Joseph Priestley published more than 150 works on topics ranging from religion to electricity. You can be sure that I will keep your thoughts in mind should any legislation related to this topic come before the House of Representatives."

While I am not privy to the details of either the negotiations between the Friends and PHMC nor the line item costs for running Priestley House, the portion that Friends would be contributing would, I assume be less than the cost that PHMC would still be undertaking.

Surely, the U S Park Service would consider these costs to be a pittance compared to what they spend at their 86 other locations. They spent $9 Million this week alone to acquire the land they need to make the United Flight 93 National Historic Site Memorial in PA.  In spite of all the good intentions of all those involved, I still maintain that the National Historic Site alternative would be the best long term solution for the Joseph Priestley House.

Please contact the Secretary of the Interior and other government officials to express your opinion on this matter. Below is a copy of the body of my letter to Secretary Salazar:

Mr. Ken Salazar,

U.S. Secretary of the Interior

1849 C Street, NW

Washington, DC 20240

Dear Secretary Salazar:

On August 14, 2009, the State of Pennsylvania closed the Joseph Priestley House & Museum due to funding problems within the state.  The State owns the property and has a budget of about $150,000 a year to keep the site open.

While the Priestley House is recognized on the National Register of Historical Places, it is considered, by some, to be a true National Treasure.  The closing of the Priestley House is an immeasurable loss for our National Heritage. Please consider converting the Priestley House into a National Historic Site as part of the National Park Service so that it may be properly preserved and opened to the public once again.


Dr. Sliderule

You may also want to contact:

Barbara Franco
Executive Director Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission
 State Museum Building
 300 North Street
 Harrisburg, PA 17120.

Make sure you read my previous blogs on this subject. Click on Joseph Priestley House on the labels to the left.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Peter Lymburner Robertson's Screwdriver

I had occasion to be working on a project around the house and I came across some screws that needed to be removed from a retractable screen.  Much to my amazement, none of my screwdriver bits would work. It looked like an Allen head, but not hex. 

I went to the local hardware store that carries everything and found out that was a square headed screw.  Further, since the square hole is tapered, it allows for a very secure grip -- one that will not slip and strip the screw head.  Interesting!  I needed to investigate this. Is this a new screw head?

The Robertson appellation was given to me by Canadian Russ McKinnon.  The Internet is amazing. With this information I was able to locate an excellent article by Susanna McLeod about Peter Lymberner Robertson and his Screwdriver. It is so good, in fact, that I include it here in its entirety with permission from the author.

The Invention of the Square-Head Screw and Driver

© Susanna McLeod

From Canadian History @

A mishap led to the invention of the Robertson screw and screwdriver, patented in 1909. The design remains popular: 85% of screws sold in Canada are Robertson's.

There are several versions of the story: Whether he was demonstrating a spring-loaded screwdriver, as mentioned in Mysteries of Canada, or setting up a booth to sell tools, as noted by Canadian Home Workshop, the fact is that Peter Lymburner Robertson cut his hand while he used a regular slot-head screw and screwdriver. The injury was enough to encourage the man to come up with a new device, something that would have a firmer hold and less slippage.

In 1909, Robertson received Canadian patents for his invention of a square-head screw and driver. The design permitted driving “a screw more quickly…,“ said Cool Canada, “and the screw was self-centering so only one hand was needed.” The screwdriver fit better in the head of the screw, so there was less opportunity of sliding out, and less chance of injury.

Competition for Robertson

The competition did not care for Robertson’s invention. The Steel Company of Canada tried to have his patents quashed and “a scathing story about him appeared in a 1910 issue of Saturday Night magazine,” according to the book, I Know That Name! , by Mark Kearney and Randy Ray. Robertson sent his own letter to the editor, and the attempts to overthrow his gains were unsuccessful.

The Robertson screw and screwdriver were hugely popular, seen by manufacturers as a way to speed up production and lessen product damage. Mysteries of Canada mentioned that “The Fisher Body Company, which made wooden bodies in Canada for Ford cars, used four to six gross of Robertson screws in the bodywork of the Model T and eventually Robertson produced socket screws for metal for the metal bodied Model A.” Henry Ford so appreciated the new screw that he wanted a licencing arrangement for control of the time-saving tools. Peter Robertson refused to give up control.

500 People Employed

With his company, Recess Screws Limited, founded in England, Robertson opened a manufacturing facility in Milton, Ontario. At the end of World War II, he employed 500 people in the production of three colour-coded sizes of the Robertson – green for small, red for medium and black for large. (There is now yellow, for very small drivers.) Still remarkably popular, the square-head screw controls 85% of the market in Canada, said Canadian Home Workshop. The Americans are less familiar with the design, but the Robertson's still own 10% of the American market.

Born in 1879, Peter Robertson went from salesman to millionaire with his invention.  A good design that is tough to top, there has been nothing to improve on the Robertson screw since.  Robertson made good use of his fortune, becoming a renowned philanthropist. He died in 1951.


I Know That Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-Known Brand Names, by Mar Kearney and Randy Ray, published by Dundurn Press 2002. pp 24.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Joseph Priestley House Designation as a National Historic Landmark vs. National Register of Historic Places vs. National Historic Site

Definitions taken from Wikipedia:
National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a buildingsitestructureobject, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance. All NHLs are listed in theNational Register of Historic Places. Out of more than 80,000 places on the National Register, however, only about 2,430 are NHLs.  [NHLs are not owned by the Federal Government (this is my comment)]

The National Register of Historic Places (National Register) is the United States government's official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation. Having a property on the National Register makes its owners eligible for tax incentives for expenses incurred preserving the property if they are offered by the local taxing districts.

National Historic Sites are Federally owned and administered [lands]. Some other Federally administered sites are National Historical Parks. There are also about 79,000+ National Register of Historic Places sites, which usually are privately owned, of which about 2400 have further been designated as National Historic Landmark sites.

Joseph Priestley House is owned by the State of Pennsylvania. Consequently, it is not a National Historic Site. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. 

Now that the Joseph Priestley House has been closed by the State of Pennsylvania I would like to see that the designation for Joseph Priestley House be changed to that of National Historic Site and that the ownership be ceded to the Federal Government to insure that the site is opened to the public and funded at an appropriate level.

The following email was sent to the Department of the Interior today

The Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland PA was closed on August 14, 2009 by the State of Pennsylvania due to budget cuts.

While I understand that Priestley House is owned by the State of Pennsylvania and is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Park Service, I can only emphasize that this site is a true national treasure and should be designated a National Historic Site.  With that status the U.S. Park Service could provide the support necessary to reopen the House and Museum and make it available once again to the public.

The importance of Joseph Priestley as a part of the national heritage of this country cannot be left to a distant memory. It must be protected and promoted in a manner that only the U.S. Park Service can perform.

Joseph Priestley has already been honored with a U.S. Commemorative Stamp in his honor.  His connection to our founding fathers is profound and his contribution to what we are as a nation is undisputed.

Thank you for your attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Latest Proposal on Saving the Priestley House

According to Jan Bowman, Northumberland Borough Secretary, "The Borough Council met last evening [August 18, 2009] with Tom Bresenhan, Co-President of the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House.  This group is negotiating with the State to be permitted to open the Priestley House with volunteers giving tours." 

While I commend both the Borough of Northumberland and the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House for their efforts, this can only be a stopgap effort.  Clearly, the upkeep and development of the site needs full-time skilled professionals that can only be accomplished with sufficient funding. I still feel that making Joseph Priestley House a National Historic Site under the administration of the U.S. Park Service is the only way to insure that the site is properly protected.

According to Mr. Bresenhan the Priestley House already carries the designation of National Historic Landmark (January,.1965) of the U.S. Park Service.

My only real experience with National Historic Sites of the U.S. Park Service is with Weir Farm in Ridgefield, CT. Until Weir Farm was established there were no National Historic Sites or Parks within the state of CT. Once designated, the U.S. Park Service came in with money to provide much of the infrastructure changes needed to handle the staffing, traffic, land acquisition, etc. to bring it up to the standards that they have for any site. I was very impressed with what they did. They did not come in with big bulldozers, so to speak. They  were very sensitive to the needs of the community and the history of the site.

I don't know what the difference between a National Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, but I will investigate this, and I'll bet that it is in that difference that we will find out why the U.S. Park Service has not been as actively involved in the Priestley House.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Further Thoughts About the Closing of Joseph Priestley House

The stamp to the left, which is based upon a painting by Dennis Lyall, of Norwalk, CT, was issued by the United States Postal Service on April 13, 1983 in Northumberland, PA to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Priestley's birth.  Lyall based his painting of Priestley on an 1801 portrait of Priestley by Rembrandt Peale which is located in the Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, PA.

Priestley and his wife, Mary, had settled in Northumberland PA, after immigrating to the United States in 1794 from England.  From 1795 to 1797 they built their house there. Unfortunately, Mary died before the house was completed. Until its closing last week on August 14, the Joseph Priestley House, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, had operated as a museum in his honor.  There was a special ceremony at the Priestley House on the day the commemorative stamp was issued.

Joseph Priestley, of course, was the first of a long list of  emigrant scientists celebre to come to the United States to partake of the freedom and liberty enjoyed by our citizens. Priestley was the noted chemist, biologist, theologian, political activist, and educator who had fled England with his family after the Birmingham Riots of 1791 where his house, laboratory and church were burned to the ground in protest of his support of the French and American Revolutions. 

Among other notable accomplishments, Priestley was known for his scientific work in discovering oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and 5 other gases. He also invented the first method of artificially creating carbonated water or "soda water".  He, additionally, was the first to note that there was a gas cycle wherein plants and animals produced oxygen and carbon dioxide, respectively, to symbiotically support the survival of the other. He wrote the definitive text on electricity which was considered the standard text on the subject for about a century.

Priestley's political writings have been credited as providing Thomas Jefferson with key concepts relative to his expressions of liberty and freedom that are found in the Declaration of Independence. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and corresponded regularly and met with many of the other American Founding Fathers. He was an abolitionist, and a strong supporter of tolerance and equal rights for all. Some have referred to him as the "high priest" of our Founding Fathers.

He was a dissenting minister and wrote many scholarly texts on the history of the Christian Church.  He cofounded Unitarianism in England  also brought that Church to the United States. 

Priestley was an educator and wrote books on various subjects including grammar, history, etc. and developed pedagogical tools that are still in use today.  In fact, he wrote over 150 books which were on a wide diversity of subjects and he believed in the open and free exchange of information for all human endeavors.

While the Priestley House is recognized on the National Register of Historical Places, it is considered, by some, to be a true National Treasure.  The closing of the Priestley House last week is an immeasurable loss for our National Heritage. Please contact your congressional representatives to have them consider converting the Priestley House into a National Historic Site as part of the National Park Service so that it may be properly preserved and opened to the public once again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Digital Archeology

Digital Archeology is the study of archaic data found in memory devices of earlier digital computers.  It is related to the fields of cryptography and computer forensics.

Think about this problem: You are running a company and you want to change the computer software vendor that you keep your business accounting information on. There must be some old data which you will not convert over to the new system.  Now, further suppose that a number of years after you do this conversion you need to access some information from before the cut off point.  And further suppose that the company that supplied the software has gone out of business.  Now what do you do? 

Well, in case you don't think this is a realistic probability, consider the IRS and the requirement that not only must you maintain your accounting records in tangible paper form, but also, if you maintain electronic records, you must maintain the data in those records in machine readable form for a considerable period of time into the past.  The rationale for this is obvious.

Every day computer data devices are failing and sometimes that information on them is very valuable and sometimes that information is not backed up properly. Or alternatively, a back up has been kept, but for one reason or another it has been destroyed.  There are specialists who will extract information from a disc or other memory device and then reconstruct the original information in a meaningful way.
I think you could easily call this digital archeology.

Now, just imagine, 100 years from now. Will we be able to "read" the data that we are producing today?  Will we be able to see the images and video we are currently producing if it hasn't been "converted" to newer and newer formats along the way?
What about .pdf files? Will those be easily readable?  

Today, if we discover archival material that was produced 100s or even a thousand years ago we most likely have the skill to decipher it.  Will that be the case into the future?  
Alternatively, is there data out there today that was produced 50 years ago that is, for all practicle purposes, undecipherable today.  Look at the Sony "Beta" format for video. I'm sure there are still functioning units around, but for how long will they be around?

Should we, as a society, be taking steps now that will insure that digital data produced today and into the future will remain intelligible?

I'd like to hear from anyone who has something to say about this.
Please comment or contact me.

The Comptometer of Felt & Tarrant and Their Rival -- Burroughs

The most authoritative website on Comptometers, if you are interested, is run by Brooke Boering. Here is the link: Comptometers  Brooke actually worked for The Felt & Tarrant Co., the manufacturers of the Comptometer, in Chicago, briefly, as a service technician. That was a long long time ago. The history of the company until its demise is quite interesting. At one point they merged with the Victor Company, which also made calculators.  Eventually, all these companies making mechanical computing devices were superceded by companies making modern day computers.  You can find all this information on Brooke's website.

I have two Felt & Tarrant Comptometers:
The first is a model H, serial #221922, last patent date Nov. 2 1920, 8 columns, green painted metal (copper), with black metal cover, manufactured in the early 20's and then apparently refurbished and painted green in England after World War II (that is to distinguish it from one's manufactured in the U.S.).
The second is serial #802, last patent date Dec. 15 1891, 8 columns, mahogany wood case (see picture above), overall dimensions of the case is 19 cm wide, 36.7 cm deep, and 10.8 cm high. This is not including the 72 keys protruding from the top an additional 3 cm, and the lever mechanism on the right protruding 1.5 cm. This specific Comptometer serial number is listed as the 21st oldest known machine on Brooke's Comptometer website above.
I also have some Comptometer ancillary collectables that I have still to unpack. I will add information on those items when they pop up.

In addition to the Comptometers above I have a number of other (competitor) machines of this type.

The Burroughs Adding Machine Company had a very interesting machine that was developed at about the same time as the Comptometer, but it only performed addition.

I call it my "windows" machine because it has large beveled plate glass windows on three sides so that you can see the mechanism inside. It is a beautiful machine. 

I also have the very rare Burroughs shoebox calculator, serial # 204171, manufactured in 1912. This was issued by Burroughs to compete with the Felt and Tarrant Compometer. 

 It performed identical computations as the Comptometer and even had the same external look to it.  There was a very interesting legal fight between these two giants that ensued as a result of the introduction of the Burroughs "shoebox".  See this webpage about the legal battle to remove these machines from the marketplace Felt & Tarrant v. Burroughs.  As a result of the litigation all of these original Burroughs "shoebox" comptometers were ordered removed from the market and destroyed.   There are very few remaining.

As a follow-on to the ill fated Burroughs "shoebox" which was removed from the market Burroughs introduced yet another calculating machine of which I also have an example of:


I first met Brooke Boering at the home of Bob Otnes in Palo Alto many years ago.  I spoke to Brooke yesterday.  While the website is still functioning, Brooke informed me that he is not actively working on it much these days.  He has donated his collection of Felt & Tarrant machines and associated materials  to the Felt Mansion/Estate for display.  Due to his age, his activities have been more restricted lately.  We all wish him well.
All photos above are courtesy of Brooke Boering.

Friday, August 14, 2009

State of Pennsylvania Closes the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland

It was with great sadness that I learned today that the State of Pennsylvania closed the Joseph Priestley House.  As reported by News Radio WKOK:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pennsylvania closes the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland

NORTHUMBERLAND – The Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland closed its doors at 3:00  p.m. today.  Co-president of the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House, Tom Bresenhan, tells us the state made the announcement Thursday.  He says they were told the museum would close and their director Andrea Bashore, would be furloughed.  Bresenhan says they hope the closure will be a temporary one.  The Friends of the Joseph Priestley House has submitted a plan to the state to continue to keep the sight open on a limited basis.  Probably on afternoons and weekends, they hope to have volunteers operating the site, with the facility still owned by the state. 

Bresenhan says they were expecting this step to be taken by the state, with no budget passed and four of the six identified sites, including the Priestley House closed their doors today.  (Ali Stevens) 

If you would like some additional information on the Priestley House you may click on the Joseph Priestley House Index Tab on the left side of this page.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Otis King's Cylindrical Slide Rule

This is a stock photo of an OK. I will insert a photo of mine later

I just opened the latest issue of the Journal of the Oughtred Society.  This issue has a picture of an Otis King (OK) slide rule on the cover. I have to unpack mine and take some pictures. I think the most interesting Otis King that I have is the Model N.  It is an early production serial #8365 with the holder 422 scale and the cylinder 424 scale. It is an all chrome plated model with white numbers on a black background scales. It came in a coffin case with the Holburn Viaduct address inside the lid. Mine is in very good condition. According to the JOS article this month it looks like there are three other Model Ns that have been recorded in the literature. However, according to the Dick Lyons table of OKs (Click here).  I found 11 type Ns listed with two of those being white numbers on a black background.

I remember when I bought this OK in Denver at a store on "Antique Row" on South Broadway about 15 years ago. I think the store was called the "Packrat".  I was in Denver doing some forensic work for a client located downtown and had some time to kill between meetings.  I had heard there was one antique store on South Broadway that specialized in scientific instruments.  The store was crammed full of gadgets. There were many pieces of surveying equipment or other pieces related to the mining industry. I can highly recommend it if the store is under the same management.  Prices were a bit steep there. It has been a long time and Ebay wasn't really around then.   I knew this particular OK was different than most of the other OKs that I had seen up to that point. Much has been published about OKs in the literature since then. My suspicion was well founded.  There is something about an OK in the way it feels and moves as you operate it that is very satisfying compared to many other slide rules.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Palmer's Computing Scale

Aaron Palmer patented a slide rule in Boston in 1843. I believe this is the earliest example of an American slide rule.  The "Computing Scale", as he referred to it was available in a number of formats.  In 1846 Palmer apparently sold his patent rights to John E. Fuller. Fuller, in turn, added another circular scale to the original Palmer Computer Scale on the reverse side which would compute the number of days between two dates. Fuller called his scale the "Time Telegraph".
Major variations of Palmer's Computing Scale include:
1.  A 12 inch square hard cardboard device (as shown).
2. A 12 inch square version, as above, with the the Fuller Time Telegraph on the reverse side.
3. Palmer's Pocket Scale, a 10 cm. by 15.5 cm. hardbound book with a smaller version of the 12 inch device attached to the inside rear cover. 48 pp. not including the scale.
4. Key to Palmer's Pocket Scale, the same as 3. above without the slide rule attached to the inside rear cover. This was presumably used as the instruction manual for 1. above. 50pp.
5. Improvement to Palmer's Endless Self-Computing Scale and Key by John E. Fuller. This is like 4. above, but for use with 2. above. 72 pp.
6. Fuller's Computing Telegraph by Aaron Palmer and John E. Fuller, same as 2. above as part of a 22 page book.

I saw one reference to the fact that the use of the word "computing" as associated with the Palmer Scale was the first time that that word was used when referencing a device, as opposed to a person who did that operation.  I cannot confirm this.

Most references to these Palmer devices indicate that it is rare, and the prices they are sold for seem to support this theory.  However, I personally have 12 of them. I did not pay anywhere near the prices I have seen out there.  So, I don't know what to make of this.

Once I bought one of the smaller Palmer Scales on EBay from a fellow in San Francisco. I was in Connecticut at the time and happened to be going to San Francisco about two days after the close of the auction. I asked the fellow if I could come to him in San Francisco to pick it up instead of him mailing it to me in Connecticut. I think I must have spooked him. He refused to agree and insisted that he mail it to me.

Florian Cajori

Florian Cajori (1859-1930) A Swiss American scholar who was one of the most important and prolific writers on the history of Mathematics and Physics during the latter part of the 19th century and earlier part of the 20th century. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States in 1875.  He received a Ph.D. from Tulane University in Mathematics. He was a Professor of Physics, Engineering and Mathematics at Colorado College (1889-1918) and then a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley (1918-1930) and held a chair there in the History of Mathematics.

I spoke with Charles Cajori (b. 1921), his son, a number of years ago. He lives in Watertown near our home in Connecticut.  Charles is an artist of some note.  We spoke about his father and the fact that his papers are housed at the U.C. Berkeley Library. Now that we live much closer to Berkeley I must go over there some day and look through those archival materials. I'm sure it will be very interesting.

Cajori, among other subjects, is known for his writing on William Oughtred and the history of the slide rule.  There is certainly much more historical interest in these areas now than when he wrote his books on those subjects just after the turn of the century.

I have listed below the more substantial works written by Florian Cajori:

A History of Mathematics
A History of Mathematical Notations I
A History of Mathematical Notations II
A History of Physics in its Elementary Branches, Including Physical Laboratories
William Oughtred A Great Seventeenth Century Teacher of Mathematics
A History of the Logarithmic Slide Rule and Allied Instruments and the History of the Gunther Scale and the Slide Rule in the Seventeenth Century
Principia, Vol. I Motion of Bodies by Isaac Newton (translated by Andrew Motte) (edited by Cajori)
Principia Vol. II A System of the World by Isaac Newton (translated by Andrew Motte( edited by Cajori)
A History of the Concepts of Limits and Fluxions in Great Britain from Newton to Woodhouse
The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States
An Introduction to the Modern Theory of Equations
The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler

I know that at Colorado College they had the annual Cajori Lecture for two years back in the 50s, and the Cajori Award for outstanding Engineering students at Colorado College, but I don't know if there is any continuing award of any national or international acclaim in his honor, or if there have been any substantial scholarly work on his life written. I have not found it. If you know of either, I would be glad to hear about it.

I will augment this post with additional information on Florian Cajori as time permits. Of particular note are his volumes that were published posthumously.

"If a lunatic scribbles a jumble of mathematical symbols it does not follow that the writing means anything merely because to the inexpert eye it is indistinguishable from higher mathematics." --Florian Cajori

William Oughtred and the Oughtred Society

William Oughtred (1574-1660) was an English Ordained Episcopal Minister who is best known for his mathematical work. He was a Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge.

Oughtred is credited with the invention of the slide rule in  1622.  While it was John Napier who invented logarithms and Edmund Gunther who invented the logarithmic scale, it was Oughtred who recognized that by using two Gunther scales sliding by each other he could perform multiplication and division more rapidly than on a Gunther scale alone.  He conceived of this as two circular Gunther logarithmic scales.

In addition to the slide rule he is also known for the introduction of the symbols "x" for multiplication, and "sin" and "cos" for the sine and cosine functions, and "::" for proportion. The book he wrote which he is most noted for is Clavis Mathematicae (1631). 

A very good biography of William Oughtred was written by Florian Cajori entitled William Oughtred, a Great Seventeenth-Century Teacher of Mathematics, Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1916. Cajori also wrote History of the Logarithmic Slide Rule, Engineering News Publishing Co., 1909 which contains many references to Oughtred. There are in print reprints of this volume.

The Oughtred Society is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the preservation and history of the slide rule and other calculating instruments. Their goals include the dissemination and sharing of information and encouragement for collectors. They are affiliated with organizations in the United Kingdom, Germany, and The Netherlands with similar goals. The Journal of the Oughtred Society, a scholarly publication is put out semiannually by the Society. They have a number of meetings each year, usually on the East Coast and West Coast.  They have a website: and encourage membership.
When I attended the last meeting in Mountain View, CA on June 27 it was held at the Computer History Museum.  It was great to see so many familiar faces again.

The Hunt for a Curta and Discovery of a Treasure

I had decided that I wanted a Curta calculator for my collection of antique mechanical calculators. It was going to represent the last of my mechanical calculators, chronologically speaking.  I should preface this with the comment that I could have easily gone out and purchased a Curta, but that takes half the fun out of it. Curtas are fairly expensive little gadgets, it would not be hard to spend $600 on a good one.  I like to find my computing collectibles at more affordable prices. I figure, if it costs less, then I can have some money left over to buy something else for my collection.

I know that most engineers who went to school when slide rules were de rigeuer ended up keeping their slide rules even though they never used them after they got weaned onto electronic calculators and computers.  They just feel that after all that time together, you don't just throw one away. You have to have more respect for it.  So, it gets tucked away in some drawer somewhere, and every once in while they run across it and it brings back all those fond memories of years past.  The damn thing has no monetary value, so they don't sell it either.  I have found, when telling people that I collect these devices that they are all to often willing to part with theirs because they know it is going to a good home and it will be treated right and won't be destroyed.

Back to the Curta. I figured that someone who used to enter rally races would be in pretty much the same situation as an engineer and his slide rule.  So, I started tracking down rally car enthusiasts.  It isn't very hard. You find one, if he doesn't have one to spare, then ask for the names of others that he know and their phone numbers. It went fairly fast. I had been looking off and on in my spare time for about two weeks, when this one fellow referred me to another.  I called the individual.

No, he had sold his last year. He had no use for it anymore. He couldn't just throw it out and someone offered to give him $100 for it, so he took it.  I, of course, had explained that I was looking for one for my collection of computing devices.  So, then, out of the blue, he says to me, "Maybe you would be interested in these slide rules we have."  My ears went up. "Oh, slide rules! What kind of slide rules?" He replied, "My wife's grandfather, or great grandfather designed them and she might want to get rid of them. I don't know much about them. You would have to talk to her about them."

His wife eventually got on the phone after I had gotten the names of a few more potential Curta owners. When his wife got on the phone she explained that her great grandfather, Edwin Thacher, had designed these slide rules and she had the original production runs for one of them and a prototype for another.  The former was the cylindrical slide rule that I have already written about, the latter was a Scofield-Thacher Engineer's slide rule. 

I asked her if she would be interested in selling the devices. She indicated that she would. We made arrangements for me to come out to visit her.  

Two weeks later I found myself on the road again.  It was about a 4 hour trip in rural New York.  

A little historical insert is due here. Edwin Thacher (1840-1920) was born in DeKalb, Lawrence County, New York and died in New York City. He grew up as a youth in Herman, NY not too far from DeKalb. He was trained as Civil Engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 1863 and was employed at first on the Cedar Rapids & Missouri River Railroad, and subsequently with the US Military Railroad during the Civil War. Thereafter, he worked for the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad, Louisville Bridge & Iron Co., and as Chief Engineer of the Keystone Bridge Co. He was most noted for his concrete compression bridges and the slide rules he designed to engineer his bridges. He was always plagued by the lack of accuracy in the calculations he performed in designing bridges.  His most substantial engineering project was the design of the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, TN. It was a six-span through truss bridge over the Tennessee River built from 1889 to 1891. It has a total length of approximately 2,370 feet with the longest single span being 320 feet. It is in the National Register of Historic Places.  The Walnut Street Bridge was converted to a pedestrian bridge some time in the latter part of the 20th century and may be the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.  Among the various slide rules he designed, was the cylindrical slide rule that carries his name (in reality, Thatcher[sic] due to a typo) to solve the accuracy problems he was encountering in his bridge engineering design work.

Now, back to the rest of the story. I arrived at the home of the great granddaughter of Edwin Thacher and had a cordial meeting with them.  They produced the various Thacher devices. The K&E 4012 was serial number 1050, indicating that it was the 50th production number produced.  the Scofield-Thacher Engineer's rule was clearly a prototype. They started disclosing what information they knew about him which wasn't all that much, but then they produced their Thacher family Bible.  You should know that way back when it was very common for families to record all the births, deaths, marriages, etc. in the family Bible.  Well, there it was: Edwin Thacher, born October 12, 1839 to Seymour Thacher and Elizabeth (Smith) Thacher.  From there she showed me the family tree, showing her direct descendancy from Edwin. Wow! Was this the Holy Grail squared, or what?  Most of the biographies on Edwin were wrong on the date of his birth. He was not born in 1840 as noted!

We got down to business and discussed the sale of the items.  Their concern was that these were large devices and no one in the family had expressed interest in them and they wanted to make sure that they ended up being taken care of. Yes, yes. I'm real good at taking care of my slide rules.  We talked about the price.  We did not conclude anything at that meeting.  They wanted to think about the whole matter. I did not want to pressure them. I told them I would send them some biographical information on their great grandfather, which I did as soon as I got back home.

We had a number of conversations after that and the conclusion was that they thought they would, at least for the time being, hold onto these family mementos. DARN!!!
So close, but so far from completing the purchase.

By the way, this whole story started out looking for a Curta. Well, I got my Curta a number of months later, but not from the plan I had set out to get it. An acquaintance of mine had a friend who was an engineer who had some slide rules who wanted to give them to me, and while talking to him I learned that he used to participate in rally races. Yes, he still had his Curta, and yes, if I gave him $50 he would sell it to me.
I now have that Curta.