Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1020:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1020.

Today, WW-II bombers and a new machine for a Shakespearean scholar. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Richard Altick tells about Charlton Hinman, a literary scholar who spent four years in the Navy during WW-II. An ongoing riddle in his field had to do with a set of nine Shakespeare plays. In Shakespeare's time, plays were printed individually and sold unbound. An owner might eventually take a random set of plays to a bookbinder and have them bound into a volume. But these nine plays, with dates between 1600 and 1619, repeatedly showed up in the same volume. That made no sense.

Scholars had used photography on the problem. After carefully measuring photos of the pages, they'd cooked up a theory: the printer, who'd been barred by law from printing these plays, did print them all in 1619. But he backdated most of them. That way he was able to sell them as though they were old copies.

The detective work had meant searching almost identical pages for tiny differences -- like nicks on individual pieces of type. But the mind-numbing work was still inconclusive. Hinman wondered if the job couldn't somehow be automated!

Meanwhile, American bomber squadrons were asking an oddly related question: how could they spot bomb damage from photos? Before and after bombing raids, scout planes would photograph the area from the same altitude and angle. But how to compare photos?

Then someone had a bright idea. Take the two pictures and play them on a screen in rapid alternation. The result would be one clear picture, except for any spot that changed from one picture to the next. It would appear blurred on the screen.

Nice idea, but it was next to impossible to get two photos from the same place in the sky. It didn't work, but it gave Hinman his answer. You couldn't get identical pictures of Earth's surface, but maybe you could get identical photos of printed pages.

After the war, in Washington's Folger Library, Hinman built an apparatus from packing crates, erector sets, and cardboard. It sort of worked. But the old aerial bombing problem lingered. Even book pages are hard to photograph precisely. Then Hinman entered the second stage of the inventive process -- he made a leap of creative simplification.

The fact that his idea had been triggered by photography didn't mean he had to keep using photography. He realized he could simply line up the two actual texts, side by side, and view them in rapid alternation through an optical system.

So he invented the machine we still use to do that task: the Hinman collator. With it, he ended debate over the nine Shakespeare plays. But more than that, Charlton Hinman had managed to beat a flawed sword into -- a most unexpected plowshare.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

R.D. Altick, The Scholar Adventurers. New York: The Free Press, 1966, Chapter VII, The Scholar and the Scientist. I am most grateful to attorney Stephen Hamilton of Houston for providing the intriguing Altick source.

As  an  example  of  the   problem  of comparing
texts,  try  comparing  these  two passages,  one
above  and one below,  in an attempt  to discern
what four things are different on either one.  You
will  find that it's harder  to identify the differen-
ces than you  would expect.

As an  example  of  the problem  of comparing
texts,  try comparing  these two passages,  one
below and one above,  in an attempt to discern
what five things are different in either one.  You
will  find that its  harder  to identify the differen-
ces than one  would except.                             

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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