Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2635
KATE IN CODE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, code for Kate. 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.

The past gives up its secrets only by dribs and drabs. You've heard me talk about old Century Magazines. They give tantalizing hints about our forebears' thinking; but we must fill in the blanks.

Example: One Charles Barnard gives a mysterious title to his 1875 short story. It's just a line of horizontal bars: Long-short-long, short-long, long, short. I finally Googled Morse Code and, sure enough, they spell, Kate. The subtitle (written in words) says, An Electro-Mechanical Romance. Telegraphy was the great new technology of those times.

Kate, in code

Kate waving to John Telephones would serve the next generation of Americans. But, for now, our lives were intertwined by telegraph lines. Most Americans would instantly have seen Barnard's title for what it was. Many would've understood what it said.

The story that follows is also odd. It's a literary piece that reads a bit like an extended technical manual. Barnard begins with the words, "She's a beauty." But his She is a locomotive, and he rhapsodizes: "A thing of grace and power, she seemed instinct with life as she paused upon her breathless flight."

Then we meet Kate. She's a telegraph operator at the railroad station. She comes out each day to wave at the locomotive's engineer, John. He sees her, then turns back to his engine. And Barnard's words now seem positively R-rated:

The steam-gauge trembles at 120o, and quickly rises to 125o. The vast engine trembles and throbs as it leaps forward.

Kate wiring her signal Eventually, Kate teaches John to signal his coming by sounding her name in Morse Code on the train whistle. Each day, for a while, she hears that Morse tattoo, runs out to meet the train, climbs aboard -- and rides into the station with him.

But they fear their secret will be found out. So Kate contrives a new means for John to announce his arrival. She invents a trigger device by which the coming train can close a loop in a wire that she's strung out on the ground. It in turn will ring a bell in her office. This involves considerable inventive verve. She has to build her own battery using a pickle jar. But her system works.

Then, one evening the bell rings at the wrong time. John is headed for a collision and he doesn't know it. Kate finds a lantern, intercepts the train, and saves it. She and John are heroes and their story ends with this final flourish: "The winter's stars shone upon them, and the calm cold night seemed a paradise below."

Barnard was a prolific writer, pretty much forgotten today. He liked technology and he wrote engagingly. He reflected a world where new technologies of speed, power, and communication held our hearts. The past opens up to us for a moment when Barnard writes, "How perfect everything! ... From balanced throttle to air brake ... thirty-five tons of chained-up energy ... perfect expression of the highest mechanic art."

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

(Theme music)


C. Barnard,   __ - __    - __    __    -   : An Electro-Mechanical Romance. Century Magazine, May, 1875. pp. 37-46. All images are from this source.

Barnard's story may be read in its entirely by Clicking Here.



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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.