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The Scrivener: 1879 To 1901 —Eras Come And Go

…Among the family heirlooms, I have a quill pen which was probably used by my grandfather. Unfortunately, it is now rather grubby because when I was a boy I used it with Indian ink to practise ornate lettering…

Brian Barratt considers objects, words and inventions that came into being in the 22 years between his father’s birth in 1879 and the the death of his father’s father in 1901.

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Dusty old history comes to life when it involves people who are or were close to you. I've been digging around in the 22 years between my father's birth in 1879 and the death of his father in 1901. New words and titles show how things changed during that short period. Here are just a few of them and the years when they came into use:

microbiology 1880
enzyme 1881
Metropolitan Opera House (New York) 1883
microphysics 1885
Dunlop tyre 1888
geophysics 1889
astrophysics 1890
Crufts Dog Show 1891
cholesterol 1894
time machine (per H.G.Wells) 1895
cinematography 1897
synapse 1899
Commonwealth of Australia 1901

Among the family heirlooms, I have a quill pen which was probably used by my grandfather. Unfortunately, it is now rather grubby because when I was a boy I used it with Indian ink to practise ornate lettering. My father probably used steel nib pens but when he was five years of age an American insurance salesman, Lewis Waterman, invented the first successful fountain pen. It wasn't long before self-filling fountain pens were on sale. Ballpoint pens came onto the market after WWII, thanks to the work of Hungarian brothers Ladislao and Georg Biro. My father bought one for 34/11d (one pound, fourteen shillings, and eleven pence).

Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were working independently on internal combustion engines and motorised vehicles at the end of the 19th century. In 1885, when Dad was six years of age, Benz produced a tricycle with a 4-stroke petrol engine which helped to open up a new era in transport. Dad told us that he had a motor-cycle when he was young. It was an Indian with a wooden frame and leather belt drive. I imagine that must have been before the 1920s, when he was a handsome, dashing young chap with an eye for the ladies (which he retained).

Another of my family heirlooms is a framed daguerrotype or ambrotype photographic portrait for Dad's formidable grandmother. Work had been done on photography for a long time, but in 1888/89 George Eastman eventually produced items which would bring it to the mass market — flexible rolls of film and the Kodak box camera. As a boy, I used the family's Brownie box camera, which produced high quality photos if you handled it carefully. Dad said that it had been offered by a popular weekly magazine, at some time he didn't specify. He bought one for 1/9d (one shilling and nine pence). The magazine soon realised that they had been selling them too cheaply and asked customers to return them for a refund, my father told us. That might have been one of his taller stories. Anyway, he kept his.

Back to the family heirlooms — I have a photograph of Dad at the age of about 13, wearing a suit bought for him by his favourite, and only, uncle. It's an ill-fitting heavy tweed affair, with five buttons down the front of the waistcoat and an lumpy looking fly in the long trousers. No doubt the fly also had buttons. Zip fasteners were not available in 1892, but the first slide fastener was patented in 1893 by a Chicago engineer, Whitcomb L. Judson. The product was gradually refined, and used in American military uniforms in WWI. It did not become really popular, as the zip, until the 1920s.

My father bought our first and only wireless set (radio) in 1935. We were still using it when we left England in 1953. It was a Marconi. Now there's an important name from history! Guglielmo Marconi established his Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. It became Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900. He experimented with wireless transmission at the time Dad was in his 20s and famously transmitted a message from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901.

Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, and Dad's father died just two months later. Thus ended the Victorian era. But another era unfolded. By the time my father turned 40, the world had been changed by yet more innovations and inventions including fax machines, electric toasters, neon lighting, windscreen wipers, safety razors, and electric razors — but Dad insisted on using his old cut-throat razor and leather strop all his life. Notwithstanding his Biro pen, he wasn't all that keen on progress.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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