Peking to Paris: The Original ‘Amazing Race’.

Arm-wrestling, thumb-wars, Naughts and Crosses, Snakes and Ladders, Chess and Monopoly, all games of competition, skill, cunning and perseverence. But the ultimate game to mankind is racing. Racing bicycles, horses, snails, huskies, cars, boats and in the world of The Simpsons…Fruit. But in today’s world of racing, where we have the Tour de France, the television show The Amazing Race, the Sydney to Hobart yacht-race and the Melbourne Cup, how many remember a true grandfather of racing, which, by now, took place over a hundred years ago?

Real car nuts, historians or racing-enthusiasts may be aware of this event, but the likelihood of someone else knowing that it ever took place, is rather slim. I’m talking about the granddaddy of motor-racing, the original automotive endurance-test. Forget race-tracks and timers, flags, cheering crowds and the best of the best cars on the road. When this race took place, the car barely existed!…Until then.

Built in 1885, when the black cab of London was still a horse-drawn Hansom on two wheels, the Benz Motorwagen, created by Karl Benz (of ‘Mercedes-Benz’ fame), became the world’s first motor-car. It had seats, it had wheels, it had an internal combustion engine and it had a steering wheel. Or rather, a steering-tiller. Back then, nobody thought the car was anything more than a stupid toy. A giant version of idiotic, clockwork, wind-up tinpot pieces of junk that kids played with. But over the next twenty years, leading into the 20th century, the automobile began to drive a wedge into the world of transport, to proclaim to everyone that it was here to stay.

By the early 1900s, motor-cars were gradually becoming more common, but they were still expensive showpieces, affordable only to the wealthy. Car-manufacturers were few and far-between, but the public were amazed by these new machines and began to wonder if this was…the future? Had something come along that could finally replace the horse and cart? To find out, people decided to take this new toy and see what it could really do.

Le Matin newspaper

Le Matin was a French newspaper, which ran from 1883 to 1944. When it was still being printed, it was a popular, daily newspaper, rising up to 100,000 copies a day in 1900, increasing that sevenfold by 1910. In 1907, it ran the following challenge to anyone who would read it and accept it (translated into English):

    “What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?”

French newspaper ‘Le Matin’; Thursday, 31st January, 1907. Note the title of the article on the top right of the front page

The challenge to drive from Peking, China (modern day Beijing) to Paris, France in 1907, using totally untested automobiles, was taken up by five men:

– Prince Scipione Borghese, accompanied by his mechanic Ettore Guizzardi. They were further accompanied by Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, Sr.
– Charles Goddard, accompanied by journalist Jean du Taillis.
– Auguste Pons and Octave Foucault, his mechanic.
– Georges Cormier.
– Victor Collignon.

Officially, eleven men in five cars started the race, however I wasn’t able to track down the names of everyone who participated. Each car had a driver (the actual contestant) and a journalist to ride as a passenger and media correspondent. The race was to start in Peking and go northwest and later southwest, through the Asian and European interiors. By following an established telegraph-cable route, the accompanying journalists would be able to send back telegraphed reports of the race to keep newspapers in Europe and elsewhere, informed of the race’s progress across Asia and Europe.

The Cars

Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…five cars going across some dirt to some city somewhere…meh. What’s so special about that? Some endurance-test! Pfft!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen. Before you click that tantilising ‘Back’ button on your browser-window, hear me out here. While today something like this might not sound that amazing, five cars driving from China to France, one has to remember the context in which this race was run.

In 1907, cars were only just becoming common on our roads. They were flimsy, delicate machines, with frames made of metal and wood, wire-spoked wheels and delicate glass windscreens. They were started up by grabbing a crank-handle and winding it up until the engine caught on. They weren’t our modern racers that we have today. Half the time you were lucky that the car started at all! It was these, experiemental, new, fantastic horseless carriages that these brave pioneers of racing and consumer-confidence, that the eleven men in the race were attempting to use to cross a distance of…wait for it…9317 miles!…That’s just shy of 15,000km, folks. No mean feat for a machine that had only been invented a few years before and which was famous for breaking down every few miles. The point of the race was to show people that cars could, and would…do amazing things for society, and that if they could conquer this torturous trial by fire, they would have proved themselves worthy to replace the horse and carriage…plus, everyone would want a car! Now that they had proven themselves to be reliable machines.

But what cars were used in the race? Mercedes? Porsche? BMW? You wish.

The five cars used in the race were as follows:

A 1907 Itala. 7L engine with 40HP. That’s Ettore Guizzardi, Prince Scipione’s mechanic, sitting in the driver’s seat, just before the start in Peking. The car was stripped down to bare essentials to keep it light and fast. The weird-looking mudflaps are actually floorboards!

The very same Itala, 103 years later! Now in a museum in Italy

A 1907 Spyker. Actually, THE 1907 Spyker. This very car was used by Charles Goddard in the original race. It was used again in 2007, when a commemorative 100th anniversary rally of the race was held, along the same route

A Contal three-wheeler cyclecar, driven by Auguste Pons and his mechanic. This car was so unique and so obscure that a reproduction of it had to be manufactured from scratch for the 2007 anniversary race. Here it is:

This car was just hell on wheels. The power comes entirely from the back wheel. If the Contal went too fast, the entire thing could flip over backwards, if the front passenger area was not sufficiently weighed down. This caused all kinds of problems for the 2007 reenactors, and probably just as many problems for Pons and his companion, Foucault.

A pair of identical, 10HP, 1907 De Dions, donated by two French car-dealers, were also entered in the race. Here is a photograph of one of them

The Starting Line

The race’s start-date was June 10th, 1907. The contestants were warned beforehand that this race was not going to be a family drive in the countryside. Where the cars would be going, there would be no roads. At best, there were country lanes, furrowed dirt tracks and slippery, fine sand. The cars would have to drive across two deserts and several mountain ranges on their way to Paris, but the contestants were undeterred.

And so, with all this in mind, the race began! On the morning of the 10th of June, 1907…History would be made!…or not. Eleven men in five cars drove off from Paris, excited, eager, anxious and thinking of that big, fat, delicious prize at the end of the run…a magnum (that’s a 1.5 litre bottle, folks) of delicious French champagne! A band played music and Peking locals set off strings of loud, red Chinese firecrackers which exploded everywhere! Crowds cheered the men off on their epic and historic journey.

Peking, 1907. This photograph shows the five cars that participated in the race, driving off into history

The Original ‘Amazing Race’

If ‘Le Matin’s intention was to show the durability of the car and how it could be driven anywhere and do anything, its editors would have been biting off their fingernails like beavers when they saw the dreadful state the race was in, after just a few hours! Everything was going great for the competitors, if you discount the fact that once they got out of the Chinese capital, there was nothing but dirt roads…and the fact that it started raining…and the fact that there was a huge mountain range between China and Mongolia.

The route taken by the race’s competitors, from Peking, China, in the East, to Paris, France, in the West

This first mountain range was the death of almost everyone. The cars primative engines were too weak to power them up the steep and narrow mountain roads and men often had to push the cars up by hand, or get mules to pull on the cars with ropes. Going downhill was no fun either! Cars like these weren’t Humvees or Jeeps, they weren’t designed for cross-country, off-road driving! Their brakes, while sufficient on adequately paved roads, were unable to stop the automobiles on their harrowing downhill slides on the narrow and treacherous mountain passes! Prince Scipione’s Itala went sliding off down the mountain roads with his mechanic at the wheel, struggling to apply the brakes and keep the car on the road! An inch too far to the left or right and the car would go crashing down the side of the mountain!

After the mountains came the Gobi Desert. Here, Auguste Pons and his companion barely made it out alive. Their rickety and unpredictable automobile, which was little more than a tricycle with a gas-tank on it, ran out of go-juice! There were no Shell or Mobil gas-stations around and Pons hadn’t brought spare cans of petrol with him! Deciding that it was too dangerous to continue, Pons and his mechanic/co-driver left the race and headed back to China. On foot. Mind you, this was in the middle of a desert. If not for some wandering Mongolian gypsies, they would’ve died from dehydration! But what about their Contal? It was left to rust in the desert and was never recovered.

The other four racers kept right on truckin’. They knew where they were going because they were able to follow telegraph-wires through the desert, which was their plan, so that they wouldn’t get lost. At one of the checkpoints, a tiny village called Hong Pong in nothern Mongolia, Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist, headed into the town’s only telegraph office to send his report back to Europe. He picked up the telegraph-form to fill out his message and noticed the number ‘1’ on the top of the sheet. He mistakenly assumed that he was the first person to send a telegram that day, from Hong Pong. In a way, he was correct. He was the very first person to send a telegram…FROM Hong Pong! This was the first time the telegraph had been used in the village since it had been introduced back in 1901!

The race was not all smooth sailing, as this photograph graphically illustrates:

That’s Prince Scipione’s Itala, which broke through the deck of a bridge while driving through Mongolia! Fortunately, the car’s well-inflated tyres prevented any serious damage. It took three hours to get the car out of the hole it made for itself, but once on four wheels again, the prince’s mechanic gave the crank a few turns and the car started right up again!

The race certainly took its toll on the cars. And not just by having them crash through bridges! There were flat tyres, engines overheating and a myriad of other problems. To prevent their cars from boiling over in the searing Gobi Desert heat, the contestants fed their cars their own drinking-water! Prince Scipione’s Itala lost a wheel in the race and had to have it remade by a Russian blacksmith halfway through the race! Using only a hatchet to shape the wood, the highly-skilled village wheelwright managed to build a new wheel from scratch for a machine he most likely, had never seen before in his life! Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli, famous tyre-manufacturers, sponsered various race-competitors to use their tyres to prove their longevity.

But of course, cars can only drive so far before they run out of fuel. Fortunately, the race-planners had thought of this in advance. At each checkpoint along the race-track, apart from food, drink and a telegraph-key to send journalistic reports to Europe, there were also fuel-dumps so that the cars could top up on gas during the race.

So far, the cars had gone through everything imaginable. Rivers, blistering heat, flat tyres, overheating engines and now, freezing sub-artic temperatures as the race entered the unforgiving terrain of Siberia. Driving through the frigid air was tricky at best. Charles Goddard was lucky to know how to drive! He’d never been behind the wheel of one of these newfangled…motor-cars…before the race! He had to have lessons on how to drive before he entered!

On the 20th of July, well in the lead, Prince Scipione, his mechanic and their journalist travelling-companion arrived in Europe. They were winning and nothing could stop them! NOTHING!!…ahem…apart from a stubborn Belgian policeman. While passing through Belgium, a police-officer ordered Prince Scipione to pull over! He had stopped the prince for exceeding the speed-limit. The prince gave the officer a good talking-to, explaining that he was in the middle of a race! The officer, on learning that this car with all kinds of weird damage on it, had just driven from nothern China halfway around the world to Belgium, had to consult his superiors before allowing the prince to drive on in the race; he simply did not believe the prince, first time around. Fact is truly stranger than fiction!

On the 10th of August, 1907, the race was over. Triumphant and exhausted, Prince Scipione, Luigi the journalist and Ettore, their mechanic, drove into Paris, the winners! In his final article on the race, Luigi Barzini penned the following lines:

    “It all seems absurd and impossible; I cannot convince myself that we have come to the end, that we have really arrived!”

On the 30th of August, twenty days later, the Spyker, followed by the two De Dions, arrived in Paris. Charles Goddard wasn’t behind the wheel of the Spyker; due to money-troubles, he wasn’t able to finish the race! But his car won second place and that was probably good enough for him! Georges Cromier came third and in last place, Victor Collignon. As Monsieur Pons had never finished the race, he was disqualified and wasn’t offered an official place in the race’s end.

Of all the cars used in the race, the Spyker and the Itala still survive, restored and currently preserved in motoring museums. An interesting little story: Prince Scipione’s Itala, painted bright red for the race, fell into the harbour when it was being unloaded for the big event! To prevent rust, the car was repainted battleship grey…the only paint the harbour-workers had on hand at the time. If you’ve ever wondered why Italian race-cars are red today, it’s because after the Prince won the race aaaaall the way back in 1907, Italy adopted red as its official racing-colour and red remains that colour to this day.

The winning 1907 Itala, as it appears today

As a finishing point, this article was a fascinating bit of history to read, research and write about. Anyone wanting to know a bit more about this historic race can read about it below:

These two links were my main sources for this article and they provided invaluable little titbits and pieces of information while I was reading up on it.


Trishaws & Rickshaws: Taxicabs of the East

If you travel around Southeast Asia, in countries such as Singapore, Japan, China, Malaysia and Vietnam, you might be priveliged to see a small group of men who now constitute a small portion of what was once Asia’s main form of public transport. From the mid-19th century until the 1970s, the rickshaw and the trishaw were two forms of manpowered vehicles which were to be found in abundance in Asia, immortalised in such novels as “The Quiet American”, which takes place in 1950s Vietnam.

These days, stumbling across a trishaw-cyclist or a even more rarely, a rickshaw-puller, is like stumbling across a bakery that still makes bread by hand. You know they’re still out there, and yet when you see one, you’re still amazed that such a thing has survived in our modern, fast-paced, 21st century world, which surely has no place for an old, wrinkled trishaw-cyclist providing a public-transport service which is now more used by tourists than by locals.

During a recent trip to Singapore (If you’re wondering why there’s a sudden lack of articles, that’s why!), I began wondering what it was like back in the “good old days”, when trishaws and rickshaws were more plentiful, or at least, as plentiful, as modern taxicabs, and what it was like to ride in one, operate one and what it was like to live with them heading up and down the streets at all hours of the day and night.

The Birth of the Rickshaw

A rickshaw as most people imagine it, is a two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle. It has a seat for two (three at a stretch) people across the axle of the rickshaw, and two long poles which the rickshaw-puller grips with his hands. As the rickshaw-puller walks or jogs, he pulls the rickshaw along behind him. This mode of transport was invented in Japan where it was called the jinrikisha, or literally, a “human-powered vehicle”.

Rickshaws were common in several Asian countries throughout the 19th century; they were a cheap and fairly efficient form of public transport, they provided ready employment for the unemployed and they were easy to look after. The fact that they also had no fossil-fuels emmissions had not dawned on the average 19th century Asian as another possible asset to the rickshaw’s practicality and fame. It’s generally believed that rickshaws came into the public consciousness around 1868. It was at ths time, during the Meji Period in Japanese history, when Japan was rapidly modernising, that there was a surplus of labour but a shortage of transport. Combining one with the other saw the birth of the rickshaw.

Rickshaws in Japan, ca. 1897

Rickshaws soon became incredibly popular. Before the century was out, there were upwards of 40,000 of them in Tokyo alone. The Japanese government began regulating the construction and operation of rickshaws when it recognised that these would soon become a popular and widespread form of public transport, in need of official regulation.

Rickshaws spread rapidly throughout Asia in the late 19th century, arriving in places such as India, Singapore, British Malaya, Siam (Thailand) and French Indochina (Vietnam) from the 1880s through to the turn of the century.

The coming of the Trishaw

Necessity is the mother of Invention, they say. Right now, Necessity was mothering something new in Asia. The rise of the ‘safety-bicycle’ (the modern, chain-driven, pedal-powered bicycle) in the 1880s saw either very bored or very creative individuals fashion a new form of transport out of their rickshaws. Soon, rickshaw-pullers were cutting up bicycles and adding them onto their rickshaws, either at the front, sides or back, creating three-wheeled vehicles instead of two-wheeled. And with a chain-drive, too! These new vehicles were called ‘trishaws’ and they would be a mainstay in Asian street-traffic from the 1900s until almost the 1980s, when their numbers seriously began to dwindle.

Starting in the mid 1880s, however, trishaw usage began to rise, especially in countries such as Indochina, Singapore and British Malaya. Trishaws were faster, stronger, able to carry heavier loads and for once, people could get somewhere faster than someone could walk them there. There was a tradeoff, however, in that trishaws were sometimes seen as bulky and unmanuverable. Their larger, heavier frames and added mechanics of the pedals, handlebars and chain-drive meant that they could be harder to turn, stop and start than their lighter cousins, the rickshaws. Despite this, trishaws grew in popularity, spreading throughout Southeast Asia.

Trishaws such as this, often made out of modified bicycles, were very common in several East-Asian countries from the 1900s until the 1970s

The 1920s-1950s saw a rise in the number of trishaws. The Second World War saw the need for fast transport throughout Asian jungles, which was best supplied by the humble bicycle. Before, during and after WWII, bicycles were purchased and modified by rickshaw-pullers to create their own trishaws, along with some purposely-built trishaws.

Two British nurses enjoying a trishaw-ride through Singapore, ca. 1946

Operating a Trishaw

Due to the cheapness of their construction and the considerable stamina and bodily strength required to operate one for several hours each day, trishaws were often owned or rented by the poorer members of society. The person who pedalled you around Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Saigon might not be the person who actually owned the trishaw, in most cases, the trishaw might be owned by someone else, who got a cut of the trishaw cyclist’s takings in turn for renting this fellow his vehicle. There were occasions, however, where the trishaw was owned and operated by the person who you met on the driver’s seat, who shouted his prices out at you as you shuffled by in the equatorial heat, promising to get you from point A to point B for “just fi’ dollah, sah!”.

Fares for a trishaw-ride were sometimes fixed within a certain area-of-operation. For example, any trips within the limits of the city center would cost $2, whereas any trips beyond that area were negotiable between the driver and the passenger/s.

Due to their predictably low fares, trishaw cyclists had to work whenever they could, to make ends meet. If this meant working at night or working in pouring tropical monsoons, they did it. Anything to earn a few more dollars, cents, ringgit or baht. Historically (and maybe even still today), being a rickshaw-cyclist was one of the lowest occupations you could have, although considering the kinds of jobs that unskilled workers could end up with, the trishaw offered a certain level of freedom and financial security.

The Trishaw Today

Once restricted solely to Southeast Asia, the trishaw or the ‘cycle-rickshaw’ as some people now call it, also called ‘pedicabs’ or ‘cyclos’ in some places, is now spreading further afield. They can now be found in cities in the United States (most notably New York City), in Europe and even in Australia. The flat landscapes of the cities where trishaws are found means that they can be used there efficiently. The fact that trishaws are quiet, light, relatively fast and non-polluting are making them an increasingly attractive form of transport in recent years, for those who have the planet’s health at heart. Who knows? With increasing pressure to find “Green” ways to power our vehicles, the trishaw might one day replace the taxicab on the streets again…


A Beginner’s Guide to the Fountain Pen

You found one in a drawer, your crazy Uncle Max gave you one as a birthday present, granny gave you one for being a good little boy, you found one on the bus, or maybe, juuust maybe, you actually went out and bought…your very first fountain pen! Yeah? Aren’t you lucky? Ain’t you a happy little camper, huh?

But having found, been presented or bought your first fountain pen, you’re probably wondering…what is it? How does it work? What care does it need and how do I look after it? All those annoying little things that those pesky information-booklets with the pretty pictures don’t seem to cover! If you’ve just bought your first fountain pen, or if you’re asking these questions, this article is for you. Keep reading.

What is a ‘Fountain Pen’?

In the strictest definition of the term, a fountain pen is a writing-instrument which contains its own ink-suppy and delivery-system, which applies the ink to the page via a metal pen-point.

Using this definition, almost any pen in the world could be a fountain pen, yes, including that 20c Bic Cristal on your desk.

But the term ‘fountain pen’ as most people would recognise it, refers to a writing-instrument which uses water-based ink to put marks on paper, via a symmetrical, curved and tapering metal pen-point, made of either gold or steel. If this is what you have in front of you, or within your immediate neighbourhood, read on.

Parts of a Fountain Pen

“…the frilly bit underneath the gold pointy-bit next to the round metal doohickey…”

Bleh! Just as it’s important to know various key components of your car or your computer, it’s important to know the various components of your fountain pen, so that you don’t sound like a doofus when speaking to people on pen forums, pen shops or, if you ever go to one, a pen show. What are the various components of a fountain pen?

Starting from the outside and going in…

The CAP is the cylindrical lid that goes over the writing-point of your pen. Most caps will have at least one CAP BAND. These days, cap-bands are purely aesthetic, but 80-90 years ago, their purpose was to prevent the cap from cracking and splitting into pieces, if you accidently screwed the cap onto your pen too tight. Most fountain pen caps today still screw on, like modern bottle-lids. Such caps are called ‘threaded’ caps (the ‘threads’ are the little spiral grooves in the cap and on the pen).

Attached to the cap is the CLIP (also called a ‘pocket-clip’). The clip is there for you to clip your pen onto the cuff of your shirt-pocket. Be careful not to over-bend the clip, or you could damage it.

The main area of the pen (the rest of the outer cylinder) is called the BARREL. This is where you might find things like company logos, decorations, imprints and other such decorations.

Unscrew the cap of your fountain pen and put it aside.

Here I will pause for a moment to say that not all fountain pens have screw-on caps. Some pens have caps which click or ‘snap’ onto the pen. If you’re unsure if your pen unscrews or clicks the cap off, it’s best to twist first, and then pull, just in case. Twisting a click-on cap will not damage it, but pulling off a screw-on cap could cause significant damage. When handling fountain pens belonging to other people, most people will generally ask “Screw or pull?” (or words to that effect) to ascertain if the cap screws or pulls off of the pen-barrel.

With the cap removed, let’s have a closer look at your pen, starting from the tip, going down.

At the very tip of your pen is the TIPPING BALL. This little ball is made up of very hard metal, which is designed to let your pen write smoothly and to prevent friction-wear from damaging the nib. Traditionally, fountain pens were tipped with the metal known as ‘iridium’, but today, iridium (due to its rarity) is rarely used. Despite this, some nibs will still say “Iridium Point” purely for marketing fun.

Moving down from the tip is the nib itself, made up of two, symmetrical TINES. In the middle of the tines is the SLIT, which runs from the tipping-ball right down the nib to the BREATHER HOLE, which is a round hole in the middle of the nib.

Not all pens have breather holes, some do, some don’t. Not having a breather hole does not in any way indicate an inferior-quality pen. The point of the breather hole is to allow air and ink to move freely in and out of the pen. It’s also there to relieve pressure from writing and stopping the nib from developing cracks.

Directly underneath the nib is a black plastic thing, usually with all kinds of little frilly bits on it (if your pen is a modern one, that is, older pens may not have these). This is called the FEED. It is the feed’s job to deliver the ink from the ink-reservoir to the pen-point evenly and consistently. The frilly bits underneath the feed are the FINS. These are there to act as a barrier to catch any ink that might accidently flood out of the pen as a result of air-pressure changes (such as when you’re up in an airplane).

The whole nib assembly and the feed slot neatly into a grip called the SECTION. The nib and feed are generally held in the section purely by friction, without any glue or adhesives.

Assuming that your pen is a modern one, grasp the section now, and unscrew the barrel and remove it from the pen. Inside here, are more features.

Inside section, once the barrel is removed, you might see a little rod or tube, right in the middle of the section. This is called the NIPPLE (go ahead, laugh!). The nipple is there to hold the CONVERTER or an INK-CARTRIDGE in place. Most modern pens are converter or cartridge-fillers (usually abbreviated to ‘c/c fillers’).

Those are all the basic components of most modern fountain pens. Vintage fountain pens have more components such as BLIND CAPS (which are little caps at the end of the barrel which you unscrew), FILLING-LEVERS (which are found on the side of the barrel), PRESSURE-BARS and INK-SACS (Which are found inside the barrel, attached to the section-nipple). It’s not necessary to worry yourself about these bits and bobs of fountain pen anatomy, unless you’ve found yourself with an old-fashioned straight-sac filler fountain pen.

Care and Feeding of your Fountain Pen

Care and feeding of your fountain pen is like looking after a mechanical watch or an old-fashioned straight-razor. They need periodical care to function at their best. So, how do you look after a fountain pen?

Don’t Press!

If you’ve just bought a fountain pen and you’re used to using ballpoint pens all your life, the golden rule is NOT TO PRESS ON THE NIB. Fountain pen nibs can be fragile and may be easily damaged if not used the way they were intended. Fountain pens write purely by gravity and capillary action, whereas ballpoint pens write through friction. When writing with your fountain pen, you should apply as light a touch to the paper as you can. Pressing or digging into the page should not be necessary at all. If it is, your pen isn’t working.

Fountain pens should be fed a diet of proper fountain pen ink. Fountain pen ink is mostly water with various liquid colours added in. Do not feed your pen Iron Gall Ink, Chinese Ink, Indian Ink, Powdered Ink, Paint, Printer Ink, Artist’s Ink or any other kind of ink. This is not what they were designed to take. If you do, you could risk serious damage to your pen.

Fountain pen inks are widely available. Look for them in your stationery shops or office-supply shops. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a pen-shop somewhere in town. They’re bound to have a plentiful supply of fountain pen inks from a variety of brands in a multitude of glorious colours.

Occasionally wash your fountain pen to ensure that it functions properly. This generally involves filling and emptying your pen’s filling-system repeatedly with cold tap-water. Refrain from using hot water, as this could damage the pen. Lukewarm water is fine. For more intense cleaning, you may want to add a small amount of dishwashing soap or liquid ammonia to the water, but this is only for the really dirty pens which repeated water-rinsing has not been able to clean out.

Once the pen is washed, you can pretty much fill it up with ink and go right back to writing. Don’t forget that fountain pen inks are mostly water anyway, so a couple of drops of water extra won’t harm them. Some people panic about writing with wet pens, though. If you want your pen bone-dry before you fill it up, leave it nib-down in a drinking-glass overnight with tissue in the bottom of the glass, to leech out any leftover water.

Buying More Fountain Pens

Just like mechanical watches, fine wines, books and hardcore pornography, fountain pens have an inate ability to make you want to collect more of them. But where do you get them from!?

Fountain pens are available from a number of sources. The first stop is your local stationery shop. Just head in and ask for fountain pens. If not there, check your nearest arts & crafts shop. They might sell Parker or Sheaffer fountain pen calligraphy kits, which are good and cheap way to start with fountain pens.

Your best bet, of course, is your local pen shop. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll find a shop filled with friendly and knowledgable staff who could answer everything in this article, and even more! They’d be very happy to relieve you of your mone…I mean…assist you with selecting a fountain pen. Such shops generally also stock notebooks, blotting-paper, inks and other paraphernalia such as sealing-waxes and general desk-accessories.

If you can’t find a pen in a Bricks and Mortar location (generally abbreviated to “B&M”), then you can always search online. Believe it or not, there are still a number of people who use, service, sell, purchase and trade fountain pens all over the world. Some of these people sell fountain pens from their websites as a supplement to their income (read as: as a way to help them fund their next pen purchase!). Such people often have a wide range of pens for you to select from, at some very affordable prices. They will generally be very knowledgeable about their stock and will be happy to help.

Last but not least, there’s eBay. Care should be taken when buying pens on eBay, especially Montblanc pens, as these are frequently faked. One should do ample research of the pen that you desire to buy, before plunging into eBay to go hunting for it, armed with your virtual pith-helmet, shotgun and machete.

But I’ve left something out…yes, there’s even more places you can find pens! Try places such as flea-markets, antiques shops and garage-sales. Granted, most of the pens that you find in these places may not be in an immediately usable state, but with luck, a pen-repairman will happily relieve you of your newfound treasure, to return it in a few weeks’ time in working condition.

Types of Fountain Pens

There are, of couse, literally hundreds, dare I say it, thousands, of types of fountain pens out there. If you’re diving into the fountain pen pool for the first time, it’s best to know what you want, first. Online, the main fountain pen community can be found at, where you’ll find me as a member under ‘Shangas’. So, before you make like Betty Boop and dive into the inkwell, swing by the “FPN” with your questions and we’ll try to provide some answers.

If there was something about fountain pens that you wanted to know about but couldn’t find it here, maybe it’s in my fountain pens FAQ page.


Pen Review: Visconti Ragtime LE

For reasons that are unnecessary to elaborate on, I recently came into lawful posession of a Visconti ‘Ragtime’ limited edition fountain pen. It’s #1592 of a total of 1988 pieces (1988 being the year that Visconti was established).

When I decided I was going to get a Visconti, I never thought I’d seriously be getting a Limited Edition Ragtime, but I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed one bit, in the purchase that I finally made.


The pen comes in a handsome, rectangular, red leather box with its own bottle of Visconti-brand fountain pen ink. The box is neatly lined with soft cloth and there’s a small drawer underneath the pen-tray, where the information-booklet slips in neatly, discreetly and out of the way. The box-lid is spring-loaded and it all closes up with a very satisfying ‘snap!’. This is the kind of box that you could open up and put on your desk with the pen nestling snugly and securely inside it, between the sufficiently-padded jaws of the pen-rest.


The pen is very handsome and looks like a real modern classic. It sports fine, marbled-pattern plastic barrel and cap, with neat, gold bands around both; one band around the bottom of the barrel, two bands around the bottom of the cap. The cap has a pretty little gold ‘Jewel’ on the top, with ‘VISCONTI’ on it. The clip-band has the pen’s limited-edition number clearly marked on it, so that you know which pen in the lineup of 1988, you have in your hands.

The section is beautifully-polished gold, the nib is a firm, 14kt gold and writes a solid, fine line. All in all, the pen is a real piece of eyecandy, if it’s nothing else.


The pen is a piston-filler, which is refreshingly different in this world of modern fountain pens which almost invariably take cartridges or screw or push-in converters. The piston-knob is accessible through the blind-cap at the end of the barrel. The knob is also gold, with little ‘V’s all around it. The pen fills smoothly and effortlessly and the blind-cap screws on with no troubles at all. The pen’s construction allows you to see the piston moving up and down inside the pen (if you hold it up to a strong-enough light-source), so that you can tell if the pen’s filling up or emptying out.

Weight and Balance:

This pen is delightfully light and comfortable to use for long, long stretches of writing. Posting the cap doesn’t seem to alter the pen’s balance in your hand at all, unlike some other pens, where the caps seem to be heavier than the rest of the pen, just on their own!

Writing Comfort:

The pen’s light, plastic body and the slippery, smooth nib make this pen a joy to write with. I could easily power through several pages of script before tiring out. Those who use fountain pens purely for those ‘special occasions’ instead of using them for daily writing, have no idea what kind of joy they’re missing out on…especially with a pen as comfortable as this!


Stylish, classic, easy-to-use, light, comfortable and well-presented, this pen scores a 10/10 from me. The Visconti Ragtime LE is, in my opinion, a fountain pen user’s dream. Several people whom I’ve spoken to, have said that Visconti produce the best nibs, and I have to say that, having now experienced one for myself, they were right on the money with that assertion. The nib is smoother than a lubricated ice-cube on a nonstick frying-pan. I could write forever with this pen. Well worth the money, I reckon. Those considering this pen will not be disappointed.


“Back in the Day…”: Everyday Life and How It Was Lived a Hundred Years Ago

Here’s an idyllic, family scene, isn’t it? A little boy or a little girl crawling into his or her’s grandparents laps, cuddling them while the old folks whisper sweet things into their ears and tickle them and give them cuddles…

…eventually, that little boy or little girl asks: “Momma…Papa…what was things like when you were my age?”

Grandparents smile, glad to know that their offspring’s offspring is fascinated with what they have to tell them. So gramps, nanna…what were things like when you were a child?

This year, we proudly celebrate the first decade of the 21st century. But what was it like 100 years ago, back when people were celebrating the first decade of the 20th century? Here’s a few things that used to be, that were commonplace, but which have changed drastically or which have disappeared completely from daily life. How many do you know, or remember?

The Traditional Wet Shave

These days when most of us shave, we think little of it. We turn on the razor, or we click a cartridge into our Mach 3 or our Gilette Fusion and scrape and buzz away like we’re trying to remove varnish from floorboards with a belt-sander. But things were very different back when grandpa was a child. How was it done without fancy, high-tech gizmoes like those eletric buzz-saws we call ‘razors’ today?

Back in the old days, a man tackled this, usually daily task, with something called a straight-razor…

Pretty, innit? A straight-razor (also called by the charming name of a ‘cut-throat’ razor) was the main shaving-tool from about the 18th century until the early 1900s. Straight-razors were kept literally ‘razor sharp’. They required considerable maintenance and a fair bit of skill to use. It used to be that grandpa or great-grandpa would hone and strop his razor at home in the bathroom to keep it sharp. Straight-razors had scoop-shaped blades so that as you shaved, the blade scooped up the shaving-soap and cut stubble as you shaved. Stropping and sharpening took up a fair bit of time. You sharpened the razor against a whetstone or a honing-stone and then you stropped it against a leather and canvas strop, to keep the edge sharp and even. Failure to sharpen and strop your straight-razor properly resulted in cuts or nasty razor-burn! Yeouch!

A shaving accessory of the particularly wealthy men of the 19th and early 20th centuries was to own one of these:

They’re seven-day razor sets, one blade for each day of the week. By using a different blade for each day of the week, the razors required less stropping and honing and sharpening. Of course, with so many more razors, when it did come to having to maintain them, it took a considerably longer time to do so. But if you could afford a seven-day razor set, you could probably afford to pay a valet (a personal manservant) to do all that tedious razor-maintenance for you.

Along with the brush and the blade, you also had shaving-soap. Not cream, soap. You had a cake of soap and a shaving-brush…

Cute little fellah, innie? You used the brush to apply the soap to your face, moving it across your stubble in a circular motion to lather up, spread the soap around and hydrate the skin and lift up the stubble. The brush also scraped away any dead skin. Then, you shaved.

Of course, some people preferred using the new double-edged ‘safety razor’ that came out in 1901. They look like this:

Safety-razors were popular because they were…safer! And they didn’t require as much maintenance. King Camp Gilette, the guy who came up with the safety-razor, cooked up a business-deal with the US. Army. When soldiers headed off to war in 1917, they were all given safety-razors, which led to its widespread introduction into civilian life later on, replacing the straight-razor.

Some people still shave with straights and safeties. They provide a better shave and they cost less money in the long-run. If you can find a vintage blade-sharpener, a single safety-razor blade can last for months, a straight-blade, properly looked after, lasts indefinitely, whereas you’re throwing away and buying cartridge-blades every month. I made the switch to shaving with an old-fashioned safety-razor as a new year’s resolution in early January, and I am never going back. If you want a better shave, go back to basics.

Preserving Food

Have you ever heard your grandparents call a refrigerator an ‘icebox’? Have you ever wondered what an ‘icebox’ was? How did people keep food fresh back in the old days without modern preseratives and refrigerators and all that fancy stuff?

Like me, you probably thought that this was an icebox:

Sorry folks. That’s an ice-chest (also called an ‘esky’). THIS is an icebox:

Iceboxes were common in homes from the 19th centuries until the mid 20th centuries, when home refrigerators finally became practical. It’s a handsome piece of furniture, isn’t it? But how did it work? Did it really have ICE in it!?

Oh yeah. It had ice. Back in the day, the iceman, a neighbourhood institution, would come by your house every week or every two weeks, with a block of ice. He’d come into your kitchen and put the ice into the icebox, close it and head out on his way. The block of ice (which was huge) would keep the food and drinks in the icebox nice and cold and fresh. In the photograph above, the ice went into the top left compartment. The compartment on the right was for regular food-storage such as bread, vegetables and leftovers. The compartment on the bottom, directly underneath the ice-chamber, was for food that had to be kept absolutely freezing cold; foodstuffs such as meat, poultry, fish and dairy-products were put here, to make the most of the chilled air circulating downwards from the ice-compartment above.

If the doors on the icebox above were opened up, this is what you would see

The bottom of the icebox generally had a removable metal pan where the melted water dripped into. This had to be emptied once every day or every second day (depending on the size of the box). Insulation in the box was provided by plates of zinc which kept the cold in and made everything nice and chilly. The huge blocks of ice which the iceman sold to you were kept in massive ‘ice-barns’, huge, insulated buildings where the ice could be stored until it was delivered.

Your friendly neighbourhood iceman. The thing in his hands are the ice-tongs, which he used to handle the MASSIVE blocks of ice, which you can see in the photograph. They often weighed several pounds each

As there was only so much stuff that could fit into the icebox, some food was generally delivered fresh every few days. Dairy products such as milk, butter, cheese and cream were delivered by the milkman, or you purchased them down at the local dairy. The baker’s boy might deliver loaves of bread. But once the food was home, it was your job to make sure it lasted.

Dumping the stuff into the icebox wasn’t the only solution grandpa came up with to keep his food fresh. Food was also smoked in a smokehouse to preserve it, it was dried, pickled, jarred or even canned! And all this was done at home, in the kitchen. Have you ever bought a little jar of fruit-jam and noticed that it says something like “Strawberry Preserves” on the bottle? That’s not just fancy marketing…that’s what it is! It’s preserved strawberries, by turning them into jam and putting them into an airtight jar to keep them fresh!


Schooling has changed a lot since our grandparents were kids. These days we have computers, detention, graphics calculators and learning software to teach us. Back in the early 20th century, teaching was done with a book, a slate, an inkwell and the rod.

Flogging children for misbehaving in school has existed for centuries, and it was only recently abolished in some places. Children could be flogged for almost anything from spilling ink to talking in class to breaking a pen-nib by accident and not having a spare one! (Roald Dahl was flogged for this last, horrific offense).

Schooling was simple, but effective. It concentrated on the ‘Three R’s. What are they? Reading, WRiting and ARithmetic. Or in other words, English comprehension, penmanship and mathematics. Penmanship is a dying lesson in school these days, but back in the old days, you HAD to have nice handwriting, and you were beaten if you didn’t. Teachers used to force lefthanded children to write with their right hands. Why?

There are several theories about this, ranging from devil-worship and sinister evil to bad posture, but there is actually one very simple explanation: The pens.

Until the 1950s, children in school wrote with dip-pens, using liquid ink and inkwells. Dip pens write very wet and glossy on the paper. Writing with the left hand smudged the still-wet ink all over the page, something that right-handed scribblers had no problem with, since they wrote AWAY from their writing, moving across the page from left to right. To prevent the smudging and to encourage neat handwriting, teachers forced children to write with their right hands instead of their left.

Soft Drinks

These days, we don’t give much thought to soft drinks. They come in metal cans or they come in plastic bottles, we open them, we drink them, we burp, we throw them away. We think of them as modern inventions. But they’re not, are they?

Back in the old days, soft drinks were very different. Apart from being cheaper, they were also manufactured and marketed very differently. Coca-Cola, created in 1886, was first marketed as a medicinal syrup! By the early 1900s, it was a popular everyday beverage. Why is it called ‘coca’ cola? Because one of the chief ingredients used to be the product of the coca plant…cocaine! And you didn’t always buy ‘Coke’ in bottle form, either. It used to be that you went down to the local deli, drugstore, cafe, bar or diner and it was served ‘fresh’ to you, specially mixed from a soda-fountain. Coke was first sold in bottles in 1894 (the first experimental bottlings had started a couple of years before in 1891), but in most small towns, you could still order Coke ‘fresh’ out of the soda-fountain, served up to you by an occupation that has since disappeared, along with the soda-fountain…no this isn’t rude, it’s the actual job-title…but a fellow known as a ‘soda-jerk’ used to serve you your fresh, fizzy coca-cola, straight from the fountain. Soda-jerks probably got their name because they were constantly ‘jerking’ on the pump-handles which operated early soda-machines.

Thirsty? A soda-jerk serving up a nice cold one from an old-fashioned soda-fountain

But what if you didn’t have the money to buy soft drinks? What then? Believe it or not, people used to make their own soft drinks! Yep, right at home in their kitchens. Mostly, it was lemonade or limeade, or other fizzy or sweet drinks made from the juice of various citrius fruits. You took lemon-juice, sugar, water and baking-soda (that’s Bicarbonate of Soda or Sodium Bicarbonate) and mixed the ingredients in correct quantities. You left the mixture to stand for a while, to give the baking-soda time to react with the lemon-juice and the other ingredients, the result being that it fizzed up, to create fizzy lemonade. You can still make homemade lemonade like this, and recipes are available on the internet. Some substitute the baking-soda and water for soda-water instead, but the results are all similar. Fizzy, sweet, lemon-flavoured goodness on a hot summer’s day.

Public Transport

These days, we hop on a train, or a bus…we don’t think much of it. But public transport was very different back in the eras when our grandparents and great-grandparents were alive. In the early 1900s, buses as we know them today did not exist. Trains were steam-powered or powered by electricity. Electrically-powered trains ran on very short lines, usually confined to servicing a given city or town, not used to travelling great distances. So, what forms of public transport existed in town back in the early 1900s?

Trolleycar, cablecar, streetcar…tram

Call it what you will, from the 1870s until the 1950s, the streetcar (American English) or the tramcar (British English) was a fixture on many main roads throughout towns and cities around the world. The first trams were horse-powered, but were soon replaced by the safer, more advanced and controllable cable streetcars, which made their appearance on the streets of the world in the late 1870s. Cablecars were powered by a cable in the ground. The car rode on two tracks with a ‘grip’ (a clamp) which went underneath the car, to grab onto a cable set into a special metal trough between the rails. By gripping the cable, steam-power which turned the wheels at the cable-car barns at each end of the line, pulled the cables and pulled the cablecars along as well. The inventor of this ingenious system of transport was inspired to create it after he saw a heavily-loaded horse-tram go sliding backwards down one of the steep and slippery streets of San Francisco, where these antiquated old streetcars are still a major tourist-attraction.

This black and white photograph of a San Francisco cablecar is representative of the type of public street-transport that existed in many American cities throughout the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. Streetcars such as this grabbed a moving cable in the ground, between the streetcar tracks and they were operated by a two-man team: The gripman (seen on the right in this photo) and the conductor (on the left, by the door). Operating a streetcar of this kind required considerable body-strength, since everything was done mechanically and by sheer muscle-power. It was the conductor’s job to look after the passengers and collect fares and issue tickets. It was the job of the gripman to control the cablecar and work the levers which operated the grips (the clamps which grabbed or released the moving cable). It was also his job to operate the brakes and sound the cablecar bell to alert traffic.

In the 1920s and 30s, streetcars began to change. The old-fashioned cable-pulled, steam-powered streetcars were out of date by now. While they continued to exist in some places, many began to be replaced by the faster, more quiet electric trams, which ran along the streets, powered by overhead cables which delivered electrical power to the tram’s motor. They were able to move to more places and do it more efficiently. They had enclosed passenger cabins which had doors that were opened or closed by pneumatic pressure.

‘W’ class trams from Melbourne, Australia such as this one, were fixtures on the streets of the city from the mid 1920s until they were recently discontinued in 2009

Streetcars or trams were a popular and common sight on the streets of many cities around the world until after WWII. In the Postwar World of the 1950s and 60s, people considered trams old-fashioned, noisy, clanky and inefficient. Many tramlines were closed down, the tracks were ripped up or paved over, and bus-routes replaced them. In a select few places, however, such as Melbourne in Australia, San Francisco in America and various towns in Germany, trams or streetcars still exist as a form of practical public transport.

Elevated Railways

Elevated railways are a fast disappearing form of public transport. They used to be really common in the United States. Elevatated railroads ran on steel supports that held the train-tracks up above the roadways which the trains had their routes. Elways were proposed in the second half of the 19th century in the USA. The Industrial Revolution had caused a significant rise in traffic in many major American cities such as Chicago and New York. City planners and transport officials were struggling to find a way to move people around quickly and efficiently and most importantly, in a way that would get them off the streets!

Trains were considered the best way to transport people around, but digging a subway wasn’t always the best option. If you couldn’t go under, then you had to go over. Elways were born.

A typical elway track was supported on a steel frame high off the ground, usually on a level with a building’s first or second floor. This allowed sufficient space underneath for large vehicles such as trucks, buses and streetcars to move underneath without fear of damaging the supports. Elway stations were accessed by staircases that led you from street level up to the raised platforms where you could wait for the train.

A typical elevated railway station (this one located in Chicago, Illinois)

Original elway trains were steam-powered. But as you can imagine, this was ineffective up in the air, where hot coal, ashes and water could spill down into the streets below, so steam trains up in the air didn’t last very long. They were soon replaced by electrically-powered trains, which look very similar to the kind which you see in movies like “King Kong”. They were basically subway trains dumped on tracks which were stuck twenty-five feet up in the air on metal supports.

Elway trains lasted as a means of transport for several decades, but, like streetcars or trams, they were gradually torn down during the postwar years, due to a combination of lower passenger loads and changing forms of transport. A few cities,, such as Chicago and New York in the USA, still have elevated railways, but their presence has much deminished from the 30s, 40s and 50s when they were a common sight around many large American cities.

Communications and Correspondence

SMS, telephones, cellphones, email, Instant Messaging, Skype, Twitter and Facebook…these days we have so many dozens of ways to communicate. We seem to forget that not too long ago, none of this stuff existed, and that if we lived 30 or 40 years ago, we’d be stuck back where our grandparents and great-grandparents were, communications-wise, over seventy years ago.

So, how did people communicate before our modern mumbo-jumbo?


    “…I’m gonna sit right down and Write Myself a Letter…” – Fats Waller

Yep. Snail-mail, as we like to call it today, was the main method of communications back when our grandparents were our age. These days, most people have never written a letter. I don’t mean typing an email, I mean actually writing a letter. With a piece of paper, a pen, a stamp and an envelope. This was how it was done back in the “old days”.

“But it’s so slooow!” you wail.

It is today, sure. But back then it was remarkably fast, even by the standards of the day. Post was delivered a lot more frequently back in the old days than it is today. These days, it’s distributed and sent out once a day. Back in the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s and the 1930s, post was collected and delivered a lot more frequently. In the Victorian era, post was gathered several times a day. The first post was done in the morning. Then at noon, then in the afternoon, then around dinnertime and then the “last post” in the late evening, before midnight, before it all started again the next day.


Telegrams seem funny to most people these days. How could anyone seriously hope to send a message that read something like:

    “Coming into town Monday” STOP
    “Meet me at station 2:30” STOP
    “OOXX to Mary” STOP

Starting in the 1840s and not finally ending until the very early 21st century, telegrams have been one of the longest serving forms of communication in the world. In fact, Western Union, a company more famous today for processing money-orders, used to be the chief provider of telegrams, sending, recieving and processing millions of them every day, a service that they stopped less than ten years ago!

To understand why telegrams were so popular, you have to understand what it meant to communicate any other way.

Communicating by mail was cheap, but it took a long time to get a reply, but, you could write whatever you liked in your letter. Telephones were very fast, but a long-distance phone-call was very expensive…assuming you were lucky enough to OWN a telephone, most people didn’t. And if you did, you probably had a ‘party line’, meaning that you shared a telephone line with at least one other person. You had a specific ring-tone to your telephone so that you knew when to pick it up if there was a call. Telegrams were fast, efficient and cheap, although the messages that you could send on them were short and were able to be read by almost anyone! In the 1920s and 30s, more telegrams were sent long-distance than long-distance phone-calls!

The limited space available on telegraphic forms, combined with the payment method for telegrams caused people to write their messages to be as short and as to-the-point as possible. All unnecessary words and letters were removed to cram as much information as you could into the smallest possible space. This led to a phrase called “telegraphic English” or “Telegram-Style” English, which referred to the clipped, precise English used in telegrams.

Ever wondered why telegrams always read:

    “Congrats on new baby” STOP
    “Will come and visit nxt wk” STOP
    “Love Dave & Sue” STOP

Telegrams were charged by their length, in words and letters and punctuation. Rates and fees varied over time, but usually, it was a set rate for the first ten or a dozen words, (say, 5c), and an additional 1c for every word after ten. So a message taking up twelve words would be 7c in total. Punctuation marks such as commas, full-stops or question-marks cost extra (they were harder to send over Morse Code). Because of this, they were often avoided altogether, and the ends of sentences were marked with the word ‘STOP’.

A typical Western Union telegram

Telegrams were generally delivered by postmen, private messengers or by telegram messenger-boys, who were young lads employed by telegraph offices to send telegrams from the office to their intended recipients as fast as possible. In WWI and WWII, telegrams were used to notify next-of-kin of the death of a loved one in battle. Being a cheap and effective means of communication, telegrams were sent in their thousands to the wives, sisters and mothers of dead soldiers, generally accompanied by the nervous and hesitant telegram messenger-boy, who had the task of delivering the sad news.


Of course, you couldn’t always handwrite stuff. What if you were handing in the draft of a big novel or a report on the importance of thermal underwear to your boss? You couldn’t handwrite the entire thing! What if your handwriting sucked and he couldn’t read it? Well, then you would have to type it, on granpda’s response to the PC, the humble mechanical typewriter…

The typewriter went out of the office and the home study in the 1980s with the coming of the Personal Computer, but back in the old days, this was a key business machine, as essential in the 1930s as a laptop is today. Typewriters are fun to use, but they require a bit of skill and a certain level of finger-strength to operate. The majority of typewriters that your grandparents probably grew up using were the old-fashioned mechanical or manual typewriters. These machines were made of metal and plastic and they were incredibly clunky and heavy. Typewriters allowed you to write faster than you could with a fountain pen, they produced neat lines of text, but without a ‘delete’ button, you had to be a very good typist before you could use one effectively. When you used a typewriter, you scrolled in a sheet of paper and pushed the carriage (that’s the thing on the top that goes back and forth) all the way to the right, so that you started on the left side of the page. As you typed, each keystroke sent a small metal hammer up to strike the page. The hammer hit a cloth ribbon which was saturated with ink. When the hammer hit the typewriter ribbon and then the paper, it left a neat little mark there, corresponding with the mark on the hammer.

As you typed, the carriage moved across the top of the typewriter. At the end of the line, a bell rang. This indicated that you were to finish the word you were typing and then push the carriage back to the right again. Some typewriters had ‘backspace’ keys which allowed you to go back a space to type over any incorrect words.

But what if you had to type out several copies of something? Grandpa would’ve used something called ‘carbon-paper’.

Carbon-paper is a type of paper which leaves marks on anything that it’s pressed against. Grandpa had one sheet of regular paper, one sheet of carbon-paper and then another regular sheet of paper on top. He rolled all three sheets into the typewriter and set to work. As he typed, the keystrokes would hit the first page, and the impact of the hammer-strike would cause the carbon-paper to leave a mark on the second page of this little paper sandwich. When the document was done, you had one ink copy, one carbon copy and one used-up sheet of carbon-paper.

Of course, it was necessary to change typewriter ribbons, and this could easily be done by removing the reel and fitting in a new reel. Typewriter ribbon-reels were purchased down at your local stationery store, along with all your other office supplies. Most ribbons were two-tone ribbons. Half of the ribbon was red and the other half was black. You had a switch or lever on the typewriter which moved the ribbon up or down, depending on whether you wanted to type something a different colour.

Typewriters generally came in two different sizes, gigantic clunking ‘desktop’ models which were almost as big as the PCs that replaced them…

An ‘Underwood’ desktop typewriter

…or the smaller ‘portable’ typewriters, which could fit snugly into a specially-made carrying case, a bit like a briefcase:

A smaller portable ‘Remington’ typewriter in its carrying-case

Most people used the smaller, portable typewriters purely because they were convenient and saved space, but for places where typewriters were permanent fixtures, like secretary’s offices or large business-firms, the larger desktop models were used.

A lot of terminology from the mechanical typewriter has continued to be used in the computer age. Just open up a new email blank in your Hotmail account, or have a look at your keyboard right in front of you. Maybe you see a key that says ‘Return’ or ‘Enter’? Or ‘Shift’? Or ‘Backspace’?

‘Return’ was the CARRIAGE RETURN key on the electronic typewriter which came in the 1960s and 70s. Pressing it returned the carriage to the starting point. ‘Enter’ entered a new blank line on the page so that you could continue typing.

We all know what ‘Shift’ does. That gives us nice, big capital letters. On a typewriter, the ‘Shift’ key literally SHIFTED an entire set of typebars! Moving the lowercase letters out of the way and bringing in their uppercase relations. The ‘Backspace’ key moved the carriage back one letter-space for you to type over any mistakes.

Fountain Pens

When your grandfather or great-grandfather, or maybe your parents were younger, the ballpoint pen didn’t exist. Or if it did, it was looked upon with suspicion and displeasure, since early ballpoint pens leaked their filthy, disgusting paste ink all over the place. From the 1880s until the 1950s, the fountain pen ruled supreme. There are many people who still think that it should…I’m one of them; I’ve been using fountain pens for nearly 20 years and collecting them for nearly five years now. Fountain pens are very long lasting (I’ve got pens in my collection that are nearly 100 years old and work perfectly), they’re stylish, they’re cool, they write wonderfully and they’re smooth and effortless, gliding across the page allowing you to concentrate on what you want to write, rather than whether or not your pen is getting the ink onto the page!

Keeping Time

These days, almost everything has the time. Your computer, your mobile phone, the clock in your car, your blackberry, your iPhone…everything does! But back when the only timekeepers were mechanical tickers, how did you keep time? And how did you know the right time?

The Pocket Watch

A hundred years ago, men didn’t believe in wearing wristwatches. Wristwatches looked like bracelets. And who wears bracelets?

That’s right, the ladies! No self-respecting man back when our grandparents were kids, wore a wristwatch! It wasn’t the done thing! So instead, men wore pocket watches, with watch-chains and fobs. These days, we have all kinds of heavy, chunky metal watches with dials for the day of the week, the day of the month, what second it is and so on…and we think they’re new.

But they’re not.

Pocket watches had this, and more, back when our grandparents were kids. Chronograph chronometer pocket watches had all kinds of bells and whistles, everything from repeaters (little gongs inside the watch that chimed the hours and minutes), moonphases, days, dates, months and more. If you think something is new, think again.

This 1902 Patek Philippe 18kt gold-cased pocket watch was made for Tiffany & Co. It sports a minute-repeater, a stopwatch function and a seconds subdial (which was standard for most pocket watches). The little lever on the bottom of the watch (on the left) activated the minute-repeater while the button on the top left activated the seconds hand to use the stopwatch feature

Pocket watches lasted a long time, not finally ceasing regular production until the 1960s. Many fine pocket watches are kept in families and are handed down as heirlooms, which is what most of them are these days. But be brave and take out your antique pocket watch and wear it anyway! Don’t forget that these weren’t always antiques; they were meant to be used! I own two pocket watches and wear them regularly.

The Wristwatch

The wristwatch came out in the 1910s after WWI. Originally shunned by most people (who continued to wear pocket watches regularly well into the 1950s), the wristwatch soon gained acceptance amongst the world’s men and women, being sold for a long time alongside equally stunning pocket watches. Women’s watches were small and petite, often no larger than a small coin (even smaller than a quarter!). Men’s watches were also rather small. The 1920s-1940s saw the rise of the ‘tank’ style watch, which was very popular because it was so unique. Instead of being round, it was square or rectangular and it’s a wristwatch style that remains popular to this day.

A 1930s gold-cased ‘tank’ style Hamilton wristwatch

Wind-up watches

If your watch has died on you, you may hear your grandfather absent-mindedly tell you to wind it up. My grandmother used to tell me that!

All watches back then were mechanical. You had to wind them up every morning for them to keep accurate time. There’s no reason why you can’t wear a mechanical watch, many people still do…I do! But if you decide you want to wear your grandfather’s pocket watch or wristwatch, be sure to treat it carefully. Don’t bump it or drop it or get it wet. And like your car, get it serviced regularly. As a rule, a mechanical watch in regular use should be serviced once every five years. Don’t expect your watch to keep amazing time, instead, be amazed by the time that it keeps. My regular pocket watch, seen in this photo here…

…keeps time to a minute a week, despite being over 100 years old and on the lowest end of the scale of decent quality pocket watches. Don’t think that old = bad. Old might also mean great, just superseded by something greater.


“We Will Never Forget September 16th…”…or Will We? The 1920 Wall Street Bombing

Those of us who remember the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks, when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan and into the Pentagon, in the USA, will all remember where we were on that day. I was a young, 14-year-old schoolboy at the time, and I remember watching it on television.

But how many of us have heard of what happened on September 16th? Not September 16th 2001…no, this happened a long time ago.

In fact, it happened in 1920. The 16th of September, 1920. But what happened on that day? The Wall Street Bombing, of course. One of those famous criminal acts which has since drifted off into the fog of history.

What Was the Wall Street Bombing?

The Wall Street Bombing was just one of several terrorist attacks which took place in the USA in the early 20th century. This particular attack was the most devastating event until the Bath School disaster (where a school was blown up with explosives). The Wall Street Bombing took place at noon, on the 16th of September, 1920.

In the early 1920s, the United States was enjoying the coming boom years of the Roaring Twenties, brought on by post-WWI prosperity. Nowhere was this prosperity more evident than on Wall Street, in Lower Manhattan, the center of the financial world. It was in this bustling nook of trade and commerce, that the attack happened, killing and injuring dozens of people during the midday rush, all in a matter of seconds.

What Happened during the Bombing?

These days, we’d probably call it an “IED”, an “improvised explosive device”, or to use the common parlance, a ‘car-bomb’. Or more specifically, a ‘cart’ bomb. Just before noon on the morning of the 16th of September, 1920, a horse and cart, loaded with dynamite and sash-weights (small, metal weights used in the construction of double-hung windows), pulled up outside 23 Wall Street, the J.P. Morgan Bank. It’s estimated the cart contained 100lbs of dynamite and up to 500lbs of metal shrapnel. Shortly after noon, the dynamite was detonated, destroying the cart, killing the horse, and sending hundreds of pounds of metal shrapnel flying through the crowded, luncthime rush on Wall Street!

The J.P Morgan building (on the left) directly after the explosion

The J.P. Morgan Bank building, at 23 Wall Street, as it appears today

The bomb-blast could be felt right across the narrow thoroughfare. Its victims were mostly messengers, couriers, stenographers and stockbrokers, moving between their various places of work. The blast killed thirty-eight people and wounded four hundred bystanders! The interior of the J.P. Morgan bank, which the cart was parked outside, was severely damaged by broken glass, masonary and flying shrapnel.

This car was destroyed in the Wall Street blast

Several other buildings on Wall Street were significantly damaged. Cars, trucks and other vehicles nearby were flipped over and smashed from the force of the exploding dynamite, as you can see in the photograph above. Within minutes, emergency services were on the scene to clear up the wreckage and treat the injured. Here, New York City policemen can be seen assisting the wounded:

The injuries sustained in the blast were horrific. A stockbroker was decapitated by the flying debris, his headless body found in the street, a packet of work-papers and stocks still clutched in his hands. One man was blinded in the explosion and lost the use of his eyes. Dead bodies lay everywhere. Initially, the death-count was low, but the appalling injuries soon caused it to rise to the number of 38, which was the official number of deaths caused by the blast.

This photograph, taken directly after the explosion, shows the sheer destruction it caused. Note the blown out automobiles and the rubble in the street

The aftermath of the Explosion

Terrified and furious New Yorkers were quick to condemn after the blast that killed over three dozen people and horribly maimed and injured up to four hundred more of their fellow friends, colleagues, family-members and just plain fellow New York citizens. The BOI (that’s the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the current FBI) immediately launched an investigation into the attack. Business-owners and the Board of Governors for the New York Stock Exchange were anxious to start trading and business as soon as possible. The street was cleaned up overnight (literally) and trading resumed the next morning.

Investigators theorised that the bombers might have been communists or anarchists. Why else would they wish to attack America’s centre of wealth, business and finance? The noted newspaper, the Washington Post, declared the bombing an “act of war”. While the BOI theorised about possible foreign terrorist groups, the police started investigating the source of the horse and cart. Despite checking dozens of stables and mewses (a ‘mews’ is similar to a garage, where horses and carriages were kept in cities and towns), they were unable to find out who had purchased, or perhaps stolen, the horse and cart which was used to transport the dynamite to Wall Street.

Eventually, a note was found inside a mailbox, a block from 23 Wall Street. It read:

    “Remember. We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be death for all of you.
    American Anarchist Fighters!”

Why the note was not discovered sooner, is uncertain. It read more like a warning rather than a threat of action, since no time was given to act on it. In the end, despite assurances to the public that they were doing their best, both the NYPD and the BOI were unable to arrest anyone in relation to the bombing and nobody was ever charged. Popular investigative and public theories suggested that communist groups or anarchist forces were to blame for the terrorist attacks, although this was never firmly proven.

Have you ever been to Manhattan? Have you ever gone down Wall St. and seen these chips in the outer wall of the J.P. Morgan building, and wondered what they were? These pock-marks were smashed and chipped into the structure by the flying shrapnel from the 1920 bomb-blast