Amazing Stories/Volume 01/Number 03/Some Minor Inventions
Dr. Hackensaw's Secrets
"This machine you see here is only useful for commercial purposes. All my French business letters are dictated to it in English, and
the French translations it makes are wonderfully good."
DOCTOR HACKENSAW has his secrets, but most of our readers make no secret of the fact that they appreciate the doctor's work. The author has the knack—or perhaps we should call it, the quality—of helping the doctor present the most extraordinary, wonderful things in such a manner as to make them appear both plausible and possible. Here this ingenious inventor, explains to us some of his comparatively simple inventions, giving us a machine with which to can bread, another to do away with the human typist—and even translator entirely—etc.—all useful machines. Still he is dissatisfied—so he always goes ahead, ever seeking new improvements. Usually he succeeds. Here is food for thought—and experimentation—even if the story is humorously told, it is full of interest and new ideas.
Doctor Hackensaw looked up with a smile: "I'm spending five minutes spare time in writing a few thousand autographs for that class of people of whom one is born every minute, if not oftener."
"But what's that queer machine you're using?"
"This, Pep, is one of my minor inventions—a little device designed to save the time of authors, movie-stars, and other celebrities. As you see, the machine is simplicity itself. It consists of one hundred stylographic pens connected in ten rows of ten pens each, rigidly held in a frame-work. I write my autograph with an extra pen, a master-pen, which is attached to the frame-work, thus causing each of the other pens to make the same motions. By writing my name once, with the master pen on a sheet of cardboard on the table, I get one hundred signatures on the cardboard, which is then cut by machine into a hundred separate visiting cards, each bearing my autograph. I can thus write a thousand autographs in the time it would take another man to write ten. I may add," continued the doctor, chuckling, "that I have made some life-long friends among actors and other celebrities, and even among business men and government officials who have numerous documents to sign, by making them a present of one of these machines. Many of these people are so grateful that they would be willing to do anything for me."
"You must have made a lot of inventions in your life-time!" observed Pep.
"Yes, hundreds of them," returned the doctor.
"As I happen to have some spare time now, I can show you a few, if you care to see them. The first one you see is what I call a 'Dictation Typewriter.'"
"A 'Dictation Typewriter'. It's a substitute for the gum-chewing, face-powdering, flirting stenographer, and type-writist. This machine is warranted never to have a fit of the sulks."
"That's great! But how did you do it?"
"Of course I understand that you can do away with a stenographer by dictating into a phonograph, but how can you do away with the person who hammers the keys?"
"The problem is not as difficult as it seems. My object was to do away entirely with the young lady. An employer is often obliged to let his stenographer see letters which he would prefer to keep confidential. Then too, think of the sums spent yearly for stenographers and typists. Go into any large business house and you will see a roomful of girls busily typewriting, when the work could be automatically done by machinery."
"I will explain. My first idea was merely to simplify the work of the type-writer. At present her delicate hands have to hammer at the keys all day and she is subject to the malady known as 'type-writer's cramp.' It struck me that the work could be made much less fatiguing by pressing the keys by electricity instead of by the fingers. I found that by dipping the tips of my fingers in a solution of copper I could make sufficient contact, by touching a type-writer key to switch on an electric current that would press down the desired letter. The keys, you understand, remained stationary, it was only the type that moved. There was no time or energy lost in pushing down the keys and letting them rise again. A dexterous person could write several times as fast as with the most rapid present-day typewriter. Every touch meant a letter. As the keys were motionless they could be crowded close together, separated only by insulating material. I saved so much space that even using separate keys for the capitals and shift-letters, my keyboard was smaller than the standard size. The typewriter itself was greatly simplified as all moving parts were done away with except the few simple ones necessary to turn the type-wheel which contained the letter on its rim. Each touch released a plunger that forced the wheel against the paper, writing the character desired.
"So compact was my machine and so simple, that I found it desirable to duplicate the letters most often used. For example, there are five 'E's' on my keyboard at different convenient places so there is always one at hand when desired. This increased speed so much that the typist could take dictation as fast as a stenographer. Of course, with electricity it was a simple matter to connect all five keys to the letter 'E' on the wheel in such a way that making the contact on any one of the keys would close the circuit.
"If I place my finger, coated with metallic copper, on any one of the five keys the circuit is closed and the letter 'E' is struck."
"But," objected Pep, "no girl would be willing to copper-plate her fingers like that!"
"No, that was just my first rough idea. My next improvement was to do away with any touch at all. I wanted a vocal typewriter—one that could be worked entirely by the voice. The mere articulation of each letter must be sufficient to close the proper circuit and print the letter."
"Would that be possible?"
"Entirely so. My first model consisted of a series of gas jets so constructed that each flame flared up as soon as some particular letter was spoken. This flaring up closed an electric circuit and the letter was typed. In practice, however, such a machine was too delicate for general use, the great difficulty being, keeping the gas jets properly adjusted, in spite of differences of temperature. But I finally devised a machine that worked with a phonograph. When the letter was spoken the vibration of the diaphragm would turn on the proper current to strike the letter."
"How about capital letters?"
"In dictating, it is necessary to use the prefix 'cap' when you wish the next letter to he a capital. Thus, if you were dictating the name 'Dickens' you would have to say: 'Cap D-i-c-k-e-n-s' and the machine would write the word properly with the capital 'D.'
"Flushed with my success I decided to go further and write whole syllables instead of letters. By using the phonograph there was no limit to the number of different keys I would use, hence I could have separate keys for thousands of syllables, although the typewriter itself needed but twenty-six letters."
"How did you manage that?"
"Each syllable key was so arranged that when depressed it switched on in turn all the letters which spelt the syllable. Thus when I spoke the syllable 'be,' the key tuned to work when this sound was uttered, received the electric current and, in descending it switched a second electric current on to the letters 'b' and 'e' in turn so that these two letters were written on the paper. A man could then dictate his letters to the machine just as he would to a stenographer."
"How about syllables that sound alike but are spelled differently, like 'Pa' in 'Paper' and 'Pay'?"
"Ah, that was the stumbling block. To avoid it I made my first machine to write Italian, as in that language, words are spelt as they are pronounced. But I found that even in English there were not so many syllables that sound alike and are spelt differently, and I realized it would be a very easy matter for the dictator to learn to pronounce them slightly different. Thus, the syllables 'dough,' 'doe,' and 'do' could be pronounced somewhat as they are spelt. A man could learn the proper pronunciation in an hour and the machine would then spell each properly."
"Then you succeeded?"
"Perfectly. My first machine had to be tuned to suit the voice of the dictator, but experience soon taught me to leave enough play so that the machine would answer to any voice. Try it yourself, and see how it works. Don't shout, just speak quietly into the mouthpiece just as you would at a telephone."
Pep accordingly took up the mouthpiece and spoke a few sentences, with some coaching from the doctor as to the proper pronunciation, and was delighted to see that the machine typewrote from her dictation without a single error.
"That's great!" cried Pep.
"Isn't it! I was so delighted with my success that I didn't stop there. It was an easy matter to make a phonographic record that would repeat the dictation automatically as often as required and thus make a thousand typewritten copies from dictation, if desired.
"Even this didn't satisfy me. I resolved to go a step further and build a typewriter that would translate my dictation automatically into several different languages. I dictated in English and the machine, at my dictation typewrote copies in English, French, German and whatever other language I desired."
"But," objected Pep, "that is impossible! You can't make a machine think! You can't translate without thinking and no steel springs or electric currents can ever be made to think!"
Doctor Hackensaw laughed, "That isn't the first impossible thing that I've made possible. Pep," said he. "As a matter of fact, the thing is simple in theory—though it is complex in practice. If it were sufficient to translate word for word, the problem would be easy. Say there are a hundred thousand words in use in the English language. It would only be necessary to have one hundred thousand keys to spell the corresponding word in the foreign language. It would be no more difficult than my dictation typewriter, though it would require more keys.
"But the problem is far more complex. Words spelt alike in English such as 'row,' (a line)' and 'row' (the verb) would have to be translated differently into German or French. It is therefore necessary to make these similar words different when dictating. I accomplish this by saying 'row 1', 'row 2,' 'row 3,' according to the meaning of the word I use. The proper German equivalent is then released. Of course this means that the dictator must spend months in learning to dictate, but he need know only English and his dictation will be automatically translated into any language desired."
"How about idioms, special phrases, proverbs and so on?"
"Each idiom must, of course, have a key of its own. This necessarily multiplies the number of keys. All the keys you see in this room are parts of my machine for translating into French. My 'inversion' keys will give you some idea of the many problems I had to meet and solve. In French every noun is either masculine or feminine, and its adjectives must agree with the noun in gender. For example: Horse is masculine and table is feminine, so a 'good horse' must be translated 'un bon cheval' and a 'good table' 'une bonne table.'
"In French, too, most adjectives follow the noun instead of preceding it as in English. A Frenchman does not say 'a black horse,' he says 'un cheval noir' (i.e.) 'a horse black,' Also, French verbs must agree with their subject. Then, as you remarked, there are a large number of idiomatic phrases. All these difficulties, however, I overcome by an arrangement by which no typewriting is done before a complete sentence is dictated. Automatic 'inversion' keys enable me to get the proper construction of words and their proper terminations."
"I don't understand you."
"I will explain. The adjective 'black,' in French may be either noir, noire, noirs or noires, according to the gender and number of the noun that follows. My key for the adjective 'black' can write any one of these four words. If the first noun-key that follows is masculine, plural, it is provided with a finger that turns around the key "black' so as to write the word noirs. As the adjective 'black' must always follow the noun, the key "black' is also provided with an inversion device that prevents it from typewriting its word until the noun that follows it is typewritten, so that if I dictate the words: 'black horses,' the machine will write automatically 'chevaux noirs.'"
"Isn't that awfully complicated?"
"Yes, but not as complicated as it seems. However, this machine you see here, is only useful for commercial purposes. All my French business letters are dictated to it in English, and the French translations it makes are wonderfully good. Some day, when I have time, I shall construct a translating machine that will make really literary translations, but I cannot at present spare either the patience or the time and money required. Besides there would be little demand for such a machine. These commercial machines, however, fill a real need. Every large business house needs one. The expense is not prohibitive as business letters require only simple sentences and stock phrases that keep recurring all the time. My machine can translate business letters and simple phrases like, 'Have you the parrot of your grandmother's cousin?' That's about the highest limit of real literature that my machine will translate."
Pep laughed. "Your idea seems good," said she, "but this machine is much too complicated. Couldn't your efficiency experts simplify it a little?"
At the words "Efficiency expert" Doctor Hackensaw snorted.
"Don't talk to me of efficiency experts. Pep," said he, "unless you want to drive me crazy. I have no use for them! Understand me, I believe in organization. Organization is necessary for everything—even for a college-yell. And I highly honor the efficiency expert who organizes a business so that the article to be manufactured enters at one door, passes in turn to each of the men who have to work at it, and goes out to the delivery wagon without traveling a single unnecessary foot. I also honor the man who lowers the cost of goods without sacrificing the quality. But the efficiency expert who spends his time seeking to save one screw on a machine, or a button or a stitch on a garment is a menace to society. In making any machine, engineers allow for what is called the 'factor of safety.' They know that every machine at times will be called on to sustain undue strains or stresses, and they allow a margin of strength to meet these unusual demands. The efficiency expert, however, spends his time paring down this factor of safety, cutting out a screw here, a nail there, and producing an article that will give way at the least unusual strain, leaving the owner in the lurch at a time when the idle machine means a loss to him many thousands of times the cost of the extra screw. Such experts are the bane of my existence. Only once in my life did I ever have occasion to bless an efficiency expert."
"When was that?"
"When I was a young man, Pep, I fell in love with a pretty girl and I bought a new suit of clothes on the day when I decided to propose to her. But the tailor I bought it from was an efficiency expert who had found means of saving three stitches on every pair of trousers he made, and thus increasing his gains one-tenth of a cent on each pair. The consequence was that when I got down on my knees to propose to the idol of my heart, there was a ripping and tearing sound heard as the trousers gave way at the seams. Burning with shame and confusion I jumped up and backed out of the room in as much haste as was possible under the circumstances, and I never dared go near the young lady again."
"Well, I understand now why you don't like the efficiency experts!"
"Not at all. At the time I felt like strangling the fellow, but afterwards I would have done anything for him. The girl married another man, and I remained free all my life!"
Pep laughed, and Doctor Hackensaw continued:
"There is one field where efficiency experts could do useful work, and that is in the standardizing of the parts of different machinery. At the present day we have standard sizes of screws, nails, bolts, etc., and this standardization has proved a great blessing. It would, however, be possible to, extend it to a great many castings and other parts of machinery. Certain parts of one automobile, for example, should be capable of use on others or on aeroplanes or other machinery. Very slight changes in the patterns would often make this possible and lower the cost of production while at the same time it would facilitate repairs."
"What is that next machine you have there?" asked Pep.
"That's a simple little attachment to prevent the theft of automobiles. When you leave your car, press a hidden switch. The burglar comes, starts the auto without trouble and makes off. But as soon as the car begins to move, a sign appears at the back! 'THIS CAR IS STOLEN!'
"The sign disappears as soon as the car stops, But you will have no trouble tracing your car, for a crowd will gather, and the driver seeing how much attention he is getting will take the first opportunity to escape. Yet he won't know what caused the excitement as the sign has already vanished."
"Next to that machine you will see another, canning bread,"
"Canning bread!" echoed Pep.
"Yes; while traveling abroad, I often found it difficult to obtain nice fresh rolls, and to attempt to carry a supply was out of the question as they became stale in a few hours. Travelers in the wilderness are obliged to carry flour and bake their own bread frequently or else consent to live on hardtack and crackers. They would willingly pay the small additional cost for canned rolls or canned sandwiches. If they were put up in tins filled with nitrogen instead of ordinary air, the rolls will keep perfectly for years. If properly sterilized and sufficiently moist when packed, they will be as fresh when opened as when first sealed."
"And that very peculiar machine next to the sandwich canning machine?" asked Pep.
"That," replied Doctor Haekensaw proudly, "is one of my greatest triumphs in inventing. That is an Automatic Judge. Our courts are now all overcrowded with cases. This machine will automatically listen to the pleadings of the contending parties and give a just decision. In fact I'll guarantee the decisions of the machine to be equitable in 999 cases out of a thousand—which is a larger proportion than any judge I ever heard of can boast."
"How ridiculous!" retorted Pep, "Whoever heard of an 'automatic judge!' Why such a thing is impossible! A machine can't possibly think—or have judgment!"
Doctor Hakeensaw chuckled. "It would seem so, Pep," said he, "but I assure you I am perfectly serious when I say the machine will do what I claim for it. It seems impossible, but as in the case of the translating machine this is only one of many 'impossible' things made possible."
"But how does it work?"
"I'll tell you, for the basic principle is extremely simple. I have had a great deal of experience in the courts and I have noticed that the man who is in the wrong always secures the best lawyer. The man who knows he is right will be satisfied with a poor lawyer, trusting to the justice of his cause to persuade the jury. His opponent, however, knows his only hope is to secure a better lawyer than his adversary, and will spare no pains or expense to secure it. Consequently, if I were a judge, I would let both lawyers talk five minutes each, and then decide the case in favor of the poorer lawyer."
"But in that case, why do you need a machine?"
"The machine is useful as an aid to tell which lawyer is really the cleverer. It registers their brain capacity, their intelligence, their energy, etc."
"But," objected Pep, "It seems to me that people would soon learn your system and then both sides would try to engage the poorest lawyers they could find."
"Precisely! To avoid that, I must keep my method secret. My machine does the real judging. But I should hire cheap men to listen quietly to the cases, and at the end they would secretly draw a slip from the machine which would tell them what verdict to give. And, as I said, I would guarantee the judgment to be equitable in 999 cases out of a thousand."
"What's that little instrument that looks like a match?" asked Pop.
"That's a gynaionometer. It's an instrument for measuring a woman's age."
"Yes, that's Greek, and means 'The measure of a woman's age.'"
"Great Scott! How does it work?"
"I got the idea from an author who wrote under the pen name of Diogenes Tubb, who some forty years ago wrote the story of an inventor (Mr. P. Q. Jones) of an instrument for ascertaining a woman's age. At that time, about 1885, the ladies all wore long skirts. Well, this Mr. P. Q. Jones was a philosopher. He had often stood on a street corner on a muddy day, and he noticed that the ladies, in crossing, always raised their skirts a little, in order to keep them out of the mud."
"Well, there's nothing very extraordinary in that."
"No, but Mr. Jones noticed the remarkable fact that the extent to which the skirt was raised, varied with the age of the woman—in fact he found that the amount of stocking displayed was directly proportional to the woman's age—the older the woman, the higher she raised her skirts. It was another instance of the law of compensation—making up in quantity for what was lacking in quality.
"Mr. P. Q. Jones used this fact as the basis for an instrument which he called a 'gynaionometer' and which he used for measuring the ages of the ladies he met. In this match-like instrument on the table you see an improvement of mine on Mr. Jones' idea—a very simple means for ascertaining the age of your mother-in-law or any other of your female friends.
"As you see, my device was simplicity itself. It consisted merely of a dial on which was a fixed needle and a movable needle. On a muddy day you could stand exactly ten feet away from the curb and place the instrument so the fixed needle is perfectly horizontal three feet from the ground. Then you wait for the lady to come along, and when she raises her skirt you move the movable needle until it points directly at the highest visible portion of her stocking and you could at once read her exact age on the dial in years, months and days."
"Good heavens! But the thing wouldn't work nowadays when we all wear short skirts!"
"No, the fashions changed and I was obliged to modify my instrument. As a person's arteries harden with age, I tried to make one that would work according to the degree of hardness of the artery, but I failed. When the audion was invented however, I succeeded by making a gynaionometer that worked by electricity. Every human being is an electrical machine—continually generating electrical currents. Careful study showed me that these currents vary with age. By the use of an audion I could amplify these currents and I constructed the rather complicated machine you see here which enables me to tell a lady's exact age in an instant.
"I expected to make a fortune from my device, but would you believe it, the thing has brought me nothing but trouble and vexation. Like Mr. Jones, I have lost all my lady friends and have become estranged from my female relatives because I claimed to know their ages better than they did themselves.
"No, Pep, there are some things it doesn't pay to monkey with. One of them is the buzz-saw. Another is a woman's age!"