Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer

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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in portable configuration
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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in operational configuration

We recently received an Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer as a donation from Virginia Tech alumnus, Bob Sweeney. We asked him some questions about his background and this computer. Here are his answers:

Q: Tell us a little about your background as it relates to computing in the 1970s-1980s.

A: At the time, I was a technical writer for a software house that developed products for the HP-3000. We were a small company and I could not always get access to a terminal to access the LARC-3000 word processor I used (Los Altos Research Center – chosen because it spelled Larc, as in “Going out on a larc.”). I was an experienced TW, but this job was the first that allowed me to us a WP.  Well, allowed is the wrong word. My buddy – Steve White, VT Class of 1962 – was our head of sales. I mentioned to him that I was ready for my manuscript to go to the typing pool. He replied, “Bob, we’re a computer company.  You use the computer.” (I never wanted to do it any other way again.  I’d spent 2/3rd of my time proofreading!)

Q: What initially attracted you to the Osborne 1?

A: The Osborne 1 ads showed people carrying the machine in elevators, buses, through an airport. At $1600 with a printer and a bundle of software, this was an affordable machine. When I bought the O1, for instance, a business man was buying a comparable machine (same printer, same processor, same drive, same memory) and he paid twice as much for his IBM. By the by, you probably can find one of those ads online.

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Osborne 1 ad c.1981

Q: What was your experience with the computer? Did it work as advertised?

A: It was great! I used its WordStar WP to do my stuff at home and prepare files for the HP. (LARC-3000 was an embedded-command WP. For example, like HTML, <b>….</b> for bold, <p>…</p> for paragraphs.) I could encode the files for HP. With a simple application (included) I could conduct work as though the Osborne was a terminal to the HP. Best of all, I could save my files on a floppy, allowing me to work at home, offline!

I loved the Epson printer, too. In fact, I had trouble reloading the paper one day. I got out the manual and was surprised to find no loading instructions! In frustration, I tried again. The path was so simple, if you just stuck the paper in, it would load properly! I’d thought too hard about it!

Q: The computer was advertised as portable, did you transport it from place to place like one would with a modern laptop?

A: Yes, I carried it from home to work and back. But best of all, we were working on a proposal with a customer in Boston. We took the Osborne up with us on the plane and that night updated the propsal!

Q: What was your favorite thing about this computer?

A: That flexibility. WordStar was easy to use. There was also Basic and VisiCal, although I used neither much. We did do several proposals and business plans using the Visicalc and its links to WordStar (A mail merge function). (If I remember, VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet for microcomputers. We could probably dump it into LARC-3000, too.)

Q: What was your least favorite thing?

A: As you’ve seen, the screen is small! I got a magnifier for the screen, but my nephew – with good eyes – threw it away!

Q: Why did you decide to find a home for the computer rather than recycling it as many would do?

A: It has no value, so I just couldn’t send it off to some beach in India. It was my first and started me out on a career of the future. I still marvel at how any writer did it in the old days! You spent twice as much – possibly three times as much – of your days proofing than writing. (Of course, we also had to learn a new skill – usually from several hard experiences – backing up.

Q: Is there anything more you would like to share about the Osborne 1 Computer?

A: Not as famous as the Apple, but the Osborne 1 was an important step for businesses in the computer revolution. They would be better known if they’d developed an IBM clone. They did have a machine with a larger screen, but it was still CP/M.

Some Computer History

When looking at history, we often ascribe specific importance to that which is first. For example, in 1911 Roald Amundsen from Norway was the first person to reach the South Pole and in 1926 he was recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole. Regardless of the objective truth of these claims (whether indigenous people reached the North Pole before him) he is granted a certain cachet by being recognized as the first. You can find an entire list of similar firsts on Biography Online‘s site.

What does all of this have to do with the Osborne 1 portable microcomputer? Well, it is one of those special things that is special because of its status as first. The Osborne 1 was the first portable microcomputer. For those not familiar with computing history, this was the first (type of) computer (the woman, not the machine):

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Computer at her work with microscope and the Friden calculating machine. (NASA).

After human computers came large room-sized machines such as the Harvard Mark 1 in 1944.

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Harvard Mark 1 room sized computer. 1944. (computerhistory.org)

As the world of computer technology progressed through the later half of the 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, improvements to computer technology were developed and introduced. Punch card input gave way to keyboard input. Components got smaller, leading to “microcomputers” which are just computers that are small. The term generally refers to computers smaller than room sized. Screens were added. Networking via phone lines was added. New and exciting programming languages were created.

As the 1970s progressed, we saw the introduction of the first personal computers (meaning small machines that were within the grasp of an individual to own/operate) from companies such as IBM, with the IBM 5150 Personal Computer being released in 1981. The 5150 followed a great deal of work by IBM in developing a commercial personal computer. Their main competitor was Xerox who introduced the Xerox PARC Alto (a computer that we would recognize today – with a monitor, mouse, and keyboard) in 1974.

In 1976, Apple released the Apple I and then followed with the Apple II in 1977. That year, Tandy Radio Shack (TRS) released their TRS-80, Atari released their computer gaming console, and Commodore entered the market with the PET. Computers were entering the public consciousness and it wasn’t unheard of for people to have a computer at home. It was also becoming much more commonplace to have one at work. During this time, the subject of portable computers was a hot topic and there were entrants to the space as early as 1973 (HP-9830A). Still, an affordable, easily portable personal computer was something that remained mostly a dream until the Osborne 1 was announced in 1981.

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Osborne 1 ad: Afghani Mujahadeen posing with the Osborne 1. c.1981

The Osborne 1 was billed as revolutionary, hence the ad featuring the Mujahadeen. It was the first really portable computer. It weighed 24 pounds and came in a case designed to absorb the inevitable knocks it would receive being transported from place to place. It was the first product of the Osborne Computer Corporation, named for its founder Adam Osborne, and known for lending its name to the Osborne Effect – a company going out of business by announcing a new product too soon and killing sales of their current product. Despite its demise in 1985, the Osborne Computer Corporation succeeded in producing a viable portable computer

The corporation had effective marketing and certainly grabbed the attention of the computer-savvy business professional of the early 1980s.

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BYTE magazine, March 1982, page 33
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BYTE magazine, August 1981, page 35

And, Interface Age magazine whose tag line was “published for the home computerist” named it an “outstanding buy” in November of 1981.

Our Osborne 1 is the first of what we hope will be many classic computers housed in Special Collections and available for the public to interact with. If you want to see this piece of computing history, stop by Special Collections in Newman Library anytime Monday-Friday 8:00 AM-5:00 PM.

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R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller. This name is probably familiar to most people in the United States. It conjures images of futuristic domed cities of the type typical to a mid-20th century vision of the future.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, also called Bucky, was a celebrity. He was an engineer, an architect, a veteran, an environmentalist, a philosopher, and a poet. He was a celebrity because of these things rather than in spite of them. He was born July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard University for two years but did not finish. He later went to the United States Naval Academy (1917). He was an officer in the United States Navy during World War I.

For me, Fuller is a legendary figure. I grew up with cultural references to “bucky” balls, images of domed cities in speculative fiction, and knowing conceptually about the structure of fullerenes. So, when I was wandering through the archives looking for something to post about this week, I was excited to see a box labeled “R. Buckminster Fuller Collection 1949-1978” (Ms1975-007). Opening it up was like opening a present.

Our collection includes one folder of correspondence from and to Fuller, three folders containing copies of things Fuller wrote, six folders of things written about Fuller, and two oversized folders containing some rather large items within those categories. Looking through the materials, they aren’t like what most people expect to find in an archives. They aren’t handwritten. They aren’t really old. They aren’t deteriorating. They’re just extremely fascinating.

The letters are from November 1953 – December 1962. Most are from Fuller’s time working on his business Geodesics, Inc. They are typed. They are unsigned. Yet, for a fan of his work, they are exhilarating to read. The first one I laid eyes on was written while Fuller was with the Department of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. As if these being Fuller’s own words wasn’t enough, a connection to Minnesota biases me in favor of something from the start.

In the letter, Fuller is telling Tyler Rogers of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Co. about the challenges and modifications of his designs that have been necessary because of a lack of  the necessary facilities to safely employ fiberglas in their construction. The letter is a finely crafted plea for assistance from this fiberglas manufacturer, and, according to a note added at the end, the plea was successful leading Owens-Corning to supply all the fiberglas used in the project to construct Fuller’s dome.

Take a look. Maybe you’ll find it as fascinating as I do:

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Digging further into the materials, even just glancing, I learned much more about this mythic figure from my childhood. Had he been alive today, I am confident Fuller would have been viewed as an activist. His engineering ideas were rooted in his conception of the need for humanity to work together to support itself. He felt that domes could solve world housing problems. He also felt that industrialization had led the world to war and that as long as income inequality was creating “energy slaves” we would inevitably progress into further wars. Dipping into our small collection yields evidence of these views quite quickly.

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An illustration created by Fuller in 1927.

The above illustration hints at Fuller’s environmentalism and highlights his concern for housing the population of the Earth. It reads:

26% of Earth’s surface is dry land
85% of all Earth’s dry land is here shown
86% of all dry land shown is above equator
The whole of the human family could stand on Bermuda
All crowded into England they would have 750 sq feet each
“United we stand, divided we fall” is correct mentaly and spiritualy but falacious physicaly or materialy
2,000,000,000 new homes will be required in next 80 years

An example of his analysis of the world’s energy economy and its effect on the incidence of world conflict appears on the same folded sheet:

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This graphic is from 1952 and is titled “The Twentieth Century.” His analysis reads:

World Industrialization: Its rate of attainment as an industrially objective advantage to individuals. i.e. When 100 inanimate energy slaves* are in continual active service per each and every family existing in governing economy and those energy slaves are primarily focused upon regeneratively advancing standards of living and in articulating amplifying degrees of intellectual and physical freedoms until critical point is reached majority of world men are “have nots” and are incitable to socialism by revolution against the seemingly ever more unduly privileged minority after 1972 majority are “haves”.
* One energy slave equals each unit of “one trillion foot pound equivalents per annum” consumed annually by respective economies from both import and domestic sources, computed at 100% of potential content

Overall, it’s an interesting plot. His analysis, while raising the specter of Communism as villain (typical of the early 1950s), shows global instability and a trend toward possible conflict through 1972. That tipping point is supposedly when most people in the world will go from being “have nots” to being “haves”. His predictions may or may not have been accurate (I’ll leave the correlative analysis up to you) but they certainly are interesting.

The last thing I’ll share is a portion of something I found somewhat interesting from among Fuller’s writings. Most of his writings in our collection are reprints of articles he had published. From a publishing standpoint, I find them interesting because of how they are printed. They are self-contained. In the case of the one I will share, an entire page describing articles in the publication is present but the only one that is printed with full clarity is the one by Fuller – the others have been “blurred” via the addition of slight pixilation of the ink in the printing process. I have yet to actually read this article, so I won’t go into depth. I also won’t share the entire thing here because I really don’t want to make the publication if came from mad at me. Also, just to be clear, I’m reading it for the article (I mean, really, that’s all that’s even here!).

This is just a hint of what’s in our R. Buckminster Fuller Collection (Ms1975-007). I plan to delve into it more myself to satisfy my curiosity about this fascinating man. Please stop by and do the same! And, if you want even more Buckminster Fuller content, Fuller donated his full archive to Standord University in 1999 where it is available as the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection.

 

 

Have a Happy Halloween with Edward Gorey in Special Collections

Happy Halloween, Ghouls and Ghosts!

Last week, I was listening to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast’s recent episode on Edward Gorey, and I wondered if Virginia Tech University Libraries had any of his work. Fortune looked brightly on me – not only does the Libraries have numerous texts, but Special Collections actually has three rare books illustrated by Gorey! And since it’s Halloween, I decided to make this week’s post about a modern master of the macabre, author and illustrator Edward Gorey!

My first exposure to the work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was from the opening sequence of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery!, which has been used since 1980, but he may be best known for his book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), an alphabetical book about the deaths of 26 children. Gorey studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, before joining the U.S. Army during World War II and eventually graduating from Harvard in 1950, where he befriended the poet Frank O’Hara. They, along with other Harvard friends, founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge. In 1953, Gorey began working at the Art Department of Doubleday, illustrating numerous classics, and that same year Brown and Company published his first book The Unstrung Harp. He published his first anthology Amphigorey in 1972, and the next designed a set and costumes for a Nantucket production of Dracula (see more below). In 1979, Gorey moved to Cape Cod and became involved in local productions, even writing his own plays and musicals, and he lived there until his death in 2000.

Let’s take a look at the earliest book we have, Son of the Martini Cookbook by Jane Trahey and Daren Pierce, illustrated by Edward Gorey and published by Clovis Press, 1967. The book includes a handful of food recipes, ordered by how many martinis you’ve had and thus of increasing simplicity. (However, I recommend cooking before you drink, to be safe!) The authors include fictional biographies, but are likely advertising executive and author Jane Trahey (1923-2000), who’s book Life with Mother Superior was adapted into Ida Lupino’s film The Trouble with Angels, starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, and author and interior designer Daren Pierce (1922-1984), who founded a store dedicated to needlepoint designs, according to the New York Times. Clovis Press was a bookstore in New York, which closed its doors in 2006.

Next is The Rats of Rutland Grange by Edmund Wilson with drawings by Edward Gorey and published by Gotham Book Mart, 1974 (original in Esquire Magazine, December 1961). A long poem of rhyming couplets by Wilson, the story is about rats who steal the family’s food and destroy their things. On Christmas eve to kill the rats, the children of Rutland Grange put out poisoned chocolate, which bodes poorly for dear, old Santa (spoiler: don’t worry, Santa survives to live another Christmas!) The book indicates only 1,000 copies were printed, including 100 signed by the authors and 26 specifically for Gorey and Gotham Book Mart. (Sadly, our copy is not signed.) Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a literary critic and author. The Gotham Book Mart was a New York City bookstore, owned by Gorey’s friend Andreas Brown, who heavily advertised Gorey’s work and published several monograph, according to the New York Times.

Finally, we have Dracula: A Toy Theatre, sets and costumes designed by Edward Gorey (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979). This books contains drawings based on Gorey’s designs from the 1979 Broadway production of Dracula, a revival of the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston and based on Bram Stoker’s novel. The intention is for the book owner to produce the play by cutting out the costumes and sets, using the book as the backdrop for the set. It also lays out a synopsis of the play and cast. According to the Internet Broadway Database, this production of Dracula ran from 1977 to 1980 and earned Gorey the 1978 Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Scenic Design. Frank Langella portrayed Dracula, earning his own Tony nomination for the 1978 Best Actor in a Play award.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the works of Edward Gorey, and remember that you never know what awesome, spooky works may be in Special Collections!

American Song: A Sign of the Times

<em>These Times They Are A-Changin</em>, Bob Dylan, 1964
These Times They Are A-Changin, Bob Dylan, 1964

Did you hear? (Of course, you did.) Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago. As the Nobel committee wrote, it awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is a mighty step up for an already valued and valuable tradition that is even more varied than are Dylan’s songs themselves. Political, personal, complicated, narrowly topical, broad and metaphorical, silly, stupid, catchy, maddening, romantic, lyrical, sentimental, commercial: Whatever human emotion, quality, or experience you may think of, there are songs to go along. And when it comes to reflecting, initiating, or participating in social trends, songs are certainly there, too. So, although the occasion of Dylan’s winning the Prize didn’t, by itself, make me think about the sheet music collections we have here at Special Collections, specifically, collections of “popular” music, it did provide some of the impetus that leads me to write just a bit about some of them.

Sheet music has a long history. Printed sheet music goes back almost to Gutenberg, at least in the West, to about twenty years after his printing press. The variety of printed music is nearly endless–church music, orchestral music, opera, dance music, tunes, lieder–so much so that the best definition of sheet music has to do with its description as a physical object. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University offers the following:

On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages.

Honest Old Abe's Quick Step : for the Piano
“Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step : for the Piano” (Published, O. Ditson, Boston, 1860)
Take your gun and go, John. Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers. (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1863)
“Take Your Gun and Go, John, Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers” (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1862)

Some of the earliest popular sheet music we have in our collection dates from around the American Civil War. On the left is a tune published in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step. On the right, from just a couple of years later is Take Your Gun and Go, John, a song of resignation and sorrow, sung by a wife as her husband leaves for war.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Don’t stop a moment to think John, your country calls then go; Don’t think of me or the children John, I’ll care for them you know.
But take your gun and go John, take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .
And now goodbye to you John I cannot say farewell; we’ll hope and pray for the best John; god’s goodness none can tell.
Be his great arm around you John to guard you night and day; Be our beloved country’s shield till the war has passed away.
Then take your gun and go John take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .

This song may be from the Civil War, but just about 150 years after its publication, it still is timely. In 2013, it was recorded and released by Loretta Lynn, and although it is on an album of Civil War-era songs, it does continue to speak. Give it a listen.

Moving into the 20th century, the music publishing business increased dramatically as the theater, music, and entertainment industries grew. With the availability of inexpensive color printing, sheet music for popular songs began to feature colorful covers, illustrations that, along with the music and lyrics, offer an additional window into the contemporary currents of the time. Societal norms with regard to gender and race may be represented, as well as less weighty subjects, such as the sudden fashionability of bicycle riding, or the more significant increase in automobile travel, along with all its attendant themes of freedom, mobility, and romance, among others. World events, also, made their way into the popular song of the day. Consider “America, Here’s My Boy.”

"America, Here's My Boy" (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)
“America, Here’s My Boy” (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)

Before listening to the song, what do we see? I don’t know about you, but the sight of “Every American Mother” offering up her son to face what was, by May 1917, well-known carnage, is remarkable. Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how the image of American motherhood–even idealized American motherhood–has changed in a hundred years. But America needed men (and boys) to fight, so here was the message, as proclaimed in the chorus of the song:
 
 
 
 

America, I raised a boy for you.
America, You’ll find him staunch and true,
Place a gun upon his shoulder,
He is ready to die or do.
America, he is my only one; My hope, my pride and joy,
But if I had another, he would march beside his brother;
America, here’s my boy.

If you’re curious, here’s a recording of the song from 1918 by The Peerless Quartet. I should also mention something about this cover that I hadn’t seen and was pointed out to me by a most perceptive student. Apparently, the United States shares a northern border with another country, but has no such neighbor to the south! Mexico, though officially neutral throughout the First World War, shared a difficult, and often openly hostile relationship with the U.S. at the time. On 28 February 1917, a few months before this song was published, the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram was made public by President Woodrow Wilson. The contents of this communication, intercepted and deciphered by the British in January of that year, was sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, with instructions to propose a military alliance with Mexico, should the U.S. enter the war against Germany. (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but the deal was to involve return to Mexico of land lost to the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.) Anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. was already high, and this incident only led to its increase. So, as far as the illustration on the sheet music was concerned, perhaps, geography was taking a back seat to politics.

"Somewhere In France is Daddy" (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)
“Somewhere In France is Daddy” (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)

Staying with 1917, the title, “Somewhere in France is Daddy,” is just sopping with sadness. As shown on the cover, a young mother, with a framed photo of her soldier-husband in the background, has to explain to her young son why Daddy isn’t home. Daddy, of course, is fighting for home and country, for liberty . . . “somewhere in France” and he “won’t come back/ ‘Til the stars and stripes they’ll tack/ On Kaiser William’s flagstaff in Berlin.

It’s not quite at the level of . . . “Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t put me off of your train, For the best friend I have in this whole wide world Is waiting for me in vain; Expected to die any moment, And may not live through the day: I want to bid mother goodbye, sir, Before God takes her away” . . . which I know as a Blue Sky Boys song, and which, deservedly, has won every “Saddest Song contest” I’m aware of. But, as the young boy poses the question, he puts this song right up there:

A little boy was sitting on his mother’s knee one day
And as he nestled close to her these words she heard him say
Oh mother dear please tell me why our Daddy don’t come home
I miss him so and you do too, why are we left alone
He tried hard not to cry, as she answered with a sigh

Here are five more sheet music covers from songs associated with World War I. The links below will take you to a recording of the song, if available.

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We Don’t Want the Bacon: What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine” (Shapiro, Bernstein, & Co., New York, 1918) If this link from the Library of Congress is being difficult, try this.

“We’re Going Over” (Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917) Again, if this Library of Congress link doesn’t work, try this.

“Loyalty is the Word Today” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

“Over There” (William Jerome Publishing Corp., New York, 1917). If this link from Library of Congress doesn’t work, you can try this.

“Hoe Your ‘Little Bit’ in Your Own Back Yard: Where the Boy Scouts Go, ‘Tis Hoe, Hoe, Hoe” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

Sheet music may not be what you think of when your looking for a view on culture and society, but it can definitely provide an interesting, if unexpected, part of the picture. What were folks listening to? How was the music presented? How was it received? How did people react to it? When and where was it played? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Special Collections has three collections comprised entirely of sheet music, as well as individually cataloged pieces and occasional pieces in other collections. These links will take you to the finding aid for each collection, which, among other information, will list all the titles in the collection:

Annie M. Hale Sheet Music Collection
Archer Lawrie Sheet Music Collection
Sheet Music Collection

"When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)" (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)
“When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)

To end on a more hopeful note, is a song from World War II, written in 1942, in fact. The United States had been at war less than a year, though it had been a long war in Europe already. I didn’t recognize this one from the title, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World),” but once I heard it, I knew I had heard it before. It hit #1 on the Pop charts by early ’43. It’s an interesting illustration on the cover. Of course, where is the source of the light located? And, there is the “Buy War Bonds” logo in the lower right. Here’s how the song starts:

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello” to love

No more hard rain.

Lastly, to the folks who, given the beginning of this post, thought it might be about some great Bob Dylan stuff we have in Special Collections, I offer my apologies.

The Fugitive Author

Robert Burns Escaped from the Georgia Chain Gangs, Then Strove to Abolish Them

Here in Special Collections, we hold a number of books that have altered the course of history. Such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Communist Manifesto, Common Sense, and Walden have all profoundly shaped human thought and history, and all have places on our shelves.

Today, I want to tell you about another book in our collection that—though not as celebrated as the above examples—has had a significant influence on the course of events. Robert Elliott Burns’s I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!  is an account of the author’s experiences in—and escape from—the Georgia penal system of the 1920s. Burns’s vivid description of the system’s brutality and inhumanity has been credited with spurring 20th-century penal reforms in Georgia and beyond.

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The Special Collections copy of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, a souvenir edition from Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, is inscribed by the author.

A New York City accountant, Burns volunteered for the army when the United States entered World War I. Assigned to a medical detachment with the 14th Railway Engineers, he served mostly at the front from September 1917, until armistice 14 months later. His service took its toll, and, according to his brother, Robert Burns returned home “nervously unstrung and mentally erratic—a typical shell-shock case.” In more recent years, Burns might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Returning to New York, Burns struggled to rebuild his life, expecting that his military training and service would be valued by potential employers. He soon found, however, that his status as a veteran instead proved a handicap in securing employment. Burns arrived at the same conclusion as many veterans returning from that war and others.

The promises of the Y. M. C. A. secretaries and all the other “fountain-pen soldiers” who promised us so much in the name of the nation and the Government [sic] just before we’d go into action turned out to be the bunk. Just a lot of plain applesauce! Really an ex-soldier with A. E. F. [Amy Expeditionary Forces] service was looked upon as a sucker. The wise guys stayed home—landed the good jobs—or grew rich on war contracts … I went through hell for my country and my reward was the loss of my sweetheart and my position.

Disillusioned, Burns drifted from town to town as a vagrant, alighting in Atlanta in 1922. There, he participated in an armed robbery with two other men. Burns paints himself as a reluctant accomplice in the crime, coerced by the ringleader’s trickery and intimidation. The robbery netted the perpetrators a mere $5.80, and the three were captured 20 minutes afterward.

For his part in the theft, Burns was sentenced to six to ten years at hard labor. Expecting to serve his time in a penitentiary, Burns instead found himself designated for roadwork on a county chain gang. Issued a convict’s striped uniform and shackled with heavy chains, Burns was transported to one of Georgia’s many county prison camps.

Burns describes the Campbell County prison camp as filthy and dehumanizing. The endless days were filled with backbreaking and mind-numbing work; frequent beatings by guards; and subsistence-level, sometimes putrid food. The system made no pretense of reformation but instead sought to inflict harsh punishment and exploit a captive workforce.

One was never allowed to rest a moment but must always be hard at work, and even moving in the mass of chain was painful and tiring—yet if one did not keep up his work greater terrors and more brutal punishment was in reserve. If a convict wanted to stop for a second to wipe the sweat off his face, he would have to call out “Wiping if off” and wait until the guard replied, “Wipe it off” before he could do so.

Dinner came in a galvanized iron bucket …The contents of the iron bucket was boiled, dried cowpeas (not eaten anywhere else but in Georgia) and called “Red beans.” They were unpalatable, full of sand and worms.

Determining that he’d be unable to serve out his time in such conditions, Burns escaped the chain gang after several months. Evading his pursuers, the fugitive made his way to Chicago and arrived there with 60 cents in his pocket. He soon secured employment and began saving money. By 1925, Burns had saved enough to begin publishing The Greater Chicago Magazine, and he became a well-known figure about the city. During his rise to prominence, Burns claims, he was compelled by extortion into an unwanted marriage. Soon after he initiated divorce proceedings in 1929, Burns was arrested as a fugitive—betrayed, he asserts, by his estranged wife.

Citing the law-abiding and productive life that Burns had led in the seven years since his escape, a number of prominent Chicagoans helped Burns fight extradition. Assurances of leniency from Georgia authorities, however, persuaded Burns to voluntarily return. Upon arriving in Georgia, Burns found that the promises of fair treatment soon evaporated. Relegated to Troup County’s prison camp, Burns experienced conditions that were even more primitive and cruel than those he had experienced in Campbell County several years earlier.

After 14 months, Burns made a second escape, and he provides the reader with a step-by-step description of his flight. A natural-born storyteller, Burns keeps the reader in suspense through several close calls and daring risks.

Burns made his way to New Jersey, but, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, the success that he’d found in Chicago during the 1920s would elude him. Working at a series of menial jobs and living under an assumed identity, he decided to write a scathing indictment against the penal system from which he’d escaped. “It’s now my life’s ambition to destroy the chain-gang system in Georgia,” he told a friend, “and see substituted in its place a more humane and enlightened system of correction.”

Serialized in True Detective Mysteries magazine in 1931, the fugitive’s story gained national attention. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! was later released in book form and became a bestseller. A popular film adaptation, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, soon followed, netting three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for leading man Paul Muni and Best Picture.

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The Steel Pier Souvenir Edition of Burns’ book features on its end papers several scenes from the film adaptation.

In 1932, Burns was again arrested as a fugitive, but public outcry convinced New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore to refuse extradition to Georgia, and Burns was soon released. In 1945, Burns again voluntarily returned to Georgia and appeared before the parole board, with no less a figure than Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall serving as his counsel. The board commuted Burns’s sentence to time served.

Burns died ten years later, but he lived long enough to witness reforms to the cruel system he opposed. The state of Georgia, spurred perhaps not so much by humanitarianism as by embarrassment, implemented a series of penal reforms in the 1940s. In abolishing the use of chain gangs within the state, Governor Arnall cited Burns’s story as the impetus behind his actions. Though chain gang systems remained in place in other Southern states, their abolition in Georgia signaled the beginning of an incremental change that would accelerate during the civil rights movement.

In Robert Burns, the chain gang system had perhaps created its own worst enemy: an inmate with the background, eloquence, and determination to attack it. His book caused widespread outrage and sparked condemnation of the chain gang system. It is impossible to gauge the influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! within the context of a wider movement for prison reform, and the book certainly didn’t cause the immediate demise of the chain gang system, but it undoubtedly implanted the need for reform in the national consciousness.

In addition to Burns’s book here in Special Collections, the library also holds the film’s screenplay and a videocassette copy of the film.

Who’s who in the cast

Over the past few months, I’ve been processing a collection of performing arts programs, advertisements, and clippings gathered by Virginia English teacher John Barnes (1905-1979). Barnes held both a Bachelor of Philosophy and a Master of Education and taught English at Lane High School in Charlottesville, VA from 1949-1958 when he became Guidance Director.

Over the years, Mr. Barnes collected numerous newspaper clippings and articles focused on the theatre and entertainment industries beginning in the late 1800s. He also gathered an impressive collection of playbills and programs from around the world for various mediums including plays, musicals, movies, orchestral performance, opera, ice skating, circus, and more. The playbills and programs are from the 1900s through the 1980s with the majority from 1940-1960. There are bills from small local theatres and from national playhouses. Given my interest in the theatrical arts, I had a blast working with this collection!

There are simply too many amazing things in this collection for me to show them all to you – Broadway and West End playbills, early film programs, circus programs from the Soviet Union, a kabuki program from Japan, cabaret programs from France, and more. Since I can’t show everything in one blog post, I’m going to focus on some playbills that feature American celebrities.

The playbills from the National Theatre (Washington, D.C.) in the 1940s & 1950s caught my eye because they feature prominent images of the performers and downplay what show they are performing in. Some of the shows don’t even have their title on the cover – and it’s surprising what shows that happens to. I found this interesting since the trend in recent years on Broadway is to focus on the show rather than who the performers are.

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A great example is this playbill from the November 9, 1942 National Theatre opening performance of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. The title of the show appears nowhere on the cover. Instead, there are pictures of Tallulah Bankhead – star of stage and film and well known for the play Little Foxes and the Hitchcock film Lifeboat, Fredric March – Oscar winner for the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Florence Eldridge – known for the play Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Florence Reed – a well known stage and screen actress who appeared in silent film and a few talkies, including the role of Miss Havisham in the 1934 film Great Expectations.

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Even when the show title is included, the trend is to feature the performer. This example is the cover of the playbill for the October 31, 1955 performance of the musical The Vamp which starred Carol Channing – wildly well know for her roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!.

I would speculate that featuring the performers was done to increase ticket sales – a typically effective strategy. These performances were also occurring during World War II and the period immediately following. I imagine celebrity was as much a distraction then as it often is today.

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This playbill again only mentions the performers on the front. For me, this is the crown jewel of the National Theatre playbills in this collection. Despite misspelling her last name on the cover, this playbill jumped out at me because of the familial resemblance Diana Barrymore bears to her niece Drew Barrymore. That made me pick this up … then I saw what it was and I was even more excited.

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This playbill is from the November 27, 1944 performance of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The cast and show both are amazing! The show is based on the classic novel of the same name by the same author. It includes one of the “Best opening lines in literature, ever” according to Marie Claire UK (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) . It also has one of the creepiest and most menacing female antagonists: Mrs. Danvers.

This production mixed celebrity with the play’s compelling story and this playbill hints at the cultural drama embodied in the production. Diana Barrymore was acting royalty, coming from a family well-known in the industry. She was married to Bramwell Fletcher (known for The Mummy with Boris Karloff) – who was significantly older (18 years) – and in this show, they play husband and wife.

In addition to pairing this celebrity couple on stage to entice the audience, Florence Reed portrayed Mrs. Danvers! As I mentioned before, Reed was well known for her role  as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Given the celebrity involved in this production, I’d be interested to see what the tabloids were printing about it. I also think it would have been an effective diversion for Washington theatregoers looking to escape the realities of World War II America.

These few glimpses merely scratch the surface of what John Barnes collected. The finding aid is not yet online, so I can’t share it here, but the collection has been organized and is available for use. Just visit the Special Collections reading room and ask for the John Barnes Performing Arts Collection, Ms2016-005. If you have any interest in the performing arts or historic print advertising, you’ll be glad you did.

Stars in the Nebula

The last post to this blog about the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection was in October 2013. As a fan of science fiction, I think that’s too long to go without exploring the treasure trove of early science fiction contained in the collection. The Heron Collection includes thousands of classic science fiction magazine issues from many of the best known pulp titles. While perusing the collection, I discovered Nebula Science Fiction [PN6120.95.S33 N42], the first Scottish science fiction magazine (and, as far as I can tell, the only Scottish science fiction magazine until Spectrum SF started its short life in 2000). Nebula originally caught my eye because of its title. I thought it might be associated with the Nebula Awards but that’s not the case. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that an author I’m currently reading, Robert Silverberg, had his first story published in Nebula: “Gorgon Planet” was published in issue #7 in February 1954.

Nebula Science Fiction published a total of 41 issues from Autumn 1952 to August 1959. The magazine was published by Crownpoint Publications in Glasgow, Scotland and was subsidized by its editor, Peter Hamilton. It was published in the later part of the pulp magazine era which spanned from approximately the 1890’s through the early 1960’s. Pulp magazines gained their name from the quality of paper used to publish them. They were printed on paper made from wood-pulp which turns yellow and brittle more quickly than other types of paper. The magazines were not intended to last and collections like the Heron Collection are special partly because they preserve the history of early fiction magazines printed in this way. In Britain, Nebula was an important publication in the genre along with New Worlds and Science Fantasy. It included work from many authors who are well known today, including Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, A. Bertram Chandler, and Robert A. Heinlein.

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Nebula Science Fiction v.1:no.1 (Autumn 1952)

Robert Silverberg contributed 7 stories to Nebula beginning in 1954. Silverberg has won multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and was presented with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award in 2004. His first published work, “Gorgon Planet”, appeared in Nebula Science Fiction #7 in February 1954. Other stories of his in Nebula include: “Always” (March 1956), “Solitary” (March 1958), “Godling Go Home” (April 1958), “The Fires Die Down” (June 1958), “Strong Waters” (January 1959), and “The World He Left Behind” (February 1959).

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Nebula Science Fiction no.7 (February 1954)

John Brunner had 6 stories in Nebula beginning in Spring 1953. Brunner also has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. His best known works include Stand on Zanzibar, and The Sheep Look Up. His stories began appearing in Nebula with “Brain Power” in issue #2. His other Nebula stories are: “By the Name of Man” (July 1956), “Hope Deferred” (November 1956), “The Number of My Days” (December 1956), “Treason” (May 1957), and “The Hired Help” (February 1958).

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Nebula Science Fiction v.1:no.2 (Spring 1953)

A. Bertram Chandler was published 5 times in Nebula starting with “The Window” in issue #22 in July 1957. Chandler was the recipient of four Ditmar Awards from the Australian Science Fiction Foundation. In 1992, the Australian Science Fiction Foundation established the Chandler Awards, a juried award for Outstanding Achievement in Australian Science Fiction, in his honor. His four other works in Nebula are: “The Successors” (August 1957), “Artifact” (September 1957), “Motivation” (April 1958), and “Words and Music” (July 1958).

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Nebula Science Fiction no.24 (September 1957)

Robert A. Heinlein stories appeared in Nebula 3 times starting with “Ordeal in Space” in issue #9 in August 1954. Heinlein is a winner of the Locus award, multiple Hugo and Prometheus Hall of Fame awards, and was presented with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award in 1975. He quoined the terms “grok”, “waldo”, and “speculative fiction” and popularized terms such as “TANSTAAFL” (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), “pay it forward” and “space marine”. In 2003, The Robert A. Heinlein Award was established to honor “outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space”. It is administered by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. Heinlein’s other two stories in Nebula are: “Rebellion on the Moon” (April 1955) and “Green Hills of Earth” (January 1956).

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Nebula Science Fiction no.9 (August 1954)

The William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection includes 37 of the 41 published issues of Nebula Science Fiction [PN6120.95.S33 N42], including most of the issues containing the works of Silverberg, Brunner, Chandler, and Heinlein. It also includes 85 issues of New Worlds [PR1309.S3 N49] and 78 issues of Science Fantasy [PR1309.S3 S45]. All are available to view in the public reading room at Newman Library.