The Human Wheel

Aside from the obvious illustrative debt to Brewster’s kaleidoscope, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s “Human Wheel” gives voice to some interesting thoughts on the human condition which I feel it pertinent to note:

THE starting-point of this paper was a desire to call attention to certain remarkable AMERICAN INVENTIONS, especially to one class of mechanical contrivances, which, at the present time, assumes a vast importance and interests great multitudes. The limbs of our friends and countrymen are a part of the melancholy harvest which War is sweeping down with Dahlgren’s mowing-machine and the patent reapers of Springfield and Hartford. The admirable contrivances of an American inventor,
prized as they were in ordinary times, have risen into the character of great national blessings since the necessity for them has become so widely felt. While the weapons that have gone from Mr. Colt’s armories have been carrying death to friend and foe, the beneficent and ingenious inventions of MR. PALMER have been repairing the losses inflicted by the implements of war.

. . .We should not tell the whole truth, if we did not own that we have for a long time been lying in wait for a chance to say
something about the mechanism of walking, because we thought we could add something to what is known about it
from a new source, accessible only within the last few years, and never, so far as me know, employed for its elucidation,
namely, the instantaneous photograph.

The two accomplishments common to all mankind are walking and talking. Simple as they seem, they are yet acquired
with vast labor, and very rarely understood in any clear way by those who practice them with perfect ease and unconscious skill.

Thinking about this inventive conflation of walking and talking, of war and technology, I was struck by the historical affinity between war and methods of articulation. Warblogging anyone? Understanding the human bleat hasn’t become much easier since the Civil War. Holmes was more optimistic about it though:

Talking seems the hardest to comprehend. Yet it has been clearly explained and successfully imitated by artificial contrivances. We know that the moist membranous edges of a narrow crevice (the glottis) vibrate as the reed of a
clarionet vibrates, and thus produce the human bleat. We narrow or widen or check or stop the flow of this sound by the lips, the tongue, thc teeth, and thus articulate, or break into joints, the even current of sound. The sound varies with the degree and kind of interruption, as the “babble” of the brook with the shape and size of its impediments,—
pebbles, or rocks, or dams. To whisper is to articulate without bleating, or vocalizing; to coo as babies do is to bleat or vocalize without articulating. Machines are easily made that bleat not unlike human beings. A bit of India-rubber tube tied round a piece of glass tube is one of the simplest voice – uttering contrivances. To make a machine that articulates is not so easy ; but we remember Maelzel’s wooden children, which said, “Pa-pa” and “ Ma-ma “ ; and more elaborate and succesful speaking machines have, we believe, been since constructed.

But no man has been able to make a figure that can walk.

Looking at the nature of human communication during this time, particularly in the case of journalism, reveals some striking parallels in communicative preferences. As Frank Luther Mott tells it in American Journalism:

“Grapevine telegraph”— slang for rumor—played an important part in news communication during the war. The heading “IMPORTANT—IF TRUE” was common in all the papers. The Baltimore Sun, during the first few weeks of hostilities, headed a front-page column “RUMORS AND SPECULATIONS” and published the following editorial paragraph:

Rumors of every kind multiply. Every hour gives rise to the most extravagant reports . . .The press North and South seems to have entered upon a war of crimination and recrimination, and instead of calming the excitement and allaying unfounded prejudices, to rejoice in adding excitement of the moment.

The importance of the condition thus pointed out by the Sun in the formation of belligerent public opinion can scarcely be exaggerated. Rumor was stimulated by an inefficient censorship, and it is doubtful if any paper came through the war without becoming victim, at some time, to lies and canards. (330)

It is interesting to me that the most important change in the way that these rumors are now articulated is that we have reverse-time date ordering to make sense of them. In the civil war,

Official reports from the field, instead of being summarized in the main story, were usually printed in full. Dispatches were likely to be printed chronologically, the oldest at the head of the column. (330)

Now, the most recent crap floats to the top. Holmes argues that photography has improved our knowledge of walking. I’m not so sure that anything has improved our knowledge of talking in the same technological fashion. Only the mode of articulation has changed.