Essaying Edison - Details

Edison's Telegraphic Script Inspired "Library Hand"

Anyone who is old enough to have used a card catalog back in the pre-digital days of the twentieth century (or alternatively to have done recent research at the Pennsylvania Historical Society) will be familiar with the peculiar form of writing commonly used on catalog cards and known as "library hand." This particular specialized form of writing was developed by Melvil Dewey, who also pioneered the Dewey decimal system and the library card catalog and even designed the specialized cabinets used to store and organize the cards. "Library Hand," a neat, highly legible script, was simply a subsidiary technology librarians needed in order to create an efficient and user friendly way of finding books through the card catalog in the days before the typewriter came into wide use.

But Dewey didn't develop library hand de novo. He borrowed an easy to write, legible script from someone who had already developed it for his own use—Thomas Edison. Or it might be more accurate to say that Dewey borrowed one of the handwriting styles Edison had developed. The inventor had at least three, which are all readily recognizable to anyone who has worked for even a little while with Edison autograph documents, as we do every day at the Thomas A. Edison Papers. Edison had a scrawling, loose script that he used to rapidly capture his thoughts in notebook entries, notes to subordinates, draft patents, and the like. He also had a highly utilitarian form of handwriting that was neat and easily readable, which he used in everyday correspondence and fair copies of drafts. This might be called his "demotic" script. And, then, finally, he had a more highly stylized (one might say "calligraphic" or artful) script for very formal correspondence and other important communications.

t was the demotic script that interested Dewey, then the chief librarian at Columbia College and secretary of the American Library Association. "I remember reading that some years ago you made some experiments to determine the best style of penmanship as regards speed & legibility," he wrote Edison in October 1886. "Can you kindly tell me the details of those studies & the results?" The American Library Association, Dewey explained, was in the process of adopting a style of writing for card catalogs and would appreciate any suggestions Edison might have. Edison's secretary Samuel Insull replied on the inventor's behalf, remarking that his boss had "used this method when he was a telegraph operator taking Associated Press Reports" and that it allowed him to "write more rapidly and with less fatigue than by any other means." This was exactly what Dewey was looking for. Insull may have provided a sample because he added, "You will notice that every letter is written separately."

Dewey had perhaps read an article in the 21 August 1885 edition of Science, which mentioned that when Edison was a telegraph operator in Louisville, Ky., in the mid to late 1860s, he "experimented to devise the best style of penmanship for telegraph operators, selecting finally a slight backhand, with regular round letters apart from each other, and not shaded, attaining himself by its means a speed of forty-five words per minute." One example of Edison's writing in this style still survives from his time as a telegrapher in Boston in 1868. Even at that time, his invention of this particular script was noteworthy and received favorable editorial notice. "Mr. T. A. Edison, of the Western Union Boston office," commented the trade paper The Telegrapher in August 1868, "is about the finest writer we know of. We have received a specimen of press report sheet written by him as the news came over the wire from New York at the usual speed. The sheet is five inches by eight inches, and there are 647 words upon it. Each letter is separate from the other, which is one of the peculiarities of Mr. Edison's chirography, and the whole plain as print."

Dewey's later inquiry about Edison's telegraphic script came as a result of a meeting of prominent librarians held in Lake George, N.Y., in September 1885, at which a number of issues involving library organization and administration were discussed. Among these was the most efficient and legible script for librarians to use in developing the rapidly expanding card catalogs as more and more printed books poured into libraries across the nation. After a discussion on the use of typewriters, in which Dewey and others complained of the difficulties—chiefly slowness—, the discussion turned to handwriting on the cards. It was C. Alex Nelson of the Astor Library in New York who turned the committee's attention to Edison's demotic style, referencing the very article that had appeared in Science the month before. In fact, Nelson read the article's description of Edison's telegraph script verbatim to the committee and then commented that he "thought that this hand might prove suitable for cards, by reason of its clearness, and the speed claimed for it."

It took more than a year, though, before Dewey got around to writing Edison for a sample. But by 1887, the Library School Handbook had adopted a form of writing for catalog cards remarkably similar to Edison's demotic writing. In fact, the introduction to the handbook's article on "Library Handwriting," mentioned Edison by name:

In a letter from T. A. Edison, the famous inventor, who years ago studied this question of writing, seeking the fastest form for telegraphic work, each letter is as separate from its fellows as in print. The connecting stroke between letters has been assumed to be essential to speed in writing; but so expert an experimenter as Mr. Edison declares that higher speed may be obtained without connecting the letters. Greater legibility is also secured, for the connecting lines certainly detract from distinctness.

For librarians, though, the Edisonian writing did not prove to be faster than note-taking hand. As Ella Morton has observed in her article "Library Hand, the Fastidiously Neat Penmanship Style Made for Card Catalogs," Dewey made a number of tests in which note-taking hand proved speedier. But the Edisonian script scored higher in legibility, and the librarians also made fewer mistakes when using it. For these reasons, and also for the sake of general uniformity, Edison's demotic hand became the basis for the ubiquitous library hand of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century card catalogs and as such became familiar to almost any American who frequented the library.

Further reading: