Sunday, August 30, 2009

Foenetic Speler...Edward Rondthaler

Edward Rondthaler
June 9th, 1905 to August 19th, 2009

If this were universally adopted what a revolution in linguistics--might make Wittgenstein smile.

"Edward Rondthaler, Foenetic Speler, Dies at 104"


Margalit Fox

August 30th, 2009

The New York Times

Edward Rondthaler was one of the 20th century’s foremost men of letters — actual, physical, audible letters. As an outspoken advocate of spelling reform, he spent decades trying to impose order on his 26 lawless charges. As a noted typographer who first plied his trade 99 years ago, he helped bring the art of typesetting from the age of hot metal into the modern era.

From the early 1960s on, Mr. Rondthaler was known publicly for his energetic campaign to respell English, a cause that over the centuries has been the quixotic mission of an impassioned few. To spell the language as it sounds, he argued, would vanquish orthographic hobgoblins, promote literacy and make accessible to foreign readers English classics like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” — or, more properly, “Oed to a Nietingael” — whose opening lines appear on this page.

Long before that, Mr. Rondthaler had already established a national reputation by helping usher in the age of photographic typesetting. Phototypesetting was for decades a vital bridge between the hot-metal days of old and the digital typography of today.

A man of strong constitution and ardent enthusiasms, Mr. Rondthaler died on Aug. 19. He was 104 and attributed his longevity to having taken cold showers daily since 1918.

His death, at his home in Cedar City, Utah, was confirmed by his son, Tim. Mr. Rondthaler previously lived for many years in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Mr. Rondthaler first became known more than 70 years ago for his seminal work in photographic typesetting. In the mid-1930s, he and a colleague, Harold Horman, perfected a phototypesetting device that helped streamline the traditional art of setting type. Known as the Rutherford photo-lettering machine, it was one of the first such devices in wide commercial use.

Armed with their new machine, the two men founded Photo-Lettering Inc., a highly respected New York typographic house whose clients included many of the country’s best-known magazines and advertising agencies.

But over time, Mr. Rondthaler came to feel his beloved letters were traducing him with their unruly behavior on the printed page. So he took up the standard for spelling reform. For decades afterward, he championed SoundSpel, a simplified English spelling system he had refined from an earlier model.

“Foenetic speling wil maek reeding and rieting neerly automatic for evrybody,” Mr. Rondthaler wrote in SoundSpel, in a passage quoted by The New York Times in a 1977 profile.

Mr. Rondthaler was a past president and the chairman emeritus of the American Literacy Council, an organization dedicated to, among other things, simplifying English spelling. With Edward J. Lias, he edited the reference book “Dictionary of American Spelling: A Simplified Alternative Spelling for the English Language” (American Language Academy, 1986).

Edward Rondthaler III was born on June 9, 1905, in Bethlehem, Pa. His father was a bishop of the Moravian Church, as was his paternal grandfather. Edward III was reared in Winston-Salem, N.C., where his father was president of Salem College.

At 5, Edward received a toy printing press as a gift and began publishing his own newspaper. (It was a very small newspaper, about the size of a postcard, his son said.) Only a few years later, he and a friend opened a print shop in a nearby basement, doing jobs for paying customers; they ran the business through high school and for a year afterward, to earn college money.

After studying at Westminster Choir College — besides singing, he played the flute, oboe and bassoon — Mr. Rondthaler earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1929. He wrote his senior thesis on the effects of different typefaces on the reader’s perception of a text.

Mr. Rondthaler then moved to New York, where he was an art director for a commercial typesetter. In 1936, he and Mr. Horman founded Photo-Lettering, which specialized in headline and display type. The company was built around their new phototypesetting machine, which helped modernize a technology that had changed little in hundreds of years.

For centuries, type was cast in molten lead and set painstakingly by hand. In the mid-20th century, the advent of phototypesetting freed the alphabet from its leaden shackles, making it possible to manipulate letters as pure photographic images. The process let type be shrunk, enlarged, stretched and squeezed without casting a single drop of metal.

Mr. Rondthaler also helped found the International Typeface Corporation, which designed and licensed many commercial fonts, and the Type Directors Club.

Unleashed on the page, however, Mr. Rondthaler’s letters grew devious. “O,” a small sweet orb in the typographer’s hand, became a shape-shifting fiend, pronounced “owe” (as in so), “ah” (as in on) and “ih” (as in women). And so on.

Such anarchy, Mr. Rondthaler came to believe, helped cause illiteracy and with it, a web of social ills. Among them, as he wrote in the 1977 profile in The Times, were “jooveniel delinquensy, criem-in-th-streets, hard cor unemploiment and poverty.”

In promoting SoundSpel, Mr. Rondthaler cast his lot with some eminent spelling-reform advocates of the past. One was George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), who established a bequest for the design of a new English alphabet. Another was President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1906 decreed that 300 English words be officially respelled. (After a vitriolic, highly literate national debate that raged in the newspapers for months, the House of Representatives rejected the plan.)

If Mr. Rondthaler’s campaign, like most efforts to reform English spelling, did not bear much fruit, he had a great deal else to occupy his time. He wrote several books, among them “Alphabet Thesaurus: A Treasury of Letter Designs” (Reinhold, 1960) and a memoir, “Life With Letters — As They Turned Photogenic” (Hastings House, 1981).

He was a prolific writer of letters to the editor, of this newspaper and others, on a variety of subjects. He wrote a song honoring the 100th anniversary of the Croton Dam. He invented things, including a slide rule that calculated currency-exchange rates and another slide rule that computed cooking times of foods based on weight.

After he turned 100, Mr. Rondthaler embarked on a new career in television commercials, appearing in campaigns for Pearle Vision and Genworth Financial.

Besides his son Tim, Mr. Rondthaler is survived by six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Two other sons, Edward IV and David Lee, died before him; his wife of 72 years, the former Dorothy Reid, died in 2002.

In 1920, at 15, young Mr. Rondthaler bought a 2-cent card and addressed it to a classmate. Inside, he wrote, “The bluebirds are flying from my heart to you.” His message was written in standard orthography.

Reader, she married him.

Collector's collector--Lester Glassner

Lester Glassner
February 23rd, 1939 to August 9th, 2009

In early April of this year I posted a poll on "collecting". The result was 50/50. In The Los Angeles Times this morning was an obituary for Lester Glassner a collector's collector of pop culture. This is an extreme case of collecting and blows my comment about the dispersal of a collection when one gets older. Glassner was 70.

"Lester Glassner dies at 70; Collector of pop-culture and dime-store merchandise"

His collecting began with a Mickey Mouse lamp he bought in the early 1960s, and grew to a massive assortment of vintage movie memorabilia, dime-store merchandise and other pop-culture artifacts.


Dennis McLellan

August 30th, 2009

The Los Angeles Times

When Lester Glassner died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 9 in hospice care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City at age 70, he left behind a major part of his life that he had spent nearly 50 years accumulating.

The one-time picture editor, designer and art librarian for CBS Records had a massive collection of vintage movie memorabilia, dime-store merchandise and other pop-culture artifacts numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For more than three decades, Glassner's large and diverse collection filled his four-story 19th century brownstone home on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

It began with a Mickey Mouse lamp that he bought for a couple of dollars at a junk shop in Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1960s.

"He just started building collections of all sorts from his 20s forward, and he never stopped," said his sister, Freda Honig.

Glassner's longtime obsession led to his collaborating with photographer Brownie Harris on "Dime-Store Days," an illustrated book published by Viking Press in 1981 and featuring prime samples from his various collections.

The book included a foreword by a friend of Glassner's, British writer and gay icon Quentin Crisp. The introduction was written by another friend: Anita Loos, author of the 1925 comic novel "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

In her introduction, Loos wrote of a young Glassner finding escape during World War II by wandering the aisles of five-and-dime stores that were laden with "treasures so colorful that they turned his whole drab life into a world of fantasy."

Glassner's highly personal book spurred cover stories on him in antique and collectible magazines, as well as a visit to his East Village home by the "Today" show.

So impressively enormous was Glassner's overall collection that a visitor once declared it to be "impossible to imagine beforehand or exaggerate after seeing."

"It was on every floor, and he had showcases everywhere," Honig said. "There are so many collections within collections."

"There are hats. When Anita Loos passed away, she left him her hat collection. There are mechanical toys. There are World War II propaganda posters. There are antique Seven Dwarfs of various types. . . . Oh, and he had a huge collection of antique postcards of all types. And autographed photos of famous people."

That's not to mention chalk, ceramic and porcelain figurines, rare celluloid toys, Halloween masks, clothes, antique sleighs, dolls, 78-revolutions-per-minute records, art glass, movie posters, movie stills, lobby cards and a host of other items.

Glassner's collection of movie stills alone numbers more than 250,000 photos, many of them rare.

"He also had an antique jewelry collection," Honig said. "I don't know how I couldn't start by telling you about that. It is absolutely massive. But he's left that collection to me, which was very sweet of him to do."

Honig said the front room of her brother's home on East 7th Street "was kept darkened when it wasn't being shown to protect it from the elements. And the air conditioning was kept on, so it was climate-controlled the best he could in a house of that age to keep things in pristine condition."

Louis Pappas, a friend and fellow collector who first met Glassner in the 1960s and described him as a "very genteel, very cerebral person," said first-time visitors to Glassner's home were no less than stupefied by what they saw.

"The collection was that enormous," said Pappas, a former East Village resident now living in Brooklyn. "It was almost like a museum, really, the whole place. I'd say it was one of the major collections in the world."

"I cleaned his collection at one time -- the toys -- piece by piece. It took me months."

Honig said she never questioned her brother's longtime obsession with collecting.

"It was just part of Lester," she said. "It was who he was."

Born Feb. 23, 1939, in Buffalo, Glassner grew up in a number of upstate New York cities, such as Auburn and Syracuse.

A 1961 graduate of Pratt Institute in New York City, he designed more than 50 books during his career, most of them movie-related. He was involved in a new design for the American Heritage Dictionary.

An exhibition of selected pieces from Glassner's "Dime-Store Days" collection was presented in Tokyo in 1987. In 2005, Glassner's World War II American Propaganda collection was exhibited in Japan alongside examples of Japanese propaganda posters.

In 2001, he donated nearly 500 movie posters to the Library of Congress.

Seeking a quieter area to live in, Glassner decided to pack up and move from the East Village to a refurbished five-story home in Harlem last year.

"It was," Honig acknowledged with a laugh, "no easy feat."

She said, however, that her brother had a couple of medical problems before he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and never had the time to unpack his collection.

An assistant who had worked with her brother for years has been at the home in Harlem unpacking and organizing things since July, Honig said.

Before he died, Glassner made plans to donate more than 2,500 books to the library at Buffalo State College.

"It is one of the largest donations we've ever received for special collections, because many of the books were 18th and 19th century children's books and books that dealt exclusively with the African American experience in the United States," said Maryruth Glogowski, associate vice president for library and instructional technology at Buffalo State College.

"He also has a large collection of art, photography, architecture, fashion, painting and sculpture books, and those will go into the general collection," she said.

The donation of books will be known as the Lester Glass- ner Collection.

"That," his sister said, "is his legacy."

In addition to Honig, Glassner is survived by his brother, William.

"Collecting things" poll

Evil/good...companions of human existence?

It is difficult to rationalize the co-existence of evil and good in human existence. Maybe it is a necessary relationship. Maybe it is the Hegelian dialectic in action. Maybe it is the manifestation of the dichotomy of the way the universe functions...a universe of opposites regardless of the pain and suffering. Wars and their evil regimes do in a way curb over population, hone the technology of science, stir and shift politics and redefine geography. A life with conflict, however large or small, may be an inherent characteristic of mankind. And neither all evil is bad nor goodness good.

I am reminded of a particular scene of Graham Greene's novel The Third Man brought to the silver screen in 1949 staring Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins [a writer of westerns who winds up in post war Vienna at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime] and Orson Welles [the evil representation of greed and easy money]. Harry has been specifically stealing penicillin [among other things], diluting the drug, and selling the product. It is assumed that Lime had died but Martins doubts the claim and attempts to discover Lime's whereabouts. Finally they meet at an amusement park and board a Ferris wheel where Martin challenges Lime and his activities. Harry Lime finally responds...

Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Think about it, good and evil just may be an integral part of humanity.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

NASA Patches

Patches. Symbolic and allowing us to identify with an event or cause or whatever. They have been around a long time. Wired has discovered some most unusual from NASA.

"NASA’s Most Awesomely Weird Mission Patches"

NASA Patches

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Serendipity in the sciences--especially astronomy

Luck, chance, serendipity. A. C. Fabian in "Serendipity in Astronomy" has offered his opinion...

Astronomy is an observationally-led subject where chance discoveries play an important role. A whole range of such discoveries is continually made, from the trivial to the highly significant. What is generally needed is for luck to strike someone who is prepared, in the sense that they appreciate that something novel has been seen. “Chance favours the prepared mind” in the words of Pasteur (1854).

This is one definition of serendipitous discovery, first identified as such by Horace Walpole in a letter in 1754 to Horace Mann on discussing a Persian tale of three Princes of Serendip. We shall hear Several more interpretations1 are outlined in these chapters, but I shall stick with the concept of a chance or unplanned discovery. In contrast with school laboratory science where the aim is to plan and carry out an experiment in controlled conditions, in general astronomers cannot do this and must rely on finding something or a situation which suits. Often, the possibilities afforded by a phenomenon are only appreciated later, after the surprise of the discovery has worn off.

"Serendipity in Astronomy"


Fuel leak on space shuttle Discovery

Again a mechanical problem has delayed the shuttle and cost more millions.

"Space shuttle launch postponed again"


Irene Klotz

August 25th, 2009


NASA delayed a Wednesday morning liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery because of an apparent problem with a valve in its fuel tank.

It was the second consecutive delay, after stormy weather postponed a launch attempt early on Tuesday. Discovery and its seven-member crew were preparing for a 13-day supply mission to the International Space Station.

The valve problem surfaced as technicians began fueling up the shuttle for a launch set for 1:10 a.m. EDT (0510 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"It appears we have a broken fill-and-drain valve," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. "It may not be broken, it may be an indicator that was not giving a proper reading."

Managers did not immediately set a new launch date. NASA has until Sunday to get Discovery off the launch pad before the flight would likely be reset for October due to scheduling conflicts with other launches and tests at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

In addition, the International Space Station is preparing for its first cargo ship from Japan and cannot receive the shuttle and the new Japanese vehicle simultaneously.

Discovery is scheduled to deliver lab equipment, supplies and spare parts to the station.

Including Discovery's flight, NASA plans seven more shuttle missions to the space station. The 16-nation, $100 billion project is nearing completion after more than a decade of construction 220 miles above Earth.

The shuttles are being retired late next year or early 2011. NASA is working on a new type of spaceship called Orion that can travel beyond the station's orbit to the moon and other destinations.

After the shuttle program ends, the station will depend on Russian, European and Japanese vehicles, though none has nearly the lift capacity of the shuttle, which can haul 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg).

Discovery carries new science racks, a freezer, a sleep station, a second treadmill, food, clothing, supplies and spare parts for the station, including an 1,800-pound (800 kg) ammonia coolant tank that will be installed during two of the spacewalks.

Among the experiments planned for the station is a bone-loss study that uses genetically altered mice as subjects. The mice are flying to the station aboard Discovery and will be left aboard until the next shuttle mission in November.

Good reason to keep feet on the ground

Shuttle Discovery is ready to GO...finally

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Arthur Ganson--kinetic art...definitely some science

Probably 99% of all art that is produced is static but the kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson are dynamic and has motion. This adds a whole new dimension to the philosophy of aesthetics.

Arthur Ganson's Sculpture

From TED...

Arthur Ganson

Arthur Ganson's website

"Revlog-IBM" film and the "powers of ten"

A fun, short film on the "powers of ten" and the big and small universe conceived and narrated by Philip Morrison from MIT.

Philip Morrison...physicist

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Isis"--journal: philosophy of science

If you have interest in the philosophy of science you may be interested in the journal Isis. It is mostly a journal by subscription but many times select articles are for free. Here is a sample.

Focus: Historicizing “Popular Science”


Jonathan R. Topham


While historical studies of “popular science,” variously conceived, have grown in number and sophistication, they have sometimes seemed marginal to the discipline. James Secord's recent call to reintegrate the histories of both science popularization and science in popular culture within a more comprehensive history of “knowledge in transit” promises to overcome this marginalization. At the same time, however, Secord suggests that “popular science” should be abandoned as a “neutral descriptive term” because it is historically freighted, not least with “diffusionist baggage.” This Focus section explores the historical and historiographical implications of abandoning an essentialist definition of “popular science” and of examining instead its complex and varied history as an actors' category during the last two centuries. The essays emphasize the importance of transnational and interdisciplinary perspectives in exploring the very diverse ways in which the discourses and practices of “popular science” have been employed. In addition, they consider the implications of the modernity of such discourses and practices for the history of science in the longue durée.

HISTORICAL STUDIES OF “POPULAR SCIENCE”—viewed variously as science popularization and as science (or natural knowledge) in popular culture—have not only proliferated in recent decades; they have also become increasingly sophisticated in their historiographies. For many within the history of science, however, they have continued to appear marginal rather than fundamental to the discipline. In part, this has resulted from the difficulty of establishing a larger theoretical framework in which such work can be related to the discipline as a whole. Indeed, in a now‐classic article, published in 1994, Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey strove to demonstrate that “the history of popular science” was inevitably fragmented. The coherence that had previously been achieved by making “science popularization” the object of study was false, they claimed, since it privileged “authorized science” and “stunted the investigation of science in popular culture as a result.” At the same time, they argued, “science in popular culture” could not be made the object of study of a separate subdiscipline, since doing so would involve a naive disregard of the manner in which the “élitism of scientific discourse immediately delegitimizes popular experiences and epistemologies of ‘nature.’” In the one case, the slippage between “popular science” in the dative case (science for the people) and “popular science” in the genitive and ablative cases (the science of or by the people) had led to the perpetuation of a diffusionist mentality. In the other case, the attempt to separate the two had proved ill founded, since all natural knowledge—even the radical transmutationism of street demagogues or the Mosaic geology of biblical literalists—was unavoidably entangled with established science, itself often known through popularization. These are serious, if not necessarily insuperable, concerns, and they have left the subject “bereft of master narratives.”1 Nevertheless, it is surely desirable that historians transcend the fragmentation of isolated case studies and discover common themes and methods that allow research to progress within a larger framework that facilitates comparative perspectives.

One way of achieving this, while remaining alive to Cooter and Pumfrey's concerns, is to reintegrate the histories both of science popularization and of science in popular culture within a reconceptualized history of science in which science is understood, to use James Secord's phrase, as “a form of communicative action.” In “Knowledge in Transit,” Secord urges the importance of applying to our historical practice the well‐established theoretical insight that there is no genuine separation between the making and the communication of knowledge. Questions of “how knowledge travels, to whom it is available, and how agreement is achieved” are, he points out, fundamental to the making of knowledge, and in this sense the process of knowledge making involves communication, rather than merely being followed by it. Secord's new approach thus places the practices of science popularization firmly within the process of knowledge making, alongside such other communicative practices as talking and note taking in laboratory or field, writing research papers, defending research findings within learned societies and congresses, advising on government policy as an expert witness, and teaching students in classrooms and laboratories. Similarly, it makes the place of science in popular culture central to understanding how the knowledge claims of scientific elites were established in relation to the full range of competing knowledge claims within a culture. In Secord's hands, the history of popular science disappears as a disciplinary subfield, only to reappear at the heart of the discipline. Moreover, he goes so far as to advocate (as I have done elsewhere) that “‘popular science’ and its cognates” would be better abandoned as “neutral descriptive term[s],” since they have “an exceptionally rich and multivocal history” and tend to carry “diffusionist baggage” with them.2

Secord's radical proposal regarding the reintegration of the history of popular science within a larger history of “knowledge in transit” offers a powerful means of establishing a coherent framework of analysis, while avoiding the pitfalls identified by Cooter and Pumfrey. It is this approach, of course, that underpins his signal achievement in Victorian Sensation, in which, by studying the processes of communication associated with Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—a work formerly understood primarily as part of a history of popular science—he is able to provide a radically revisionist account of the “Darwinian revolution.” Subjecting Vestiges to “the most comprehensive analysis of the reading of any book other than the Bible ever undertaken,” he shows how the engagement of a wide range of individuals and groups with the book, made possible as a consequence of the industrial transformation in the supply of print media, was a “turning point” in the process by which evolution took a pivotal role in the public arena in Britain. Moreover, rather than creating a crisis, Darwin's Origin of Species helped resolve the tensions between scientific specialists critical of Vestiges' science and those for whom its developmental cosmology represented the basis for a reformation of society. Thus, he claims, “what once made sense as the ‘Darwinian Revolution’ must be recast as an episode in the industrialization of communication and the transformation of reading audiences.”3 In my view, this worked example amply demonstrates the value and robustness of Secord's solution to the “popular science” conundrum.
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If, like Secord, we are to believe that what historians once studied as “popular science” should now be studied as part of a wider economy of “knowledge in transit,” why should Isis devote a Focus section to “popular science” at all? The answer lies in Secord's observation that, as an actors' category, “popular science” has a complex and varied history and has accomplished diverse ends for those who have used it. While it may fail us as a fixed and supposedly neutral descriptive vocabulary to be applied retrospectively to past events, the lexicon of “popular science,” and the work that it has done for historical actors, is itself richly deserving of historical study. Just as historians have increasingly paid attention to the work done by such key historical concepts as “genius” and “objectivity,” so there is much to be gained by historicizing “popular science” and cognate concepts.4 When and where did such notions originate? What ambiguities and complexities have they exhibited, and in what diverse and perhaps conflicting ways have they been used? How has their meaning and use changed over time, and what differences and continuities have their histories exhibited in different regions, countries, and languages?

It is not the object of this Focus section to answer such questions systematically but, rather, to reflect on the consequences of historicizing “popular science” in this way. Taken as actors' categories, the diverse international lexicons of “popular science,” “science populaire,” and “Populärwissenschaft” (to mention just three linguistic variations) have been used to organize scientific activity and discourse for barely two centuries. They are unmistakably phenomena of modern times. To some extent, they share common origins in Europe and North America in such large‐scale changes as the industrialization of print communication and the emergence of the disciplinary sciences. Yet, as several of the contributors emphasize here, highly diverse factors also operated in their histories in different countries and language groups. Furthermore, while there were identifiable moments in history at which such notions as “popular science” began to be used to organize the production and status of knowledge, they were contested from the outset, acquiring multiple meanings and being endlessly reinvented over time. Indeed, just as the discourses and practices of “popular science” came into currency at a historically specific moment, there is no reason why they may not pass out of currency again and become obsolete. In an age in which competing neologisms from PUS (Public Understanding of Science) to PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology) are offered as alternatives to “popular science,” we are particularly obliged, as Bernadette Bensaude‐Vincent points out in her contribution to this Focus section, to be historically reflexive.

It was to the broad historiographical ramifications of recognizing this short, modern history of “popular science” that the contributors to this Focus section were invited to address themselves. Moreover, by involving scholars whose historical expertise encompassed several disciplines and a number of temporal and geographical loci—ranging over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States—the section was intended to develop comparative perspectives. The essays that follow thus provide a rich array of historiographical reflections on the significance of the historicity of “popular science” for the history of science. First, Andreas Daum examines certain “imbalances” in the existing historiography of “popular science” to urge the need for more comparative and transnational perspectives, concluding that the field ultimately needs to be integrated into a larger interdisciplinary history of public knowledge. Ralph O'Connor's essay continues this interdisciplinary emphasis, drawing valuable insights from cultural and literary history in order to provide an incisive reassessment of how “popular science” should be handled, both as an actors' and as a historians' category. Katherine Pandora's essay returns to the transnational theme, examining “popular science” in the antebellum United States to emphasize both its temporal and geographic diversity and its fundamental importance to the scientific enterprise. Finally, Bernadette Bensaude‐Vincent uses the recent changes in the conceptualization of “popular science” to illuminate its history over the last two centuries, before suggesting the need to develop a longue durée history of science and its “others.” While the contributors' perspectives are thus productively diverse, I seek in this introduction to draw out several common themes that run through them. First, I review the importance of transnational and interdisciplinary perspectives in developing the history of “popular science.” Second, I consider how such a time‐delimited history might be situated in relation to the historical longue durée. Finally, I conclude with a brief assessment of the value to the discipline at large of these historicized approaches to “popular science.”
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In seeking to explore the historicity of “popular science” and its cognates, several of the contributors are able to draw on increasingly well‐developed national histories of popular science to emphasize the radically different manner in which these discourses and practices have been developed and deployed in different countries. This is particularly evident in relation to linguistic differences in the vocabulary of “popular science,” as both Bensaude‐Vincent and Daum have previously noted. For instance, the neologism “vulgariser,” which Bensaude‐Vincent and Anne Rasmussen see as supplanting the more inclusive “populariser” in late nineteenth‐century France, has no proper equivalent in English. Similarly, the nineteenth‐century German vocabulary of “Wissenschaftspopularisierung” cannot properly be rendered as “science popularization” because, as Daum points out, the meaning of “Wissenschaft” extends so much further than the English word “science.”5 Such linguistic fractures emphasize the multiform history of “popular science.” However, even in two countries that share a common language and heritage, the development of the notion of “popular science” clearly exhibits significant differences. An excellent example of this is found in Pandora's account of the radically divergent notions of “popular science” that developed in early nineteenth‐century Britain and the antebellum United States, notwithstanding that the terminology and some of the key publications were imported from one to the other. For Pandora, the comparison not only points up the distinctive democratizing republican ethos of the antebellum United States but also highlights the singularity of the British context, which has sometimes (as Daum points out) seemed normative.

Such transnational studies, involving not merely comparisons between nations but also an appreciation of their interconnectedness, clearly have much to offer the historian of “popular science”—as of science more generally. However, despite the burgeoning of studies of “popular science” in different national contexts, little has yet been done to establish such perspectives. In the vanguard has been the research group “Science and Technology in the European Periphery” (STEP), which has fostered research on the transmission of scientific knowledge between centers and peripheries in Europe and has recently turned its attention to “popular science.” For these scholars, popularization is “one of the practices of appropriation” by which scientific and technological knowledge has moved around and been transformed within Europe. One of their key findings is that “popular science” had a significant role to play in the “discourse of modernity” and “the construction of the perception of a national scientific culture” in several “peripheral” countries, in a way quite distinct from its role in France, Germany, and Britain. In a somewhat analogous manner, Eugenia Roldán Vera's study of the export of William Pinnock's educational catechisms to newly independent Spanish‐American countries in the early nineteenth century exposes the manner in which “science popularization” was there “linked to the needs of legitimacy of the new political elites” and “was inscribed in a process of import of foreign scientific models and in the context of a relation of economic domination by the emerging European powers.”6 By outlining the ideological malleability and transnational appropriation of notions of “popular science,” these pioneering studies help to expose both the historical contingency and the interconnectedness of such notions in different contexts.

In addition to highlighting the manifold ideological constructions of “popular science” in different geographical contexts, several of the essays here also emphasize the extent to which the “scientific” element of it has varied historically and geographically. In English, of course, the term “science” was long applied to any formal department of learning, but in the early nineteenth century it came increasingly to be applied exclusively to “natural and physical science.” It was in this highly restricted sense that “popular science” and “science popularization” came into English usage (in stark contrast, as we have seen, to “Wissenschaftspopularisierung”). Moreover, as O'Connor points out, this transformation was accompanied by related changes, including the development of the distinction between “scientific” and “literary” productions. Such changes in the map of knowledge again require the historian to de‐essentialize “popular science” and to examine carefully its shifting and contested boundaries with other aspects of culture. Several of the contributors to this Focus section urge the importance of these interdisciplinary perspectives. For instance, O'Connor points out the extent to which the history of “popular science” can benefit by appreciating the literary craft of “popular science” writing and by applying to it a more adequate understanding of genre. Similarly, Pandora points out interesting parallels between increasingly expert‐dominated notions of popular science in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and what Lawrence Levine calls the “sacralization of culture.” Both of these contributors emphasize how much is to be learned about the history of “popular science” from historians of other aspects of “popular” culture. As Daum notes, our preoccupation with the privileged epistemology of science might have left us with too “exclusive” a focus.
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Of course, one of the key ways in which the project of historicizing “popular science” impinges on the practice of historians is in focusing attention on the changes in such notions and their use over time. In particular, as several of the contributors point out, important temporal changes have taken place in the politics of knowledge that have been associated with “popular science.” The long‐standing dominance of the “diffusionist” model of science popularization, which protects scientific expertise by asserting that nonspecialists apprehend scientific knowledge through a process of dilution and distortion, has perhaps tended to obscure the changing and multiform character of “popular science” in this regard. Yet the extent to which discourses and practices of “popular science” have been intended to exclude individuals from knowledge making has always been contested. In Britain, as in several other countries, one of the driving forces behind the development of a discourse of “popular science” was the commercial imperative of publishers, editors, and authors who wished to maximize the market for their products. For such individuals, the exclusionary usage associated with the “diffusionist” notion would clearly have been counterproductive. Similarly, as Anne Secord has argued, “popular botany” in early nineteenth‐century Britain was considered by many expert naturalists to be “the means by which private individuals could best be encouraged to extend their aesthetic appreciation and love of plants to an active and participatory pursuit of science.” Rather than being exclusionary, Secord shows, the notion of “popularization” involved individuals in botanical practice, while at the same time organizing and constraining their participation.7 In a preprofessional context, as Pandora's essay emphasizes for the antebellum United States, a discourse of “popular science” could readily serve to organize a scientific division of labor.

In Britain and the United States, it is clear that the development of more exclusionary uses of the lexicon of “popular science” was related to some extent to the professionalization of science in the later nineteenth century. For instance, while Susan Sheets‐Pyenson discovered a “low science” ideology in the popular science magazines of early nineteenth‐century Britain, she found this transformed by the 1860s; as Ruth Barton puts it, the new popular science magazines “sought not participation from amateurs, but support for professionals.” Bensaude‐Vincent has suggested that it was in the years after World War I, with the emergence of the new physics and related epistemological changes, that an unbridgeable gap began to be posited between scientists and the public. This was given expression, she claims, in the shift from an inclusive vocabulary of “popular science,” first to “science popularization” and then to “science communication.”8 As we have seen, however, Bensaude‐Vincent considers even this to be a temporary development, which is beginning to be displaced by the recent development of an alternative conceptualization. Moreover, as Daum observes, the rich history of the vicissitudes of “popular science” in the twentieth century has barely begun to be told.

Of course, the observation that the discourses and practices of “popular science” have a short history not only helps us to appreciate their historicity but also raises questions about the alternative configurations of knowledge they replaced or supplemented. It would, for instance, have made no sense to speak of “popular science” in Britain before 1800, and several eighteenth‐century historians have consequently paid considerable attention over recent decades to related but distinct discourses and practices of “public” and “polite” science.9 Moreover, the transitions between such different configurations of knowledge are clearly of fundamental historical interest. Is it, then, still appropriate to construct a longue durée history that encompasses these related phenomena within a single conceptual framework? Several of the contributors here address this question directly. For Daum, the multiform “popular science” of the modern era should be examined as one expression of a longue durée history of “public knowledge.” According to Bensaude‐Vincent, “popular science” has been one moment in a longue durée history of “science and common knowledge,” since, she argues, the distinction between “epistemê and doxa” was a “foundational gesture” of Western science. Finally, while O'Connor endorses Secord's longue durée framework of “knowledge in transit,” he nevertheless seeks to rescue “popular science” as an “umbrella‐category” that can properly be applied by historians to a wide range of phenomena over the longue durée.

While each of these approaches has much to recommend it, my own preferred approach continues to be that outlined by Secord. This places “popular science” and its cognates within the widest possible comparative frame, dismantling artificial distinctions between this historically specific set of discourses and practices and others, such as lab talk, note taking, monographic publication, pedagogy, correspondence, travels, translation, and, indeed, the “public science” of eighteenth‐century Britain. Moreover, as we have seen, its fundamental thrust is to break down the distinction between the making and the communication of knowledge that has so bedeviled the historiography of popular science. In Secord's historiography, the fact that “popular science” has been used by actors and historians alike to refer variously to science for the people, the science of the people, and science by the people ceases to be a problem. All of these are considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry, contributing to a common project of understanding how knowledge comes to be constituted and reconstituted within culture. It is this that makes the history of “popular science” a central aspect of the history of modern science, without which, as Pandora argues in regard to the United States, our understanding is impoverished.
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Whither, then, the history of “popular science”? The contributors to this Focus section are agreed that, just like “public science,” the discourses and practices of “popular science” and its cognates are historical phenomena worthy of serious attention. In this restricted sense, it is time, as Christopher Hamlin puts it, “to rehabilitate popularization, the category that dares not speak its name.”10 It is highly instructive, these essays suggest, to consider how such formulations arose in the modern era and how they have since changed. Moreover, it is especially productive to examine how differently they have been formulated in different places and languages and how these multiple histories have been interconnected. Much is also to be gained, the contributors argue, from an interdisciplinary focus on how “popular science” has been intertwined historically with the histories of other formulations of “popular” or “public” culture. Taken all in all, this amounts to a large‐scale research program, which promises to bring together in a productive manner research on a variety of fronts, addressing various problematics and using a range of methodologies.

At the same time, the contributors' historicization of “popular science” makes fully visible the extent to which an essentialist definition of the term fails to meet the needs of the historian. As O'Connor ably argues, this does not necessarily sound the death knell of “popular science” as a historian's pragmatic shorthand. Even in this highly restricted form, however, O'Connor suggests that historians should subject the term to constant scrutiny, in order to avoid importing unwanted assumptions into their historiography. More radical would be Secord's and my suggested abandonment of “popular science” as a “neutral descriptive term.” As we have seen, this need not leave us bereft of longue durée perspectives, and Secord's own “knowledge in transit” approach is here supplemented by Daum and Bensaude‐Vincent's emphasis on the longue durée history of “public knowledge” and of “science and its ‘others.’” Moreover, while the contributors here disagree about the best strategy to achieve the end, they are agreed that the essentialist use of the term “popular science” to distinguish the communicating of knowledge from its making has no place in the historian's analytical armory. The discourses and practices commonly designated by such terms as “popular science” in the modern era are, these essays suggest, fundamental aspects of the history of science, not merely adjunct topics to be studied by specialists within a separate subfield.

This Focus section was organized by Jonathan Topham. I am grateful to Bernard Lightman for making the section possible and for his constant encouragement, support, and expert guidance. I would also like to thank Lightman, Ralph O'Connor, and Roberta Topham for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this introduction and the contributors for engaging in a most thoughtful and enlightening dialogue on this topic.

1 Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey, “Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture,” History of Science, 1994, 32:237–267, on p. 253.

2 James A. Secord, “Knowledge in Transit,” Isis, 2004, 95:654–672, on pp. 661, 670. See also Jonathan R. Topham, “Beyond the ‘Common Context’: The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises,” ibid., 1998, 89:233–262; Topham, “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth‐Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 2000, 31A:559–612; and Topham, “Rethinking the History of Science Popularization/Popular Science,” in Popularizing Science and Technology in the European Periphery, 1800–2000, ed. Faidra Papanelopoulou, Agustí Nieto‐Galan, and Enrique Perdiguero (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).

3 James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 2, 4, 514.

4 Lorraine Daston, “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,” Social Studies of Science, 1992, 22:597–618; Daston, “Scientific Objectivity with and without Words,” in Little Tools of Knowledge: Historical Essays on Academic and Bureaucratic Practices, ed. Peter Becker and William Clark (Ann Arbor: Univ. Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 259–284; and Simon Schaffer, “Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 82–98.

5 Bernadette Bensaude‐Vincent and Anne Rasmussen, “Introduction,” in La science populaire dans la presse et l'édition XIXe et XXe siècles, ed. Bensaude‐Vincent and Rasmussen (Paris: CNRS, 1997), pp. 13–30, on p. 14; and Andreas W. Daum, Wissenschaftspopularisierung im 19. Jahrhundert: Bürgerliche Kultur, naturwissenschaftliche Bildung und die deutsche Öffentlichkeit, 1849–1914 (1998; Munich: Oldenbourg, 2002), pp. 33–42. See also Daum's contribution to this Focus section.

6 Agustí Nieto‐Galan and Faidra Papanelopoulou, “Science, Technology, and the Public in the European Periphery: A Report of the Fifth STEP Meeting (1–3 June 2006, Mahon [Minorca]),” Journal of Science Communication, 2006, 5(4):1–5, on pp. 1, 3; and Eugenia Roldán Vera, The British Book Trade and Spanish American Independence: Education and Knowledge Transmission in Transcontinental Perspective (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p. 3. It was an invitation from the STEP group to deliver a keynote address at their 2006 meeting that led me to explore further the historicizing of “popular science” and to propose this Focus section to the editor of Isis; see Topham, “Rethinking the History of Science Popularization/Popular Science” (cit n. 2), which gives a more detailed version of some of the arguments made here. Publications of the STEP group concerning popularization include Papanelopoulou et al., eds., Popularizing Science and Technology in the European Periphery (cit. n. 2); and Josep Simon and Néstor Herran, eds., Beyond Borders: Fresh Perspectives in History of Science (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008), esp. Pt. 3.

7 Stephen Hilgartner, “The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses,” Soc. Stud. Sci., 1990, 20:519–539; Jonathan R. Topham, “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, and Cheap Miscellanies in Early Nineteenth‐Century Britain,” in Geoffrey Cantor et al., Reading the Magazine of Nature: Science in the Nineteenth‐Century Periodical (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 37–66; Topham, “Publishing ‘Popular Science’ in Early Nineteenth‐Century Britain,” in Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth‐Century Sites and Experiences, ed. Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 135–168; and Anne Secord, “Botany on a Plate: Pleasure and the Power of Pictures in Promoting Early Nineteenth‐Century Scientific Knowledge,” Isis, 2002, 93:28–57, on p. 28.

8 Susan Sheets‐Pyenson, “Popular Science Periodicals in Paris and London: The Emergence of a Low Scientific Culture, 1820–1875,” Annals of Science, 1985, 42:549–572; Ruth Barton, “Just before Nature: The Purposes of Science and the Purposes of Popularization in Some English Popular Science Journals of the 1860s,” ibid., 1998, 55:1–33, on p. 3; and Bernadette Bensaude‐Vincent, “A Genealogy of the Increasing Gap between Science and the Public,” Public Understanding of Science, 2001, 10:99–113, on p. 106.

9 See, e.g., Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992); Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992); and Alice N. Walters, “Conversation Pieces: Science and Politeness in Eighteenth‐Century England,” Hist. Sci., 1997, 35:121–154.

10 Christopher Hamlin, “Games Editors Played or Knowledge Readers Made?” Isis, 2005, 96:633–642, on p. 642.


Ludvig Holberg and early sci-fi

Ludvig Holberg
December 3rd, 1684 to January 28th, 1754

Not exactly a well-known figure in the genre of science fiction literature but certainly a contributor is Ludvig Holberg and his sci-fi entry Niels Klim's Underground Travels.

Niels Klim's Underground Travels is significant in the history of science fiction being one of the first science-fiction novels in history, along with Lucian's A True Story, Johannes Kepler's Somnium [The Dream, 1634], Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon [1656], Voltaire's Micromégas [1752], and [1726] Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Plot synopsis [Wikipedia]...

The novel starts with a foreword that assures that everything in the story is a real account of the title character's exploits in the Underworld. The story is set, according to the book, in the Norwegian harbor town Bergen in 1664, after Klim returns from the university in Copenhagen, where he has studied philosophy and theology and graduated magna cum laude. His curiosity drives him to investigate a strange cave hole on the mountain above the town, which sends out regular gusts of warm air. He ends up falling down the hole, and after a while he finds himself floating in free space.

After a few days of orbiting the planet which revolves around the inner sun, he is attacked by a gryphon, and he falls down on the planet, which is named Nazar. There he wanders about for a short while until he is attacked once again, this time by an ox. He climbs up into a tree, and to his astonishment the tree can move and talk (this one screamed), and he is taken prisoner by tree-like creatures with up to six arms and a face right below the branches. He is accused of attempted rape on the town clerk's wife, and is put on trial. The case is dismissed and he is set by the Lord of Potu (the utopian state in which he now is located) to learn the language.

Klim quickly learns the language of the Potuans, but this reflects badly on him when the Lord is about to issue him with a job, because the Potuans believe that if you perceive a problem at a slower rate, the better you can understand and solve it. But, since he has considerably longer legs than the Potuans, who walk very slowly, he is set to be the Lord's personal courier, delivering letters and suchlike.

During the course of the book, Klim vividly chronicles the culture of the Potuans, their religion, their way of life and the many different countries located on Nazar. After his two-month long circumnavigation on foot, he is appalled by the fact that men and women are equal and shares the same kind of jobs, so he files a suggestion to the Lord of Potu to remove women from higher positions in society. His suggestion is poorly received and he is sentenced to be exiled to the inner rim of the Earth's crust. There he becomes familiar with a country inhabited by sentient monkeys, and after a few years he becomes emperor of the land of Quama, inhabited by the only creatures in the Underworld that look like humans. There, he marries and fathers a son. But again he is driven from hearth and home due to his tyranny and as he escapes he falls into a hole, which carries him through the crust and back up to Bergen again.

There, he is mistaken by the townsfolk to be the Wandering Jew, mostly due to a lingual misunderstanding (he asks a couple of young boys where he is in quamittian, which is Jeru Pikal Salim, and the boys think he talks about Jerusalem). He learns that he has been away for twelve years, and is taken in by his old friend, mayor Abelin, who writes down everything Klim tells him. He later receives a job as principal of the college of Bergen, and marries.

Kepler's Somnium and Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon as well as Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels are not available online but for purchase from various retailers or at one's local library.

Holberg is also responsible for the Norwegian Holberg International Memorial Prize [for outstanding scholarly work in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology].

Earliest science fiction

Monday, August 24, 2009

Deceased--Virginia Davis

Virginia Davis
December 31st, 1918 to August 15th, 2009

No, Virginia Davis was not a philosopher or scientist but a representation of what early animation was when Walt Disney began his career in Kansas City, Missouri. Animation has come a long way since those days and those films are still charming.

"Virginia Davis McGhee, Early Disney Star, Dies at 90"


Douglas Martin

August 22nd, 2009

New York Times

Virginia Davis McGhee, who as a curly-haired 4-year-old child star easily beat Mickey Mouse to the punch to become Walt Disney’s first cinematic star, died last Saturday at her home in Corona, Calif. She was 90.

The Walt Disney Company announced her death.

Walt Disney was fond of saying that his vast success “all started with a mouse.” But Virginia Davis, not the celebrity rodent, was the fetching star of a series of short silent films, issued in the 1920s under the general title “Alice in Cartoonland,” that featured the live Alice interacting with cartoon characters.

Facing bankruptcy at the time, the young Disney received the backing to make his proposed Alice series on one immutable condition: Miss Davis, star of Disney’s first film about Alice, “Alice’s Wonderland,” must continue to play the role. The series turned out to be his first success. Mickey did not come along until 1928.

Virginia Davis was born on Dec. 31, 1918, in Kansas City, Mo. Her father was a furniture salesman who was often away on business. Her mother sent her to dancing and acting school and enlisted her as a model and actress.

One job was for a filmed commercial for Warneker’s Bread in which she ate a piece of bread slathered with jelly, smiled broadly and smacked her lips. Disney saw the ad and was impressed.

By that time he had set up his own studio in Kansas City and had enjoyed some success with cartoons. He had made a note of the success of the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, with their “Out of the Inkwell” series, featuring animated characters in the real world. Disney wanted to reverse the gimmick by placing a real girl among animated figures.

He recruited Miss Davis and, as payment, offered her 5 percent from any money he received from the first film.

“Alice’s Wonderland” was filmed with Miss Davis performing in front of a white cloth draped over a billboard in a vacant lot. Disney would tell her whether to look happy, sad or frightened. The animated characters were added later.

The plots of the “Alice” films usually had her falling into a dream or being knocked out, then finding herself in another world, not unlike the original story of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” There were no rehearsals, and scenes were shot just once. Disney had no permit, so cast and crew would scurry away if a police officer was near. Neighborhood children and other passers-by became part of the movie.

In an interview for Neal Gabler’s book “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (2006), Miss Davis — by then Mrs. McGhee — recalled Disney’s favorite instruction: “Let’s pretend.”

After the first “Alice” had been shot, Disney, burdened by debts, moved to Hollywood. One of his creditors in Kansas City had seized the only copy of “Alice.” Then Margaret Winkler, a film distributor, became interested. Disney managed to get his hands on a copy of the film, and Ms. Winkler offered him a contract, providing that Miss Davis remained part of the deal.

Unbeknown to Disney, a doctor had advised moving Virginia to a warmer, drier climate because of health problems that included pneumonia. Hollywood fit the bill. And Disney assured her father that California was a fine place to sell furniture.

By the end of 1924 Miss Davis was earning $200 a month, but an animated cat named Julius eventually began to steal scenes from her, even though she still received top billing. (The cat’s detachable tail was particularly captivating.) Disney proposed cutting Miss Davis’s pay to $25 a day. Miss Davis’s mother refused, and the girl left the series.

Altogether Miss Davis made more than a dozen “Alice” films. Three other child actresses succeeded her in the role in what Disney said was a total of 56 silent short films.

Miss Davis started school when she was 7 and went on to play small parts in films for other studios, including “The Harvey Girls” (1946) and “Weekend in Havana” (1941). She also did a vocal test for Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and voiced some supporting characters in “Pinocchio” (1940). She always referred to Disney as Uncle Walt.

In 1943 she married Robert McGhee, a Navy aviator. He died after 59 years of marriage. Mrs. McGhee is survived by her daughters, Margaret Sufke and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and three grandchildren.

She once recalled that she was not plagued by autograph hunters when she was a star. She couldn’t write yet.

"Virginia Davis dies at 90; played Alice in early Disney short comedies"

Years before Mickey Mouse was created, a little girl with a heart-shaped face, a sweet smile and long blond ringlets was the star of a young Disney's combination live-action/animation series.


Dennis McLellan

August 20th, 2009

Los Angeles Times

Walt Disney was a struggling young cartoon filmmaker in Kansas City, Mo., in 1923 when he came up with the idea of having a young girl interact with animated characters in a series of silent comedy shorts.

But who would play the girl?

He found the answer in an advertisement for Warneker's Bread that he saw on screen at a local movie theater: a little girl with a heart-shaped face, a sweet smile and long, blond ringlets.

Virginia Davis, a 4-year-old Kansas City native with two years of dance and dramatic lessons behind her, would earn a place in movie history as the Disney Studios' first star, appearing in the first 13 popular "Alice Comedies" produced by Disney.

Davis, whose married name was McGhee, died Saturday at 90 of age-related causes at her home in Corona, said Walt Disney Studios spokesman Howard E. Green.

"Ginny was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio's history," Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for the Walt Disney Co. and Walt's nephew, said in a statement.

"In fact," he said, "she liked to remind everyone that it all started with Alice, not Mickey Mouse."

Mickey's screen debut was still five years away in 1923 when Davis appeared in the first Alice comedy short, "Alice's Wonderland," which was partially shot in the Davis family home with Walt directing.

The film begins with Virginia visiting a cartoon studio, which is actually the interior of Disney's Laugh-O-gram Films office, and Disney himself shows her around. She then goes home, and asleep that night she dreams that she goes to Cartoonland.

Disney's financially troubled Laugh-O-gram Films went bankrupt several months after "Alice's Wonderland" was made, and he already had moved to California by the time he sold the Alice series to a New York distributor in 1923 on the basis of the first film.

The contract stipulated that Davis continue playing the title role, and she and her family moved to Los Angeles.

The ensuing eight- to 10-minute one-reel comedies starring Davis had titles including "Alice's Wild West Show," "Alice Hunting in Africa" and "Alice's Spooky Adventure."

"It was always a little story where I would get into the cartoon through a dream or I was hit on the head with a baseball and suddenly I'd find myself in a world of cartoon characters," she once explained.

Davis recalled in an interview for a 1998 Disney publication that Walt Disney "was very kind, very patient" as a director.

"I never heard a harsh word from him," she said. "When we were getting ready to film, he would explain certain sequences and how I should react: 'There are a lot of animals, wave to them.' Or, 'You're mad at someone.' He made it interesting and fun. It was a 'Let's pretend' sort of thing."

After the first series of Alice shorts were completed, Davis' mother and Walt Disney and his brother Roy didn't agree on Davis' pay for a second slate of Alice films, and she left the Disney studio.

Disney went on to make more than 40 other silent Alice shorts with three other young actresses playing the title role before the series ended in 1927.

But Davis, the series' first star, had made an impact.

"The series of Alice comedies was tremendously important in Walt Disney's career because it was his first successful series of films," said J.B. Kaufman, coauthor, with Russell Merritt, of the 1992 book "Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney."

"The charm and appeal and engaging qualities of Virginia Davis," Kaufman said, "had a lot to do with establishing the series as a success with audiences."

The daughter of a traveling salesman and a homemaker, Davis was born Dec. 31, 1918.

After leaving Disney, she continued working as a child performer on stage and in other films, including playing Joan Blondell as a child in the 1932 crime-drama "Three on a Match."

A Hollywood High graduate, she returned to the Disney studio in the mid-'30s, working about six months in the studio's ink and paint department and doing uncredited voice work on "Pinocchio."

Davis, who married naval aviator Robert McGhee in 1943, also had an uncredited role as a Harvey Girl in "The Harvey Girls," a 1946 MGM musical starring Judy Garland.

She later earned a degree from the New York School of Interior Design and worked as an interior decorator and as a decorating editor for the magazine "Living for Young Homemakers" before launching a career in real estate in the early '60s.

"Ginny was never one to brag about her Disney connection," her husband told the Kansas City Star in 2002. "It wasn't until years after we were married that she told me."

Kaufman said a turning point in the public "rediscovery" of Davis and her role in Disney's early career came in 1992 when Davis was invited as the special guest of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, an international silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.

"She was such a delight," he said. "She just charmed everybody, and reporters followed her all over town. She was the toast of Pordenone."

Davis is survived by her daughters, Margaret Sufke and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and three grandchildren.

Alice's Spooky Adventure


Alice's Wild West Show


Virginia Davis

Jeff Overturf's tribute.

[Jeff makes note of Walt Disney's work in Kansas City, Missouri when he worked at a film company that produced theater advertising. The name of the company was The Kansas City Ad Agency located at 28th and Charlotte. It was later the site of the United Film Company producing local commercials for paint companies, gasoline distributors, air conditioning manufacturers, insurance companies, etc. And the final tenant was Studio Sales and Service specializing in military boot camp photographs [Paris Island and Fort Dix], high school graduations and proms, little league sports activities, weddings, and specialized services for black and white photography, air brushing, and oil portraits.] Coincidentally, when I was taking my normal route through the city recently I was rerouted for road construction to traverse on Charlotte and discovered that the entire building was razed for a parking lot for the nearby Childrens Mercy Hospital. Walt Disney, when he became an independent animator, had a building on Troost Avenue. It is nothing but an empty brick structure now being restored by the efforts of film historian and entrepreneur Butch Rigby.]