The Giant and the Midget

October 28, 2009 at 3:32 pm (Aesthetics, Carnival, Modern World, The Federal Reserve, The Great Depression, Women) (, , , , , , , , )

In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was desperate to garner public and political support for The New Deal, an ambitious program that, he hoped, would pump much needed stimulation into the United States’ stumbling economy. In 1933 the Senate Banking Committee held a series of hearings to investigate the financial practices of banking giant J.P. Morgan, Jr., who controlled the corporate behemoth founded by his father, and was also instrumental in establishing the Federal Reserve in 1913. Morgan’s high profile set the stage for his testimony to receive wide media coverage. This may have been the first event, in fact, to be dubbed a “media circus”.

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John Pierpont Morgan, 1867-1943.

Coincidentally, the Ringling Brothers Circus was in Washington during the dates of Morgan’s testimony. Capitalizing on this peculiar opportunity, the circus’ press agent arranged for one of its performers, a 27-inch-tall midget named Lya Graf, to be present at the public hearings. When Graf was awkwardly introduced to Morgan, she hopped onto his lap and sat like a child. This allowed for a most interesting photograph to be taken. Depicting a physically deformed sideshow performer sitting on the lap of a man who epitomized wealth and corporate greed, this image captures in a whimsical yet biting way the disparities between the rich and the poor in the United States during the height of corporate capitalism in the early 20th Century. Simultaneously silly and grotesque, the contrast between Graf and Morgan visually expresses the vast inequalities that defined the economic state of America in 1933. It was an image that spoke volumes.

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The contrast between Morgan and Graf, most strikingly that of their sizes and implicit power, acted as a real life political cartoon, simultaneously explaining and satirizing the inequalities that defined Depression Era America. The popularity of this photo improved Morgan’s public image and turned Graf into a media darling, if only briefly.

This image resonates particularly well in modern day America, in which class division and unchecked corporate accumulation is reminiscent of the Depression Era. Imagine how poignant a photograph of Warren Buffet cradling an illegal Mexican laborer would seem in light of the current social and economic climate.

Some Further Reading:

An excerpt from a book on the Morgan family that discusses this incident

An article focusing on Graf and her role in this photograph

A succinct introduction to Roosevelt, the Depression, and the New Deal

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Joseph Faber’s Talking Euphonia

June 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm (Automata, Carnival, Death, Elocution, Linguistics, Technology, The Victorian Era) (, , , , , )

Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.

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In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention. A complex device controlled by seventeen levers, a bellows, and a telegraphic line, this machine was adorned with the movable replica of a human face, which was able to faithfully replicate the sounds of human speech. At the exhibition, Faber made the Euphonia sing a haunting rendition of God Save the Queen.

As author David Lindsay described it, “By pumping air with the bellows … and manipulating a series of plates, chambers, and other apparatus (including an artificial tongue … ), the operator could make it speak any European language.” Separate levers controlled the movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal chords.

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While those who observed the Euphonia in action described its “voice” as ghostly and monotonous (one claiming that it had a, “horse sepulchral voice…as if from the depths of a tomb”), its imitation of human speech was remarkably advanced given the state of technology at the time. Many who viewed the machine in action, in fact, made the baffled accusation that a small person must have been hidden inside. Standing in sharp contrast to the pristine intricacy of the Euphonia, Faber himself appeared as the stereotypical disheveled inventor. As the London theater manager put it:

“The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which is was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”

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Even after being promoted by Barnum, Faber and his Euphonia generated little profit and received minimal respect, often finding themselves the subjects of mockery. One of the Euphonia’s few devotees was a Scottish professor of speech named Melville Bell. His son, the famed Alexander Graham Bell, made various attempts to reproduce speech, the most successful of which resulted in his device known as the telephone. Bell’s technological milestone marks Faber’s greatest impact on the field of speech technology as he himself died in obscurity in the 1860s (first destroying the Euphonia and then taking his own life), little more than a bizarre historical footnote.

Alexander Graham Bell with an early model of the telephone, an invention that owes much to Faber’s advances

Alexander Graham Bell with an early model of the telephone, an invention that owes much to Faber’s advances

Faber’s story is almost archetypical. He artfully played the role, whether aware of it or not, of the disheveled monomaniac who produced work that was shockingly advanced for its time, but which was not valued during his life. His inglorious death, followed many years later by posthumous respect, further cements this identity. An immigrant, an isolated genius, a professional failure, and a victim of suicide, Faber was a casualty on the battlefield of technological progress, only given his due respect decades after his bones were as cold and dead as the spectral face of the Euphonia itself.

Some Further Reading:

An article about Faber and his device

Another very nice article

An excerpt from the book Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas L. Hankins, who mentions Faber and the Euphonia

An article form Cabinet of Wonders about ancient automata

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The Peculiar Cant of Ciazarn

May 15, 2009 at 5:35 pm (Carnival, Exclusive Societies, Linguistics, Modern World) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

It is not uncommon for a specialized vocabulary to be spoken amongst members of a group united by profession. Sailors, soldiers, actors, and doctors all regularly speak words and phrases that are rarely, if ever, used by lay people. But only seldom throughout history does one find groups of people among whom nuanced and extensive systems of secretive slang, known as cants, have emerged. One of my favorite such bodies of slang is the cant, known as Ciazarn, spoken by American carnival workers (carnies), during the first half of the 20th century.

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The word Ciazarn itself (pronounced KEY-uh-zarn) illustrates the mechanics of this cant. In order to convert a normal word into Ciazarn, extra syllables, usually consisting of i, a, and z sounds, are added into the middle of the word. Carny becomes key-uh-ZAR-nee, hence the name of the cant. Another example is the word gimmick which, in Ciazarn, is pronounced as gee-ya-ZIM-ick. The rules of this cant are simple enough, but when spoken rapidly it allowed carnies to openly converse with one another without being understood by the carnival patrons. When coupled with an extensive vocabulary of additional slang terms, this linguistic contortion allowed the carnies to easily collude in bilking rubes.

It should be noted that some contemporary hip-hop slang follows similar guidelines. In the early 21st century, rappers Snoop Dogg and Jay Z popularized the insertion of “izzle” into the middle of words. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the phrase “fo shizzle”, which is a modified version of “for sure”. This is very close to the Ciazarn version of the phrase, which would have been pronounced “for SHE-uh-zor”. Another popular cant used in modern English is Pig Latin, which follows a distinct yet similarly simple set of rules for word alteration. Pig Latin differs in that it requires a rearrangement of the word’s vowels with an “ay” sound added on the end, “sure” being pronounced “uhr-shay”,

See-uh-zum Fee-uh-zurther Re-uh-zeading:

A remarkably extensive dictionary of Carny slang (I respectfully draw your attention to “geek”, “half-and-half”, and “raghead”)

An article about Parlyaree, a cant spoken among members of the British gay subculture during the 1950s and 1960s (some of the phrases remind me of Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, mentioned in a previous entry)

A compendium of Vaudeville slang that is certainly worth reading

A list of various cants, along with links to articles about them

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