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JEAN SHEPHERD Ham Radio, Mark Twain & (97) ARTSY–ELEGANT FUNCTIONALITY

One of my favorite Shep stories. Part 1.

I discuss it in my Excelsior, You Fathead!

One Night on Forty Meters

A lot of people have wondered—how is it you grow to be a sorehead. How is it, say, James Thurber grew to be James Thurber and not, say, Moss Hart, who never was mad at anybody. I mean—just wanted to make dough.  And how is it that Mark Twain, for example, grew to have that funny look in the eye? He did. And I’ll tell you one of the reasons why he grew to have that funny look in the eye. Mark Twain, at one point was a riverboat pilot. Now, there aren’t many things that are more irritating, frustrating, and that teach a man more realism, that convince a man of his basic—inadequacies—and also convince a man of how small he is than to be a riverboat pilot. Because the river’s always sneaking and changing, and it tears the bottom out of the boat about every third or fourth day, sinks everybody on hand, and drowns them all without even a wink.

Well, after a couple of years of this, you come East, and you just don’t look at the world the same way that a guy living in an apartment in Brooklyn looks at it. Just not the same. Sixth Avenue does not swallow you up often. Just doesn’t do that. And very few Staten Island Ferries are lost in the storm.  Doesn’t happen often.

Well, as a child, I had just such a thing happen to me. I became embarked on a course that was every bit as rocky, every bit as frustrating, every bit as maddening as the thing about learning how to be a riverboat pilot.

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Astrolabe/Skeletonized Watches

My design background, that relates the form of objects to the way they work, has given me an appreciation of how elegantly some objects are designed to function; among them: musical instruments, watches, and astrolabes.

WATCHES

Modern digital watches and other timepieces move one’s mind in a straight line from past to present to future, one mechanized digit to the next. They negate one’s understanding of history and that life itself not only moves forward, but contains a sense of return, just as the Earth returns around the sun with the seasons, and each of us, in some sense, repeats the life of ones forebears. Generations: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death. (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana)

A traditional watch with hands that go around give one a sense of ever-returning astronomy (Earth around the sun and seasons return in our lives): life doesn’t just march forward, but, in many ways repeats itself, just as history does.

Because of my enjoying to know how things work, I’ve been fascinated by skeletalized watches—the kind that have transparent fronts and backs showing the gears and other mechanisms that make it go, including the large mainspring that, every morning, one winds tight—its slow, controlled unwinding turns everything and makes the watch keep time. One can see the escapement mechanism jog back and forth from the front side. When winding, one can see, on the back side, the main gear turn.

Some skeletalized watches are described as “automatic,” which means they remain wound up—presumably run by battery—but one that must be wound daily gives the entire experience and understanding of a real gear-operated timepiece!

Most people, seeing high-priced skeletalized watches for sale in ads think they are all very expensive, but I’ve found that there are thousands of new ones for sale on ebay.com for well under 20 dollars. (Search for them under the inaccurate term “skeleton watch.”) They seem to keep good time for about 3 or 4 years, and then they die–so one buys another; in this way, skeletonized watches are also sort of like time and life themselves.

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ASTROLABES

I don’t know how I discovered astrolabes. Here is an Internet definition:

An astronomical instrument for taking the altitude of the sun and stars and for the solution of other problems in astronomy and navigation: used by Greek astronomers from about 200 B. C. and by Arab astronomers from the Middle Ages until superseded by the sextant. [Apparently Europeans imported the arab astrolabe and subsequently designed their own versions.]

The astronomical sophistication and technical/esthetic beauty are extraordinary. The top circular face can be rotated to the proper orientation—the small pointed parts locate specific stars. Because the stars/sky change some orientation depending on where in the world one is operating the astrolabe, a half-dozen or so engraved sheets are stored inside and one chooses the right one depending on one’s location. On average, astrolabes are about 6″ diameter, although some are smaller and others quite a bit larger.

There are scores of variations. I have books and articles

devoted to astrolabes in general,

and collections of European ones in particular.

 Chaucer wrote a detailed description of them. A decent, original one costs many thousands of dollars. I have a very nice replica, with limited complexity, from the Franklin Mint, for about $50:

My replica.

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Years ago I saw a Christie’s auction house ad for a very fine example and it said one had to phone for an appointment to see it. I phoned. They must have assumed that I had the tens or hundreds of thousands to bid on it. In a private office, the astrolabe expert brought it out all in one piece and let me fondle it. Then, to my surprise, he disassembled it and let me examine the separate parts. When finished, I thanked him profusely. But I didn’t return to bid on it.

ASTROLABE (DATED 1462)

“The Property of a Gentleman.”

This is probably the astrolabe I fondled,

possessed for a moment,

but do not own.

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